Persistent overfishing threatens Europe’s marine ecosystems, food security and biodiversity. The EU takes an integrated approach to restore and maintain healthy fish populations while ensuring their sustainable use. Management efforts have led to some stock recovery, mainly in the North-East Atlantic Ocean, while progress has been slower in other regions. The situation remains critical in the Mediterranean and Black seas, where fishing mortality rates are double the sustainable levels and 73% of the assessed stocks are overfished. EU objectives to restore healthy fish and shellfish stocks have not been met across Europe's seas. Further concerted actions are urgently needed to achieve sustainable fisheries.

Figure 1. State of European commercial fish and shellfish stocks (for which stock assessments were conducted between 2019-2022), in relation to the Good Environmental Status criteria for fishing mortality and reproductive capacity per marine region
State of European commercial fish and shellfish stocks (for which stock assessments were conducted between 2019-2022), in relation to the Good Environmental Status criteria for fishing mortality and reproductive capacity per marine region

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) aims to achieve good environmental status (GES) for all marine waters across Europe, including by restoring and maintaining healthy commercial fish and shellfish stocks. It builds on existing EU legislation and extends the coverage to specific elements of the marine environment not addressed in other policies. Key policies include the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which aims to ensure that fisheries are sustainable and do not damage the marine environment, thus contributing to GES. In turn, these policies support the ambitions of the European Green Deal which aims to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable fisheries sectors through the Action plan: Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries within the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, the Zero Pollution Action Plan and Farm-to-Fork Strategy.

Three criteria are used to assess GES for commercial fish and shellfish stocks under the MSFD, based on:

1. level of exploitation, measured by fishing mortality (F);

2. reproductive capacity, assessed by spawning stock biomass (SSB);

3. age and size distribution.

This indicator looks at progress made towards achieving GES by tracking fishing mortality and reproductive capacity. Currently, it is not possible to assess GES based on criterion 3 due to the lack of an established indicator and agreed threshold values.

Strong regional differences exist. In the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, approximately 62% of the assessed stocks meet at least one of the two GES criteria, while 29% are in good state based on both criteria. In the Mediterranean and Black seas, the situation is more critical where only 26% of assessed stocks are in good state based on at least one criterion: three out of 97 stocks based on two criteria (all of them in the Mediterranean Sea), and 22 based on one criterion (among which only one in the Black Sea) (Figure 1).

Accurate assessments of the state of the marine environment are vital for monitoring progress towards meeting policy objectives. Assessing more stocks to better inform GES assessments will be important, along with developing metrics that allow accurate assessments of the age and size distribution of fish populations. In 2021, about three quarters of landings (72%) from Europe’s seas were from stocks for which at least one GES criterion could be assessed. Again, there were distinct regional differences. Assessments of at least one criterion were possible for 76% of landings from the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, but only for 36% of landings from the Mediterranean and Black seas.

Figure 2. State of assessed commercial fish and shellfish stocks in relation to the good environmental status criteria for fishing mortality and reproductive capacity in marine regions
State of assessed commercial fish and shellfish stocks in relation to the good environmental status criteria for fishing mortality and reproductive capacity in marine regions

For North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea stocks, fishing mortality levels increased from near sustainable levels (i.e., where F/FMSY≤1) in the 1950s to more than double (i.e., F/FMSY>2) by the 1980s and 1990s. This led to a decline in reproductive capacity until the early 2000s, putting it at risk of becoming impaired, i.e. depleted to a point where it is no longer able to sustain healthy population levels to support fisheries. Trends suggest that targeted measures, such as Total Allowable Catches (TACs), have since fostered improvements. Fishing mortality rates have declined towards sustainable levels on average and reproductive capacity shows signs of recovery; however, as indicated by the confidence limits, several stocks remain outside safe biological limits (Figure 2).

In contrast, there is no clear sign of improvement in the Mediterranean and Black seas, where management continues to be largely based on regulating fishing effort. Most stocks assessed continue to be fished at unsustainable levels and reproductive capacity has not improved from 2003. For these stocks, very few GES thresholds for reproductive capacity have been defined but it is likely that reproductive capacity was below a healthy level already in 2003 (Figure 2).

Overall, the MSFD and CFP targets to restore healthy fish and shellfish stocks have not been met across Europe's seas. Further collective action, better implementation and enforcement of EU policies are required to ensure the long-term health of fish stocks and the sustainability of the fisheries that depend on them.