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Closing up to 70% of Europe’s seas to bottom trawling: Little loss to fishing sector but huge environmental gains

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Advice by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) released today (24 June) shows that reducing bottom-trawling efforts by 26% could result in protecting 70% of Europe’s Atlantic sea area with small impact on the fishing sector, while delivering huge benefits to the marine environment. These include restoring biodiversity and mitigating climate change.

Oceana in Europe Campaign Director for Marine Protection Nicolas Fournier said: “Today’s advice brings new scientific evidence that closing off vast parts of Europe’s seas to bottom-trawling is not only necessary to recover once abundant species like corals, sea pens and reefs, but it’s also economically feasible. We urge the European Commission to heed today’s advice and take action to protect the EU’s seabed from bottom-trawling, as part of its upcoming EU Action Plan on the oceans, due this autumn.”

Melissa Moore, head of UK policy at Oceana in Europe, added: “Here is a golden opportunity for the UK and devolved governments to close large areas of UK waters to bottom-towed fishing, at little cost to the fishing industry. This would allow our rich marine ecosystems to  recover and would be a world leading step for the UK in this critical year for our ocean, climate and biodiversity.”

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The European seabed is the most bottom-trawled in the world. Between 50 and 80% of Europe’s continental shelf is regularly impacted, with high disturbance in some seas, like the Adriatic, North Sea or Western Baltic Sea, and generally in the coastal zones. The ICES advice confirms that most of the catches from bottom-fishing in Europe come from small parts of the seabed where trawling concentrates, while large sea areas are in reality less frequently fished. Nevertheless, bottom trawling is allowed in the vast majority of Europe’s seas, including inside “protected” areas, and even infrequent trawls can have devastating, sometimes irreversible, impacts on marine life.

As a result of bottom-trawling, the EU seabed is in overall poor condition, with a high proportion of protected marine habitats reported as being in an unfavourable and/or unknown conservation status1 and benthic ecosystems degrading. This also has adverse effects for our climate, as the seabed acts as a carbon store, and bottom-trawling causes the release of as much carbon back into the water column as the global aviation industry sends into the atmosphere annually2. Oceana is calling on EU and UK policy-makers to use this new science to adopt bold measures to ultimately transition to low-impact, low-carbon fishing and end destructive fishing, in order to meet their ocean biodiversity objectives.

1.            European Environment Agency: 'Europe’s marine biodiversity remains under pressure'

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2.            'Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate'

Fisheries

Oceana urges UK and EU to end overfishing of critically low fish stocks in new agreement

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Oceana is calling for an end to the overfishing of severely overexploited fish stocks in European waters as negotiations between the EU and UK start today under the Specialised Fisheries Committee. This new committee provides a forum for discussion and agreement on fisheries management, to prepare the annual consultations through which fishing opportunities for 2022 will be decided.

With recent data published by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) highlighting the critical status of a number of key fish stocks1, Oceana is urging negotiating parties to agree on management strategies that will result in all stocks recovering and reaching healthy levels.

Oceana Head of UK Policy Melissa Moor said: “Only 43% of fish stocks shared between the UK and the EU are fished at sustainable levels2. It is unacceptable that the rest of the stocks are either subject to overfishing, with stocks of important species like cod, herring and whiting at critically low levels, or else their status is simply unknown. For fish stocks to rebound, negotiating parties must be guided by the science. Doing otherwise will guarantee further destruction of the marine environment, deplete fish populations, and weaken resilience to climate change.”

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“In June, the EU and the UK reached their first post-Brexit annual agreement concerning their shared fish populations, under the conditions established in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” said Oceana Campaign Director for Sustainable Fisheries in Europe Javier Lopez. 

"At a critical moment for ocean biodiversity and the climate, it is incumbent upon the EU and the UK to agree on effective management strategies that put an end to overfishing in their waters and ensure the sustainable exploitation of shared stocks.”

