Status of marine fish and shellfish stocks in European seas

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-13-en
Also known as: CSI 032 , MAR 007
Created 20 Nov 2018 Published 06 Feb 2019 Last modified 06 Feb 2019
13 min read
As a main source of protein, fish stocks and other sea products are renewable resources, which could sustain human needs in the long term — if exploited in an appropriate manner. The overall use of fish and shellfish stocks in Europe currently remains beyond the limit for long-term environmental sustainability. However, the analysis of long time series shows important and recent signs of improvement in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. Since the early 2000s, better management of fish and shellfish stocks has contributed to a clear decrease in fishing pressure in these two regional seas, and signs of recovery in the reproductive capacity of several fish and shellfish stocks have started to appear. If these efforts continue, meeting the 2020 objective for healthy fish and shellfish stocks in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea could be possible based on two of three criteria (i.e. fishing mortality and reproductive capacity). In contrast, there is small likelihood that the 2020 policy objective will be met in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Key messages

  • As a main source of protein, fish stocks and other sea products are renewable resources, which could sustain human needs in the long term — if exploited in an appropriate manner.
  • The overall use of fish and shellfish stocks in Europe currently remains beyond the limit for long-term environmental sustainability.
  • However, the analysis of long time series shows important and recent signs of improvement in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. Since the early 2000s, better management of fish and shellfish stocks has contributed to a clear decrease in fishing pressure in these two regional seas, and signs of recovery in the reproductive capacity of several fish and shellfish stocks have started to appear. If these efforts continue, meeting the 2020 objective for healthy fish and shellfish stocks in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea could be possible based on two of three criteria (i.e. fishing mortality and reproductive capacity). In contrast, there is small likelihood that the 2020 policy objective will be met in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

How far is Europe in achieving a robust assessment for Good Environmental Status of its fish and shellfish stocks?

Landings of fish and shellfish per regional sea, and proportion of landings for which stock assessments are available

Note: This figure shows landings of commercial fish and shellfish per regional sea, and the proportions of landings for which stock assessments were conducted in 2015. A distinction is made between the landings for (1) assessed stocks for which adequate information is available to determine good environmental status (GES) for fishing mortality (F) and/or reproductive capacity (spawning stock biomass (SSB)); (2) assessed stocks for which insufficient information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB; and (3) unassessed stocks (for further information see EEA CSI032, 2018, Methodology section, on how this distinction is made, and European Commission Decision 2017/848/EU on criteria and methodological standards on GES of marine waters).

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Status of the assessed European fish stocks in relation to Good Environmental Status per regional sea

Note: This figure shows the status of the assessed European fish stocks in relation to ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) per regional sea in 2015. Stocks for which adequate information is available to determine GES for fishing mortality (F) and/or reproductive capacity (spawning stock biomass (SSB)) are included in this figure (i.e. total number of assessed stocks). A distinction is made between stocks (1) in GES, based on both fishing mortality and reproductive capacity; (2) in GES, based on either fishing mortality or reproductive capacity; and (3) not in GES, based on fishing mortality and/or reproductive capacity (see the Methodology section for further information on how GES is determined). As assessments are carried out in a multiannual cycle within the Mediterranean, the number of stocks included for the Mediterranean depends on the period covered.

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Trend in the status of stock assessments and progress made in 'Good Environmental Status' assessment in the North-East Atlantic and Baltic Sea since 1945

