Barcelona, 21st of June 2022 Bottom trawling has been going on for centuries in the Mediterranean, but in recent years concerns about its ecological impacts have been intensifying: not only do trawlers do more harm to marine ecosystems than any other segment of the fishing fleet, but they’re also responsible for most of its carbon emissions. Now a NEW STUDY by the ENT Foudation and MedReAct on the trawling sector in the Western Mediterranean has revealed that it is only prevented from making huge economic losses each year by generous government handouts.
“If it wasn’t for fuel tax exemptions and other subsidies,” says Professor Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia, who co-reviewed the study with his colleague Professor Daniel Pauly, “the trawling sector as it is today would simply not be economically viable. For the year 2018, when these are taken into account, what looks like a net profit of €34 million is actually a negative return of about €77 million. There are enormous hidden costs to trawling.”
The study comes at a critical time as the European Union looks to embed a sustainable future for the ocean into its new Green Deal. With severe pressures affecting the ecological balance of the Mediterranean – overfishing, pollution and climate change are all having serious impacts – it has never been more important for leaders and decision-makers to recognise that healthy marine ecosystems are fundamental to its resilience, and to act accordingly.
And as the new study shows, despite the socioeconomic importance of fisheries for Mediterranean coastal communities, the bottom trawl sector – which makes uneconomical use of common resources as well as being the most fuel-intensive fishery – is accelerating the ecological crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.
Standard economic analysis gives only a partial picture of the true costs of trawling.
After labour, fuel is the largest single cost the trawl sector faces – and it enjoys very substantial fuel tax exemptions. According to the report, in 2018 landings from trawlers in the Western Mediterranean brought in a net profit of €34 million – but as the study demonstrates, when government financial transfers are taken into account, the trawl sector in fact makes heavy losses.
Fuel tax exemptions in 2018 for the Spanish, French and Italian trawl fleets in the Western Mediterranean amounted to €93 million, or nearly three times the sector’s reported net profits. Today, with the current spike in fuel costs, this amount would be much higher.
And there’s more, as a result of the relatively high amounts of fuel that are needed to tow bottom trawl gear. From 2013-2018, the EU fleet in the Western Mediterranean consumed 1.2 billion litres of fuel, and was responsible for some 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – yet this contribution was not considered in binding national annual emissions allocations.
“If the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme price levels of March 2021 were applied to direct emissions from trawl vessels’ fuel consumption in the Western Mediterranean, the Italian, Spanish and French fleets would have a hidden carbon cost of about €13.2 million,” explains co-author Dr. Luís Campos Rodrigues from the ENT Foundation.
With the climate costs of the fleet’s direct emissions monetized and added on to the fuel tax exemptions and government subsidies, trawling’s annual losses would amount to €77 million according to the most recently available EU figures.
There are multiple fishing practices and gears in use today, and they have a wide range of different ecological and social effects. As the authors of the study argue, as well as being economically unviable, trawling is a disaster for marine ecosystems; while sustained fishing pressure from the fleet represents a particular threat to long-term fish stock sustainability at a time when scientists are calling for significant reductions in fishing mortality.
Following years of overfishing, the main commercial stocks of the Western Mediterranean – including European hake, red mullet, various shrimp species and Norway lobster – are overexploited and at low historical biomass levels; while fishing is the main driver of extinction risk for 77 species on the IUCN Red List.
In this context, the ecological impact of trawling is of particular concern. Of the 300 species caught in Mediterranean bottom trawl fisheries, up to 60% are always discarded; discards make up an average of nearly 35% of the total catch by weight. The sector also takes a high toll on vulnerable species, with trawlers responsible for more than 90% of incidental catches of sharks and rays in the Western Mediterranean.
Benthic communities are destroyed when heavy trawl gear is towed across them. Some vital habitats like coral and seagrass beds can take decades to recover from the impact of trawling, and sometimes the damage caused may be irreversible. Physical damage to seagrass beds has a climate impact too, as the Mediterranean’s endemic Posidonia oceanica acts as a crucial regional carbon sink, sequestering and storing greenhouse gases. When Posidonia meadows and their sediments are disturbed by trawling they can switch to become carbon sources, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and making the ocean more acidic.
In light of their findings, the ENT Foundation and MedReAct support the immediate application of extensive conservation measures, including a strong reduction in fishing pressure and the establishment of Fisheries Restricted Areas closed to bottom fishing. The latter would allow sensitive habitats and populations of vulnerable and commercially important species alike to recover.
“With the release of this report we’re calling for an urgent and radical shift to low-impact fisheries,” say Domitilla Senni from MedReAct “Whether you look at it from an economic or an environmental point of view, the true costs of trawling are too high to bear. We must act now: we cannot afford to delay any further the recovery of the Mediterranean Sea.”