As the first meeting of the Specialised Fisheries Committee begins on 20th July, Oceana highlights three priority areas for agreement between the UK and the EU:

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·         Multi-year management strategies must be agreed for severely overexploited fish stocks, with clear recovery targets and timeframes to achieve them.

·         When setting Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for mixed fisheries, where several species are caught in the same area and at the same time, decision-makers should agree to prioritise the sustainable exploitation of the most vulnerable fish stocks.

·         Multi-year strategies should be agreed for the conservation and management of non-quota stocks. Data collection and scientific assessments for these stocks should be significantly improved to ensure that they are fished sustainably.

1.     Examples of severely overexploited stocks from ICES data include: West of Scotland codCeltic Sea codWest of Scotland and West of Ireland herring and Irish Sea whiting.

2.       Oceana UK Fisheries Audit

Background

The negotiations to agree on fisheries management measures for 2022 will start on 20th July under the scope of the “Specialised Fisheries Committee” (SFC). The SFC is made up of both parties’ delegations and provides a forum for discussion and co-operation. The competences and duties of the SFC are established in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA - Article FISH 16, page 271).

Discussions and decisions under the SFC will provide management recommendations that should facilitate the agreement during the final annual consultations, which are expected to be held in the autumn and conclude by 10th December (see Articles FISH 6.2 and 7.1) or 20th December (see Article FISH 7.2). For example, the SFC is expected to agree on developing multi-year management strategies and how to manage “special stocks” (e.g., 0 TAC stocks, see Article FISH 7.4 and 7.5).

Under the TCA, the UK and EU agreed in 2020 on a framework agreement for the management of shared fish stocks. Oceana welcomed the TCA, as fishing management objectives and provisions, if well implemented, would contribute to the sustainable exploitation of the shared stocks. For further information on the Oceana reaction to the adoption of the TCA read the press release.

The first post-Brexit agreement between the EU and UK on fisheries management measures for 2021 was reached in June 2021. Because negotiations were long and complex, in order to provide continuity to fishing activities, both parties had to first adopt provisional measures that were later replaced by the agreement. For further information on the Oceana reaction to the 2021 agreement read the press release.

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European Commission

WTO takes important steps towards global trade rules for sustainable fishing

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On 15 July, the World Trade Organization (WTO) held a ministerial meeting on fisheries subsidies, which confirmed the commitment to set the course for a successful outcome on negotiations before the WTO’s Ministerial Conference starting in November 2021.

The Ministers reconfirmed their shared objective to reach an agreement that will make a meaningful contribution to halting the continued degradation of the world’s fisheries resources and the economic activities, and livelihoods they support. While some divergences remain, the consolidated text proposed by the Chair of the negotiations provides a solid basis for the final leg of the negotiations.

In his remarks to his counterparts across the world, Executive Vice-President and Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis (pictured) said: “Protecting global fisheries resources is a shared responsibility and, as such, achieving a multilateral outcome is the only way to address the issue of harmful subsidies. We welcome Director-General Okonjo-Iweala’s commitment to reaching an agreement ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference and we are fully committed to this objective. The mandate laid out in UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 must remain our guide in these negotiations.”

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The European Union (EU), in its Common Fisheries Policy, has long prioritized an approach that ensures that fishing is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. This has been the result of a deep reform process, phasing out harmful subsidies in favour of positive subsidies that promote sustainable fishing and strengthening systems to manage fishing activities. Based on this positive experience, the EU also advocates that WTO rules must be based on sustainability. 

Read the statement of Valdis Dombrovskis.

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European Commission

Sustainable fisheries: Commission takes stock of progress in the EU and launches consultation on fishing opportunities for 2022

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The Commission has adopted the Communication 'Towards more sustainable fishing in the EU: state of play and orientations for 2022'. In line with the European Green Deal objectives, EU fisheries are moving towards more sustainable, supporting the transition towards a healthy and environmentally friendly EU food system and underpinning sustainable sources of revenue for EU fishers, the communication shows. The sector's socio-economic performance remains good, despite the coronavirus crisis, also due to the swift support of the Commission.