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Introduction

In Europe, fish stocks and fishing fleets are managed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP applies to all vessels fishing in European waters and also to EU vessels fishing in non-European waters. The scope of the CFP includes the conservation of marine biological resources and the sustainable management of fisheries that target them. To that end, the CFP has adapted exploitation rates to ensure that, within a reasonable time frame, the exploitation of marine biological resources allows the restoration and maintenance of populations of harvested stocks above levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). The MSY is the maximum catch (in numbers or mass) that can be removed from a population (or stock) over an indefinite period. Exploiting fish stocks at or below the MSY allows them to be maintained or allows them to recover to healthy levels, providing food for consumers while contributing to important ecosystem and marine food web functions. In parallel, safeguarding healthy commercial fish and shellfish populations is one of the 11 descriptors (Descriptor 3) of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) for achieving 'Good Environmental Status' (GES). This objective is closely related to the objectives of the CFP, in particular the objective of ensuring a MSY for all stocks by 2015 where possible, and at the latest by 2020. At present, the status of the commercial fish and shellfish populations, in relation to this target of achieving the MSY (and hence GES), is assessed using two indicators: the level of fishing pressure, represented by fishing mortality (F), and reproductive capacity, represented by spawning stock biomass (SSB). The MSFD has put forward a third criterion for GES, i.e. a healthy age and size distribution, but because at present there is no agreed method to assess this it was not included in this assessment.  Finally, the commitments taken by the EU within the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, and in particular Target 4, reflects the vision of the EU for 'Halting the loss of marine biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services'. Target 4 requires that, by 2015, fishing had become sustainable and that, by 2020, fish stocks are healthy. Fishing must have no significant adverse impacts on species or ecosystems so that all European oceans and seas can be ecologically diverse and dynamic, as well as clean, healthy and productive by 2020.

Assessment

Figs 1-3 provide information on how much progress Europe has made towards achieving a robust assessment of GES of its fish and shellfish stocks. Fig. 1 shows commercial European fish landings by regional sea in 2015. Within this figure, fish landings are divided into three categories, namely (1) landings for assessed stocks for which adequate information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB, (2) landings for assessed stocks for which insufficient information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB, and (3) landings for unassessed stocks (see the Methodology section for further information on how this distinction is made).

Fig. 2 shows the status of category 1 stocks per regional sea in relation to GES in 2015 (see the Methodology section for information on how GES is determined). While this figure is informative in terms of status, per region, of fish and shellfish for 2015, it does not provide any information on possible temporal trends.

Fig. 3 shows the status of the fish and shellfish stocks for the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea over time. The figure is based on 83 stocks assessed in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. For a maximum of 74 stocks, it was possible to calculate F and SSB in relation to their MSY reference points (i.e. F/Fmsy and SSB/MSY Btrigger). The yearly averages for each metric are presented in Fig. 3. For F, 1 is the value above which exploitation is unsustainable, while for SSB, a value of 1 is a precautionary limit, below which there is a high risk that reproductive capacity is impaired. Fig. 3 shows how fishing mortality has increased over time from approximately sustainable levels (F = 1) in the 1950s to a maximum that was more than double the sustainable level, reached in the late 1990s. This was followed by a steep decline towards sustainable levels, although on average a sustainable level has not yet been achieved. This resulted in a gradual decrease in the reproductive capacity of the stocks until, in the early 2000s, a minimum was reached, which was just above the precautionary limit; this indicates that, on average, reproductive capacity was almost at risk of being impaired. Since the early 2000s, the first signs of recovery have been visible, probably as a result of the decrease in fishing mortality. Some of these developments observed over time may have been caused by newly assessed stocks being introduced into the analysis. However, this has become increasingly less likely in recent years, for which the assessment is based on many stocks and therefore any effect caused by the addition (or removal) of stocks has become relatively minor. Therefore, the overall reduction in fishing mortality and the subsequent recovery of reproductive capacity are expected to be robust.

Main findings

The evidence, as analysed above, suggests that targeted policy actions and committed management efforts can protect and/or restore species and habitats, and thus help preserve ecosystem integrity. Fisheries management efforts are clear examples of positive actions and how EU policies can work to reverse the trends of some long-term pressures in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. Since the early 2000s, better management of fish and shellfish stocks has contributed to a clear decrease in fishing pressure in these two regional seas. Signs of recovery in the reproductive capacity of several fish and shellfish stocks have started to appear. If these efforts continue, meeting the 2020 objective for healthy fish and shellfish stocks in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea could be possible, based on two of three MSFD criteria (i.e. fishing mortality and reproductive capacity).

