Is Mediterranean hake on the verge of collapse?

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The Mediterranean is probably one of the most overfished sea of the Planet, well beyond EU overfishing rates in the Atlantic or in the Baltic Sea. Between 1994 and 2014, Mediterranean catches declined from 1.020.000 to 800.000 tons, an impressive 20% reduction in only 20 years.

All over the Mediterranean, the status of fish stocks is alarming:

  • On average, 85% of assessed stocks are overexploited [1] (96% of EU stocks and 91% for stocks shared with non EU countries [2]).
  • The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) and the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) regularly assess the status of fish stocks in the Med. Out of 440 assessments published between 2007 and 2015, as much as 400 revealed fishing exploitation rates well beyond sustainable levels, 128 of which with rates five times higher than biologically sustainable limits.

Overfishing is certainly not the only crisis facing the Mediterranean area, however what is at stake should not be overlooked: Mediterranean fisheries represent 250.000 direct jobs and 500.000 indirect jobs and they constitute an essential income for a region striving through devastating economic and political crisis.

Hake: on the verge of collapse after decades of rampant overfishing

Hake is a key commercial species in Mediterranean fisheries and as such it attracts scientists attention, resulting in 74 stock assessments between 2007 and 2015. All these assessments converge on the same result: with the exception of Morocco, hake is overfished all around the Med in proportions that often goes beyond imagination.

Area                             

Hake overfishing rate (2013-2015)

Central-Northern Adriatic, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia

1-4

Balearic Islands, South-East of Italy, Southern Adriatic, South of Italy

4-8

Northern Spain, Eastern and Northern Corsica, Sardinia

8-12

Gulf of Lion

16

Hake economic value represents 8% of the total Mediterranean landings. Its average first sale price (what is paid to the fisherman) is about 7 €/kg [3]. This accounts for the systematic overfishing which, year after year and for decades, is leading the stocks on the verge of collapse.

Its spatial distribution covers semi coastal areas of the Northern Mediterranean basin, from Gibraltar to the Adriatic and Turkey. It is therefore mostly targeted by EU trawlers from Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Croatia. These countries should be held responsible for the poor state of hake and made accountable for its recovery. For decades, EU fishing power increased, creating rampant overcapacity fuelled by massive amounts of EU and national subsidies.

The short and long term challenges facing Mediterranean hake stocks

Very recently, the European Commission turned its attention to the dramatic state of Mediterranean fish stocks and initiated action for the adoption of several multiannual management plans (MAPs). However, a MAP takes about two years to negotiate by the EU and the process –for stocks targeted by the EU fleets in the region– could last until 2023-2025. Considering the poor state of hake it may be too late to prevent its collapse.

A dire example is hake fisheries in the Gulf of Lion by French and Spanish fleets, whose exploitation rate increased by 400% between 2007 and 2012 and it has not improved since. In 2016 the Commission urged France and Spain to propose immediate measures to cut fishing effort, but negotiations between these two countries failed. Now the burden rest with the European Commission which could implement emergency measures provided for by Article 12 of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, which enables to close a fishery for two consecutive periods of six months each, to prevent a stock from collapsing (a concrete possibility in the Gulf of Lion) [4]. Even though a one-year closure alone will not enable the stock to recover, it would give hake a break and send a strong political signal to Member states that it’s time to act.

In the Mediterranean, overfishing is compounded by the absence of political will to implement effective management measures. While decision-makers rely on short-term laisser-faire attitudes, year after year, the social, economic and environmental impacts of the fisheries crisis becomes heavier and heavier.

In March 2017, the European Commission will convene a Ministerial Conference in Malta to discuss and agree an action plan for Mediterranean fish stocks. However, if the Commission is serious about addressing this crisis, it needs to show leadership by confronting – as a matter of priority – the dire situation of European hake in the Gulf of Lion through the introduction of immediate emergency measures.

[1] FAO/GFCM. The state of Mediterranean and Black sea Fisheries (SoMFi 2016)

[2] Communication of the European Commission on fishing opportunities for 2016.

[3] 2016 Annual Economic Report on the EU fishing fleet (STECF 16/11).

[4] Emergency measures were applied in the past for anchovy in the Bay of Biscay and more recently, in 2014, for sea bass in the Channel.

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