The Communication calls for further efforts to protect marine resources, both through maintaining high levels of ambition within the EU and by striving to achieve the same high standard in the work with non-EU countries. Member states, Advisory Councils, the fishing industry, non-governmental organisations and interested citizens are invited to take part until 31 August in a public consultation and express their views on the fishing opportunities for 2022.

Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said:  “EU fisheries remain on course towards a still more sustainable use of the sea. And while the pandemic hit our fishing communities hard, it was confirmed that environmental sustainability is the key to economic resilience. The situation in some sea basins requires our particular attention, but also across all our sea basins more must be done to deliver the blue in the Green Deal. I count on everybody to play their full part.”

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The 2021 Communication shows that in the North East Atlantic especially, sustainability was almost reached for the stocks managed under the principle of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) - the maximum amount of fish that fishers can take out of the sea without compromising the regeneration and future productivity of the stock.

Healthy stocks further contributed to the sector's socio-economic performance, which thus stayed profitable despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fishing activities were hit hard by the sanitary crisis and landed value of fish is estimated to have decreased by 17% last year compared to 2019. The rapid support that the Commission provided to the sector, in particular through making €136 million of funds available under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, has helped in addressing the effects of the pandemic swiftly.

However, to ensure healthy fish stocks for future generations, efforts need to be pursued. In the Atlantic and Baltic Sea, the Commission will propose for next year to further maintain or reduce fishing mortality in line with maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for MSY-assessed stocks and to fully implement management plans that set MSY ranges of mortality. In the Mediterranean and Black Seas, although there has been a slight improvement, exploitation rates are still two times higher than sustainable levels. Strong efforts will therefore be aimed at further implementing the Western Mediterranean multiannual plan and measures adopted by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. Further improvements in the Adriatic will feature prominently in the 2022 fishing opportunities.

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Member States also need to step up the enforcement and control of compliance with the landing obligation, in particular by using suitable modern control tools, such as remote electronic monitoring systems, which are the most effective and cost-efficient means to control the landing obligation at sea. The Commission will continue working with the European Parliament and Council to reach an agreement on the revised fisheries control system, which can facilitate the use of these tools. Besides, fishers are encouraged to further adopt the use of more innovative and selective gears. The European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) can help finance such investments.

In its relations with third countries, the Commission will pursue high levels of alignment on fishing opportunities and related measures with high sustainability standards. This will be key to ensuring sustainable exploitation of resources and to achieving a level playing field for the EU industry given the strong interlinkages between fleets in the waters concerned. As regards stocks shared with the UK, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) provides a strong basis for managing shared fish stocks sustainably, both in annual consultations on fishing opportunities and through the Specialised Committee on Fisheries.

Background

Every year, the Commission publishes a Communication outlining progress on the situation of fish stocks and launching a wide public consultation on the fixing of annual fishing opportunities for the following year. This Communication assesses the progress made towards sustainable fishing in the EU and reviews the balance between fishing capacity and fishing opportunities, the sector's socio-economic performance and the implementation of the landing obligation. It also sets out the rationale for the proposal on fishing opportunities for the following year.

Next steps

After the consultation, the Commission will in the autumn table its proposals for Fishing Opportunities Regulations for 2022 in the Atlantic, the North and Baltic Seas, as well as the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The proposals take into account the multi-annual plans and are based on scientific advice provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and other independent bodies, as well as the economic analysis provided by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF).

The proposals will also incorporate adjustments resulting from the implementation of the landing obligation. Finally, the Council of Fisheries Ministers of the European Union will discuss the Commission's proposals and establish the allocation of fishing opportunities.

More information

Communication 'Towards more sustainable fishing in the EU: state of play and orientations for 2022'

Questions and Answers

Common fisheries policy (CFP)

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