In contrast, there is no sign of improvement in the Mediterranean Sea or Black Sea, where about 85 % of the stocks assessed are fished at biologically unsustainable levels. These figures indicate that urgent action is needed and success will depend on the availability and quality of marine information and the commitment to implement the scientific advice and adequate uptake of management measures. In addition to improved scientific information, the accessibility of that information could be improved. This will allow more effective monitoring of progress towards CFP objectives.

But this is not enough, as ensuring healthy fish and shellfish populations does not depend solely on fishing at environmentally sustainable levels. Healthy fish populations depend on healthy marine ecosystems. Marine ecosystems are under pressure from a myriad of factors, including climate change, mechanical destruction, noise resulting from human activities, the alteration of water quality by microplastics and toxic substances, ghost fishing and marine litter. Attempts to manage the European seas must account for the global context, multiple interactions between society and the environment, and possible unexpected abrupt and cumulative changes. This is crucial to improving our understanding of the system, identifying novel links and drivers of change in order to prevent non-obvious problems that could occur. Without an integrated approach to the management and protection of Europe’s seas, the outlook beyond 2020 for productive seas and healthy fish and shellfish populations will continue to be a cause for concern, above all in a context of international ocean governance that should ensure the sustainable management of our global oceans.


 

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

The indicator tracks both the status of commercial fish stocks in European regional seas and the pressure exerted by fisheries on those stocks, as well as the quality of the information available. To that end, the following is reported:

  • the status of marine fish and shellfish stocks based on the current level of exploitation and reproductive capacity;
  • the importance of the (sub-)region, reflected by the total landings (as a proxy of catch) of fish from commercial fisheries in European seas per MSFD (sub-)region, and the availability of appropriate information for the status assessment, as reflected by the proportion of those landings covered by quantitative stock assessments (i.e. the proportion providing the required indicators and their reference levels).

Status of marine fish and shellfish stocks

The MSFD requires 'Good Environmental Status' to be achieved by 2020 (EC, 2008). According to the MSFD (Descriptor 3), three criteria are relevant to determining if a fish or shellfish stock has achieved GES:

  • Sustainable exploitation: sustainably exploited stocks are stocks for which F is at or below levels that deliver MSY, i.e. F ≤ FMSY. Thus, a stock is considered to have been assessed against this criterion only if values for F and FMSY are availableand the stock is considered to have achieved GES only if F ≤ FMSY.
  • Reproductive capacity: in areas assessed by the ICES, the criterion for sustainable reproductive capacity (SSB > SSBMSY) has been modified, for pragmatic reasons, to SSB > MSY Btrigger. SSB is consistently provided as part of ICES stock assessments, i.e. of the North-East Atlantic and Baltic Sea, but not, for the most part, by STECF assessments, i.e. of the Mediterranean and Black Sea stocks. Similarly to the above, a stock is considered to have been assessed against this criterion if values of SSB and a good proxy for SSBMSY are available, and the stock is considered to have achieved GES only if SSB > SSBMSY (or appropriate proxy).
  • Healthy age and size structure: in this case, the assumption is that a stock with sufficient numbers of old and large fish is healthy and that the more older/larger fish there are, the better the health of the fish stock. However, this criterion is not sufficiently developed and no threshold for GES is known for this criterion. Therefore, it is not included.

This has resulted in four assessment categories:

  • Not: no sufficient information available to assess status;
  • F: status assessed based only on F and FMSY;
  • SSB: status assessed based only on SSB and SSBMSY (or some proxy, i.e. MSY Btrigger);
  • F & SSB: status assessed based on both F and SSB.

Total landings

Landings are based on the ICES Official Nominal Catches data set and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 'GFCM (Mediterranean and Black Sea) capture production' annual statistics. The statistics comprise catch data reported by country, by species and by area or division.

Only some of the species/taxa in the landings data can be considered 'commercial fish', which, for assessment purposes, may consist of several stocks. Only some of these stocks are covered by quantitative stock assessments such that their status can be assessed based on the above criteria.

