Ahead of the 2021 AgriFish EU Council meeting, the EU and member states can no longer afford to ignore the crisis facing fisheries in the Western Mediterranean. With stocks chronically overfished, the future of fishing in these waters hangs in the balance.
Chronic overfishing and continuing inaction
Western Mediterranean fisheries are plagued by chronic overfishing - 2.71 times the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), well-above the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) objective. Time is ticking, and fish stock collapse may soon become a stark reality. In some areas of the Mediterranean, European hake is fished at more than 8 times the sustainable levels, and mullets and blue and red shrimp over 6 times. Catches are shrinking and pushing fishers further into economic turmoil.
In 2019, Spain, France and Italy committed to delivering sustainable fisheries in the Western Mediterranean by 2025. This was already a five year delay of the CFP obligation. But to date the actions taken have been totally insufficient. The "Landing obligation" introduced by the CFP in 2014 has not been enforced, selectivity measures have not been adopted, areas that have been closed to fishing are too few, weak and too small, and fishing days are still too many.
As things stand, none of the 2022 scenarios under discussion will achieve MSY by 2025 unless more drastic reduction of fishing efforts are adopted. This is not just the warning of environmental groups, but of scientists too, including the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), the fisheries scientific body of the European Commission.
Western Mediterranean fisheries are plagued by chronic overfishing - 2.71 times the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), well-above the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) objective.
We cannot continue to ignore the problem
Sustainable fisheries are essential to the economies, societies and wellbeing of countries around the Mediterranean. The risks to the future of fisheries, the threats to fish stocks and marine habitats from overfishing and unsustainable practices, have been known for a long time. But so have the solutions we need to implement. We cannot continue making arguments for inaction.
The fish stock crisis in the Western Mediterranean can only be solved by following science and adopting drastic measures to tackle overfishing and protect key habitats that support their recovery. This requires the combined action of fishing effort reduction (fishing days combined with properly allocated catch limits), improved selectivity measures, and the creation of permanent fisheries closures to protect sensitive habitats like nurseries and spawning grounds of fish stocks.
Supporting fishers livelihoods
Fishers concern at the immediate impact of such measures is understandable. But without drastic change we run the risk of stock collapse in the Western Mediterranean. This would have a catastrophic impact on their livelihoods, far worse than that of the current actions being proposed, and with far longer lasting effects.
Science has shown that the solutions proposed are effective, and that over time stocks will recover if they are implemented. In the long-term this directly benefits fishers: healthier stocks mean increased yields and greater profits. But they need support in the short-term - whether with the costs of adopting more selective methods or with the economic impacts of reduced days at sea.
We must act together, and we must act now
The 2021 December AgriFish EU Council is the last opportunity to show political leadership by sticking to the adopted 2019 Western Mediterranean Multiannual Plan. It would be a challenging and difficult moment if we did not know what to do. But the solutions exist and have been proven: fishing effort reduction with enforcement, wide-scale adoption of selectivity and the introduction of a larger network of fishing closures.
We cannot ignore science any longer. We cannot continue to jeopardise the future of Mediterranean fisheries and the thousands of EU citizens that rely on them for their livelihood.
We have the solutions. We know they will work. Creating real change in fisheries will require political will, commitment, and investment. We cannot put off difficult decisions any longer. Now is the time to act.