Scientists indicate that deep sea fish populations in the EU are either depleted or lacking information to assess their status. NGOs urge European decision-makers to set fishing limits for highly vulnerable deep sea fish populations in line with scientific advice and the precautionary approach.
The scientific advice published today by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)1 confirms that most deep sea fish populations remain in worrying condition and with insufficient data to properly assess them. In response to this, a group of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) urges European decision makers to set fishing limits for these populations not exceeding the scientific advice, adopt the precautionary approach and minimize the negative impacts of fishing in these ecosystems. The high vulnerability of deep sea species and habitats makes this long overdue step towards sustainability all the more urgent.
Deep sea fish species tend to be slow-growing, late-maturing and long-lived2, which makes them exceptionally vulnerable to over-exploitation. Some of the commercially exploited deep sea species live up to 50 years, and some only reach reproductive maturity after many years. As a result of knowledge gaps and of serious deficiencies in their management, most deep‐sea stocks in Europe are severely depleted or in unknown condition, which also puts the viability of the fishing communities that depend on them at risk. Therefore, environmental non-governmental organisations Birdwatch Ireland, Dutch Elasmobranch Society, Ecologistas en Acción, Fundació ENT, Oceana, Our Fish, Sciaena and Seas at Risk - call on European decision-makers to respect the requirements of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) when setting fishing limits for deep sea stocks for 2021 and 2022. This means that the European Commission must propose and the EU Council of fisheries ministers must set these fishing limits not exceeding the levels advised by ICES.
“Deep sea stocks are too sensitive and depleted to continue to be overfished”, said Gonçalo Carvalho, Executive Coordinator, Sciaena. “EU ministers must once and for all fulfil the Common Fisheries Policy objectives for these stocks, by setting fishing limits in line with the best available scientific advice and follow a precautionary approach. This is crucial to secure healthy deep sea stocks and ecosystems and ensure the livelihoods of the fishers that depend on these”.
“The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 recognises that wild fisheries are the key driver of biodiversity loss at sea, which reduces the ocean’s resilience to global heating. The EU must take all necessary measures to protect unique deep sea ecosystems, first by ending overfishing of deep sea fish stocks this year and then by prohibiting all harmful extractive activities in the deep sea before 2030, as urged by more than 100 NGOs in the Blue Manifesto roadmap”, Andrea Ripol, Fisheries Policy Officer of Seas At Risk said. “Anything less will undermine the European Green Deal’s objectives to protect biodiversity and mitigate the climate crisis”, she added.
“To date, Europe has chosen to ignore the vulnerability of the deep sea by adopting fishing opportunities not only against the binding commitments agreed in the Common Fisheries Policy, but also disregarding the impacts of deep sea fishing activities on non-target species and associated habitats”, explained Javier López, fisheries campaign director for Oceana in Europe. “Any decision on fishing limits for deep sea fish populations must also take into account the potential impact on the ecosystem, otherwise this fishing activity cannot be classified as sustainable”.
In 2018, the European Commission and the Council failed to follow the ICES scientific advice for the majority of the deep sea stocks when setting fishing limits for 2019 and 20203,4, thus failing to meet the CFP’s requirement to end overfishing of all EU fish stocks by 2020 in order to rebuild their populations5. Blackspot sea bream in the Azores is one of the few deep sea stocks that shows how following the scientific advice and introducing additional management measures can benefit fish populations and the ecosystem, with the abundance increasing to a relatively high level in recent years, which results in an increase in the ICES catch advice for 2021 compared to previous years. This success story should be an additional incentive for fisheries ministers to follow scientific advice when setting all deep sea fishing limits for 2021 and 2022.
Blackspot sea bream in Azores Grounds
This stock’s biomass has been under several specific management measures in recent years.  and the ICES advice for 2019 and 2020 was followed when setting fishing opportunities for those years. ICES advises a fishing limit of 610 tonnes for 2021, the highest since 20126.
Black scabbard fish in Northeast Atlantic and Arctic Ocean
Black scabbardfish in the Northeast Atlantic showed a slight reduction in abundance in the last two years. Fishing effort on this species has been decreasing probably associated with the ban of trawling in deeper areas7. ICES advises a fishing limit of 4506 tonnes for each of the years 2021 and 20228, which represents a decrease compared to the last two years.
ICES has provided advice for roundnose grenadier for the 2020 to 2023 period9,10. In 2018 EU fisheries ministers decided to allow continued fishing of this species, despite it being classified as an “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the NGOs recommend that no fishing opportunities be provided for species that are in such situation.
Deep sea sharks
Even though there is no targeted fishery for deep sea sharks they are frequently bycaught in other deep sea fisheries. Their slow growth and long lifespan make them highly vulnerable and several of the species caught by the EU fleet are classified as endangered or critically endangered. Nevertheless, the Council did not put a limit on the allowed bycatch nor did they instate measures that would prevent sharks getting caught.
Fishing Limits removal
In 2018, following a proposal by the European Commission, the ministers removed a total of fishing limits for black scabbardfish, roundnose grenadier and greater forkbeard, despite ICES advising that potential stock-specific alternative management measures such as spatial closures and/or depth restrictions on fishing should be in place and evaluated before the fishing limits would be removed11. NGOs warn that these stocks are now essentially unmanaged, and urge the European Commission to evaluate if these stocks are being over-exploited.
Data and Transparency
NGOs have repeatedly urged the European Commission and the Members States to improve the collection and processing of data on deep sea stocks and defend that only with robust scientific advice should deep sea species fisheries be allowed to continue. Another improvement needed by the European institutions is in terms of transparency, for instance by publishing the methodology used to calculate TACs on the basis of scientific advice and, in particular, clarify how mismatches between advice areas and management areas are addressed, and make all proposals and related documents immediately available to the public12.
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