Stocks

In the North-East Atlantic area, stocks are generally defined based on biological criteria and knowledge of population migration, mixing and spawning areas. For example, cod is currently considered to form eight different stocks, i.e. Sub-areas I and II (Northeast Arctic), Division Va (Iceland grounds), Sub-division Vb1 (Faroe Plateau), Sub-area IV and Divisions VIId and IIIa West, Sub-divisions 22-24 (Western Baltic Sea), Division VIa (West of Scotland), Division VIIa (Irish Sea) and Divisions VIIe-k (Western English Channel), between which mixing is negligible. These eight stocks cover five MSFD (sub-)regions, i.e. the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Celtic Sea, the Barents Sea and the Icelandic waters.

In the Mediterranean and Black Sea, on the other hand, stocks are mostly defined by management area because of a lack of biological knowledge. Because these stocks are based on a specific geographical area, most can be attributed to a specific MSFD (sub-)region.

Units

The units used in this indicator are tonnes, as well as the number and proportion of catch in tonnes for assessed stocks/non-assessed stocks. The assessment information is expressed as the proportion of landings (tonnes) covered by assessed stocks. The status of the assessed stocks can be expressed as the proportion of the number of assessed fish and shellfish stocks or the proportion of landings of fish and shellfish stocks.


Policy context and targets

Context description

The scope of the CFP includes the conservation of marine biological resources and the management of fisheries that target them. To that end, the CFP should adapt exploitation rates to ensure that, within a reasonable time frame, the exploitation of marine biological resources allows the restoration and maintenance of populations of harvested stocks above levels that can produce the MSY. This should be achieved by 2015 or no later than 2020.

The aim of the MSFD is to achieve a GES of the EU's marine waters by 2020 and to protect this resource, upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend. The MSFD enshrines in a legislative framework the ecosystem approach to the management of human activities that have an impact on the marine environment, integrating the concepts of environmental protection and sustainable use.

In order to achieve its goal, the directive establishes European marine regions and sub-regions on the basis of geographical and environmental criteria. The MSFD significantly strengthens Member States’ competences and responsibilities to maintain or achieve GES for all exploited fish and shellfish stocks inside territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) with common goals. Three criteria in relation to GES have been identified for commercial fish and shellfish:

  • the level of exploitation;
  • reproductive capacity;
  • a healthy age and size distribution.

These requirements for GES, according to the MSFD, are aligned with the requirement for MSY for both the 'level of exploitation' and 'reproductive capacity' criteria. The 'healthy age and size distribution' criterion is not yet sufficiently developed.

Targets

Populations of all commercially exploited fish and shellfish are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock being produced no later than 2020 (EC, 2008, Annex I).

All EU fish and shellfish stocks should be fished to produce a MSY no later than 2015 (EC, 2006). This implies that the targets are F ≤ FMSY and SSB ≥ SSBMSY. MSY Btrigger is used as a best proxy for SSBMSY.

Related policy documents

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea

For the North-East Atlantic Ocean (considering the sub-regions) and Baltic Sea, this CSI 032 indicator is calculated using the ICES stock database. The ICES stock database consists of 174 stocks, and provides information, by stock and by year, on a number of variables. The period for which this information is available varies depending on the stock.

Proportion of assessed stocks

Initially, the two criteria used to determine the status of commercial fish stocks are:

  • exploited sustainably, consistent with high long-term yields;
  • have full reproductive capacity.

F and SSB, in combination with an MSY-based reference value, are the most appropriate metrics for these two criteria. The metrics used for F and SSB may differ between stocks. It is preferable for F to be expressed as fishing pressure and SSB as stock size. This may result in a different number of stocks being assessed for each metric. 

Total catch in MSFD (sub-)regions

Stocks are assigned to an MSFD region based on the ICES sub-areas and divisions mentioned in the Stocks sub-section of the Indicator description. Note that the MSFD regions assigned to fish stocks are not conclusive and may change after further consultation. As catches are assigned to stock level rather than ecoregion level, catches may need to be redistributed over the different ecoregions. The ICES Official Nominal Catches data set is used to calculate proportions in order to redistribute stock catches over the different ecoregions. Catches are selected for species and areas as described in the stock description for stocks that cover more than one ecoregion. Selected catches are assigned to MSFD ecoregion. Thereafter, the proportion of a catch in each ecoregion, in relation to the total selected catch, is calculated. The total catch by ecoregion is used to calculate the proportion, to redistribute stock catches over ecoregions.

