European Fish Stocks: Positive Trends

4th September 2010 in Fisheries Science, Sustainability / Environment

At a major seminar on European fish stocks held recently in Brussels, organised by the European Commission and opened by Commissioner Damanaki, scientists and officials highlighted a number of positive stock trends that suggest that European stocks are rebuilding rapidly.

It was only 18 months ago that the Commission’s Green Paper on CFP reform was painting a picture of cataclysmic decline that most fishermen, at least those fishing in our waters, simply did not recognise. Official recognition that the painful measures put in place over the last decade, perhaps combined with more beneficial environmental conditions and the industry’s own initiatives, are delivering rebuilt stocks.

In one of the clearest presentations, John Casey, chair of the increasingly influential Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee (STECF), the Commission’s quality control committee, explained that a relatively simple indicator of sustainability, confirmed the positive trends.

Of the stocks for which full analytical assessments allow scientists to identify fishing mortality, biomass and MSY reference points, the percentage of stocks that can be regarded as being fished fully sustainably has increased around 10% in 2002 to around 45%-50% in 2010.

Putting aside the scientific jargon, this means that for those fish stocks for which ICES has excellent information, the % that can be regarded as being fished sustainably has increased from 10% to close to 50% over the last decade.

What accounts for this change in fortunes is a matter of discussion and dispute and it will probably never be possible to untangle the relative weight of one causal factor from another.

Perhaps as significant as the number of stocks that are already at or near maximum sustainable yield, is the general indication that we are moving in the right direction.

The Commission’s conclusion in Kenneth Patterson’s presentation, in stark contrast to the unqualified pessimism of recent years,was that:

“....we have on the whole seen important improvements in the status of the stocks”

Mike Sissenwine, Chair of the ICES ACOM Committee, presented some important information on the proportion of stocks whose catches are consistent with the precautionary approach:

In a nutshell, this can be read as saying that the flatfish (benthic) stocks have made a dramatic turnaround since plaice and sole were deemed to be in a tailspin a few short years ago; the more complex demersal (whitefish) stocks have overcome some of the difficulties of applying management measures in mixed fisheries, have improved significantly, and are on an upward trajectory; the out-take of industrial (sandeel and pout) has been limited to safe levels; and the main pelagic (herring and mackerel ) stocks are on the whole fished sustainably.


Despite the overall positive trends in European fish stocks emphasised in the presentations, a number of serious issues remain, particularly in relation to the weak information and data deficiencies on which fish stock assessments are based, and the slow progress in reducing discards.

The North West Waters RAC, supported by the North Sea RAC, are in the process of establishing an initiative to identify those stocks that suffer from data deficiencies and to design remedial measures to fill the gaps. It serves no-one’s purpose, least of all fishermen, if weak assessments get in the way of a proper understanding of stock trends.

Management measures under the CFP have only partially had an impact on the level of discards. In some cod fisheries, whiting, ray and dogfish fisheries, the scale of discarding has been intensified as a result of blunt management measures.

Significant reductions in the levels of discards have been seen in the plaice fisheries (largely as a result of fleet decommissioning) and haddock fisheries (largely as a result of fleet decommissioning and the use of more selective gear. Discarding remains however a significant problem and will continue to waste the resource and damage the industry’s reputation until the EU adopts a tailored, fishery by fishery approach as suggested some time ago by the RACsGoalposts

One of the problems facing the fishing industry over the last decade has been that of constantly changing goal posts. The objective of fisheries management moved rapidly from avoiding stock collapse, to establishing precautionary limits, and equally rapidly to achieving maximum sustainable yield. It is significant that as the number of stocks achieving some sort of proxy for maximum sustainable increases annually, there are muttering in the wings about a move to the super gold star standard of maximum economic yield. Theoretical models are well and good but insufficient attention has been given to the practical problems involved in making this transition, or even if the transition is possible for all stocks in a mixed fishery. More attention to these questions is required as the positive stock trends bring more fisheries to high stock levels.Doomsayers

The general message emerging from this important seminar is a positive one: that the conservation status of many European fish stocks, after a decade of dire warnings of imminent collapse is improving. This is not to say that all fisheries problems have been solved or that we can be complacent. It may be enough, however, to silence those at the extremes of the environmental movement and in the media, for whom worse is better.

All the presentations made at the seminar can be found at: