MedFish4Ever summit: NGOs call on fisheries ministers to take action to end illegal bottom trawling in Mediterranean

Press Release Date: October 3, 2023

Location: Malta


Emily Fairless, Communications Officer | email: | tel.: +32 478 038 490

Ministers meeting for MedFish4Ever high level conference on Mediterranean protection in Malta

As fisheries ministers gather in Malta today for the high level MedFish4Ever conference, NGOs call on them to end the illegal bottom trawling that is driving destruction of protected areas in the Mediterranean, by strengthening compliance and enforcement ahead of November’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) annual session in Croatia [1,2].

In a Call to Action published during MedFish4Ever, several member organisations of the Med Sea Alliance, a coalition of non-government organisations working to improve the health and productivity of the Mediterranean Sea, said that “taking decisive action to end bottom trawling in the Mediterranean Sea in areas where it is already banned, and hence considered illegal, should be a top priority for GFCM members, who are together responsible for promoting sustainable fisheries and protecting marine biodiversity in the Mediterranean” [3].

“It is vital that fisheries ministers recognise that not only is illegal bottom trawling taking place in the Mediterranean, but this destructive practice is putting ecosystems and livelihoods at risk, and that many protection measures currently exist only ‘on paper’ – that is, without full enforcement”, said Aniol Esteban, Chair of the Med Sea Alliance and director of the Marilles Foundation. “Today, 73% of assessed Mediterranean fish stocks are fished outside biologically sustainable limits, with fishing pressure on average twice the level considered sustainable. Across the Mediterranean, governments must take urgent steps to end illegal bottom trawling by strengthening transparency, compliance, and the enforcement of fisheries management measures”.

“Fisheries ministers here today at the MedFish4Ever conference must ensure that during next month’s GFCM meeting in Split, member governments adopt recommendations to establish corrective measures that will help end illegal bottom trawling in the Mediterranean”, continued Esteban. “It is well within the power of ministers to enact these crucial measures, and would go a significant way to preventing this activity devastating our protected areas.”

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other spatial fisheries closures are powerful tools for fish stock recovery and protecting sensitive habitats. While regulations prohibit trawling in some designated areas or periods, evidence demonstrates (see section on Med Sea Alliance Atlas below) that bottom trawling is occurring in areas where it is prohibited.

“Although the GFCM, the regional fisheries management body, have agreed measures aimed at fighting illegal fishing, these are not always adequately implemented or enforced”, said Esteban. “This lack of enforcement and compliance is putting Mediterranean fisheries, ecosystems and livelihoods at serious risk. Yet the technology required for enforcement is affordable, easy to adopt and has been successfully deployed in other regions. What we now need is the collective political will that will prove crucial for putting this enforcement in place.”

About Bottom Trawling

Bottom trawling is one of the most unselective and destructive forms of fishing, driving significant depletion of fish stocks, capturing high levels of bycatch, causing long-term damage to marine habitats, disturbing significant quantities of carbon stored in seabed sediments, contributing to coastal erosion, and threatening the livelihoods of small-scale fishers who rely on sustainable fish stocks for their income and community well-being [5].

The impacts of bottom trawling are well documented and include high levels of incidental captures and discards of protected or threatened species, particularly sea turtles, sharks and rays, and some cetaceans. Discard ratios vary widely depending on the fishing method and geographical area. In the Mediterranean,trawlers show by far the highest discard ratios, ranging from 34 to 44% across the region. Compounding this issue, bottom trawlers along with longliners are accountable for about 80% of the vulnerable species incidentally caught in the Mediterranean and Black Sea [6].

Bottom trawling is the most widespread source of human-induced physical disturbance to the ecological integrity of global seabeds [7]. Trawling can adversely affect habitat complexity, which in turn negatively impacts the biomass, diversity and abundance of marine species. The extent of habitat damage and the speed of recovery can vary significantly, ranging from a few days to decades, depending upon factors such as the habitat type. From a climate perspective, bottom trawling disturbs seabed sediments, representing one of the planet’s primary carbon stores [8]. This resuspended sedimentary carbon can then be reconverted to carbon dioxide, which is likely to increase ocean acidification and accelerate the climate crisis by reducing the ocean’s capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon effectively [9].

The Med Sea Alliance Atlas

Launched in November 2022, the interactive online Med Sea Alliance Atlas documents trawling activities in areas of the Mediterranean where trawling is banned and considered illegal [10]. The Atlas combines sophisticated algorithms and satellite data to interpret vessel behaviour within areas where trawling is banned. By cross-referencing Automatic Identification System (AIS) data with maps of protected areas, the Atlas can identify instances where trawlers appear to be fishing in closed areas.

From January 2020 to December 2021, the Atlas recorded presumed infractions of bottom trawling in 35 closed areas by 305 different vessels across 9,518 apparent days of fishing activity. In addition, 169 cases of confirmed infractions were found between 2018 and 2021, based on research on media outlets and information released by national control authorities. To date, the Atlas has analysed 726 protected areas, including Fishery Restricted Areas (FRAs), MPAs (reserves or parks), national closures, and those Natura 2000 sites established under the EU Habitats Directive, where bottom trawling is banned according to the EU Regulation on Mediterranean fisheries [11].

The Med Sea Alliance and its members are calling on the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean to fully enforce trawl bans and to require mandatory and continuous use of Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking for all vessels over 15 metres long. The Alliance is also calling for Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) to be urgently installed on vessels in the GFCM area above 15 metres and for GFCM to establish a regional vessel monitoring system.