The orange roughy is one of many long-lived, late maturing, deep-sea fish stocks that are targeted by European fishing fleets and exploited beyond sustainable levels. Overfishing may have substantial damaging effects on deep sea corals. Photo: C. Nouvian

Common Fisheries Policy

In deep water

European fishing fleet ignores science and policy in its hunt for deep-sea fish stocks

As traditional fish stocks have progressively been depleted, new technology has helped fisheries search deeper and deeper in search of new fishing grounds and commercial opportunities.

Always one step behind
In a new article recently published in Ocean Costal Management, centre researcher Henrik Österblom joined lead author Sebastian Villasante from University of Santiago de Compostela and other colleagues from Argentina, the US and France in an analysis of the changes in European Union deep-sea fishing  between 1950 and 2006 and whether they comply with agreed catch limits.

So has it? No, is the short answer.

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"The current scientific evidence suggests that many deep-sea fish stocks are being exploited beyond sustainable levels," says Henrik Österblom.

Part of the problem is that new fisheries develop much faster than what scientific communities and policy-makers can keep up with. The consequence is that some of the most important data about the species is gathered long after the stock has actually collapsed.

This is also true to fishing on a European scale. The historical expansion of global fishing has received much more attention than on smaller scales. The European Union began to show an interest in deep-sea fisheries in 1992 when it was stated that most of the exploited deep-water species were being harvested outside safe biological limits. But data is still scarce and compliance with any policies is modest at best.

In their study, Österblom and his colleagues investigated whether the EU fishing fleet was fishing deeper-dwelling species by estimating the annual depth of fishing for the period 1950-2006. Data on landings were obtained from FishstatJ, the official database of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Fishbase was used to estimate the average of occurrence, longevity and habitat for some 485 species. This gave the researchers a mean depth of the fisheries catch in all FAO areas where the EU fleet had operated between 1950 and 2006.

"Our analyses show that the average depth of the catch increased continuously between 1950 and 2006, revealing a trend for fishing for deeper water species," Henrik Österblom says.

During this period there was a 78 metre increase in the average depth of bottom catches from the EU fleet, nearly double the average of the worldwide fleet.

Change the incentives, increase compliance
The result of the study shows that the EU fisheries expansion towards deep-water fishing grounds has not changed despite policy measures such as the adoption of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the fisheries policy of the European Union (EU). It sets quotas for which member states are allowed to catch what amounts of each type of fish.

Österblom and his colleagues warn that the gap between scientific advice and policy recommendations is too big and needs to be dealt with.

"Given that the European Commissoin's proposals are significantly higher than the scientific recommendations and that member states don't respect the adopted quotas, it seems urgent to change economic incentives and increase compliance in order to avoid further overfishing," Österblom concludes.

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Published: 2012-09-24



Villasante S, Morato T, Rodriguez-Gonzalez D, Antelo M, Österblom H, Watling L, Nouvian C, Gianni M, Macho G. (2012) Sustainability of deep-sea fish species under the European Union Common Fisheries Policy. Ocean & Coastal Management.

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Henrik Österblom is a associate senior lecturer in environmental sciences at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, with a particular focus on ecosystem-based management of the Baltic Sea. His research focuses on seabirds, food-web interactions and governance of marine resources.


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