Total catch data are extracted from the ICES Official Nominal Catches data set and are assigned to the different MSFD regions based on area. The total catch for non-assessed stocks by ecoregion is calculated by subtracting total stock catches by ecoregion from the total catches by ecoregion.

GES

The status of commercial species per MSFD (sub-)region is assessed based on all stocks for which the required information on F and/or SSB is available. For each region, the proportion of stocks that fulfil one (only F or only SSB if both criteria are known), both (F and SSB) or either one (F or SSB if only a single criterion is known) of the MSFD criteria for GES is calculated. Thus, the four different categories are:

  • F only: stocks for which only F information is available and that fulfil the MSFD criterion for F GES;
  • SSB only: stocks for which only SSB information is available and that fulfil the MSFD criterion for SSB GES;
  • F and SSB: stocks for which F and SSB information is available and that fulfil the MSFD criteria for F GES and SSB GES;
  • F or SSB: stocks for which F and SSB information is available and that fulfil the MSFD criterion for F GES or SSB GES.

Mediterranean and Black Seas

Proportion of assessed stocks

For the Mediterranean and Black Seas, information on assessed stocks is extracted from STECF Mediterranean and Black Sea Working Group reports. As assessments are carried out in a multiannual cycle, different stocks are included in each yearly working group report. Generally, stocks cover one or several geographical sub-areas (GSAs).

Catch information

Catch information for the Mediterranean and Black Seas is extracted from the FAO regional workspace including on 'GFCM (Mediterranean and Black Sea) capture production'. Catch information is available by fishing area (FAO division). Total catch for the assessed stocks for the Mediterranean and Black Seas is calculated by selecting catches for the species for which STECF provides F/FMSY information, where the following assumptions are made:

  • As the multiple fishing areas of the Mediterranean Sea do not directly coincide with the GSAs, overall catch is used for the Mediterranean Sea for the assessed species.
  • Catches are extracted by linking the common name in the stock description with the species name in the catch data set.

The total catch for non-assessed stocks in the Mediterranean and Black Seas is calculated by subtracting the calculated total catch for assessed stocks from the total catches for these two regions. 

GES

The status of the commercial species per MSFD (sub-)region is assessed based on all stocks for which the required information on F and FMSY is available. For each region, the proportion of stocks that fulfils the F criteria for GES is calculated.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

MSFD (sub-)regions

The matching of catch areas and stocks to the MSFD regions/sub-regions is not final and may change following further consultations.

Data sets uncertainty

Catch and stock assessment data

Depending on the year selected, the suite of assessed stocks may change (notably in the Mediterranean and Black Seas because here they do not conduct annual stock assessments for all stocks simultaneously), and for the same stock indicator values may change.

Rationale uncertainty

Status of commercial species

The status of commercial species is expressed as the proportion of stocks that fulfils one or more of the GES criteria, as this is the most straightforward method since it does not require any additional information. However, the status can also be expressed as the proportion of catches or the proportion of biomass, depending on data availability. Each method is likely to give different results. The pros and cons of each method should be considered and a best method should be agreed upon.

Similarly, the status of European marine fish and shellfish over time is shown for both GES criteria considered as the annual mean ratio indicator/GES threshold, while, alternatively, the annual mean ratio deviation of the indicator from the GES threshold relative to that threshold can be calculated. This is also likely to give different values but is unlikely to give rise to different conclusions. The pros and cons of each method should be considered and a best method should be agreed upon.

For compliance with the status assessments in relation to the CFP, the same stocks for the Mediterranean Sea as those used by the STECF are adopted. This implies that, in contrast to the previous assessment, only stocks assessed by the GFCM (hence not the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)) are used for this assessment.

Data sources

Generic metadata

Topics:

information.png Tags:
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DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Ana Tejedor

Dates

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year
Document Actions
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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