Status of marine fish and shellfish stocks in European seas

Long-term heavy fishing pressure threatens Europe’s marine environment, biodiversity and food security. The EU takes an integrated approach to restoring healthy fish populations and ensuring their sustainable use. Management efforts under the Common Fisheries Policy have led to some stock recovery in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, while progress has been slower in other regional seas. The state of stocks is especially critical in the Mediterranean and Black seas where none of the assessed units were in good state based on both criteria considered. Further concerted actions, along with better monitoring and more timely and comprehensive data, are urgently needed to achieve sustainable fisheries.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Maintaining healthy, productive and resilient marine ecosystems is essential for protecting the marine environment and sustaining its valuable resources. 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. These objectives are supported by other policy instruments, including the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which aims to EU Biodiversity Strategy and the ensure that fish stocks are exploited sustainably and the European Green Deal, which aims to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable fisheries sectors through the EU Biodiversity Strategy and Farm-to-Fork Strategies.

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

1. level of exploitation, measured by fishing mortality

2. reproductive capacity

3. age and size distribution

This indicator looks at progress made towards achieving GES by tracking fishing mortality and reproductive capacity; it is not currently possible to assess fish stocks based on criterion 3.

Overall, the 2020 target of the CFP and MSFD to restore healthy fish and shellfish stocks has not yet been met across Europe. In 2019, of the 188 assessed stocks in European waters for which information was available to assess GES, only 22% were in good state according to both criteria and a further 34% according to at least one criterion. The state of commercial stocks is especially critical in the Mediterranean and Black seas where only 12% of assessed units were in good state based on a single criterion (eight out of 60 in the Mediterranean and none out of 7 in the Black Sea), and none were in good state based on both criteria. In the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea regions, 51% of the assessed commercial stocks met at least one of the two GES criteria considered, while only 12% were not in good state according to both criteria (Figure 1).

In 2019, around 71% of landings 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 77% of landings from ecoregions in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea but for only 31% of landings from the Mediterranean and Black seas (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/total-catch-in-ices-and-gfcm-fishing-regions-of-europe-in-7).

Further collective action and urgent measures will be required to achieve sustainable fisheries. 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 will be important, along with developing metrics that allow accurate assessments of the age and size distribution of fish populations.

In the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, because of overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices, fishing mortality increased from approximately sustainable levels (i.e., where F/FMSY≤1) in the 1950s to more than double sustainable levels (i.e., F/FMSY>2) in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, reproductive capacity declined until the early 2000s, putting it at risk of becoming impaired. Since then, clear improvements have been made — fishing mortality declined consistently after the late 1990s towards sustainable levels on average and reproductive capacity has shown signs of recovery. The trends suggest that targeted policy actions and management efforts (e.g. Total Allowable Catch) have been successful in reducing the damage caused by long-term fishing pressures in these regions.

In contrast, there is no clear sign of improvement in the Mediterranean or Black Sea, where fisheries management continues to be largely based on technical measures or input controls (effort regimes). Furthermore, very few GES thresholds for reproductive capacity have been defined for commercial fish and shellfish stocks in these regions. Most of the stocks assessed are fished at a biologically unsustainable level and reproductive capacity has not improved from the 2003 level. For most stocks, it is likely that reproductive capacity was below a healthy level in 2003.

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