The European Commission has proposed to reopen the wasteful deep-sea gillnet fishery of the Northeast Atlantic
The European Commission has proposed to reopen the Northeast Atlantic (NEAT) deep-sea gillnet fishery, which takes place in depths between 200 and 1200 meters in waters north and west of Great Britain and Ireland. This fishery was temporarily closed by the European Union Fisheries Ministers in December 2005 due to its incredible waste and the damage that it may be causing to deepwater sharks and other species. Now, on 19-21 December, the Council will make a decision on reopening the fishery, and on implementing interim management regulations.
The NEAT deep-sea gillnet fishery, comprised of four distinct sub-fisheries with minor modifications in the gear used and species targeted, has intrinsic problems that must be resolved before being reopened. As such, Oceana has published a report pointing out the enduring obstacles in this fishery and outlining recommendations for effective and permanent management measures.
Prior to the closure, fishing with deep-sea gillnets in the Northeast Atlantic was incredibly wasteful, largely unregulated and undocumented, and nearly impossible to control. Legislation for the fishery was not well defined and often conflictive, leading to numerous legal loopholes. In addition, the poor selectivity of the nets and long soak times, combined with surpassed or nonexistent quotas, has led to the unsustainable exploitation of stocks in this region, including anglerfish (Lophius spp.), hake (Merluccius merluccius), deepwater sharks (Centrophorous squamosus and Centroscymnus coelolepis), and king crab (Chaceon affinis). Some studies estimate that up to 71% of the total anglerfish catch was regularly discarded.
The use of fixed gillnets in waters deeper than 200 meters is already prohibited in various areas around the world, including the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary islands. In addition, waters deeper than 600 m are common habitats for numerous vulnerable species, including sharks, and cover migration routes for many other deep-sea species. For these reasons, and to reduce the capture of vulnerable species and ensure this is a sustainable fishery, Oceana recommends that the deepsea gillnet fishery be limited to 200 m. The deep-sea gillnet fleet may operate at a maximum depth of 600 m, but only if complying with the obligatory requirement of having an observer onboard to collect scientific information that can be used to improve management in this fishery.
Some other major conclusions of the Oceana report include:
- The European Council must establish quotas for anglerfish that do not exceed scientific recommendations. In recent years quotas have been granted for anglerfish far higher than what has been regarded as sustainable, and always in excess of the scientific recommendations.
- The deepsea gillnet fishery targeting sharks must be permanently closed. The particular biology of deep-sea sharks means they are extremely vulnerable to overexploitation and their populations have a low ability to recover. ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, has repeatedly advised zero quotas for these species in recent years. However, excessive catches have nonetheless contributed to dramatic population declines in some species.
- The king crab fishery must remain closed until scientific investigations on this species are carried out and quotas are established. In accordance with the principle of precaution established in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, no fishery should be allowed to open or operate without a sufficient technical basis confirming its viability and potential for good management.
- The Council must implement permanent technical controls regarding net length, mesh size, soak time, fishing depth, observers, discards, and net loss. The lack of specific, uniform legislation on gear used has led to excessive accidental catches and discards. These reforms will help ensure the sustainability of this fishery in NEAT waters.
“With regard to the deep-sea gillnet fishery, ICES evaluations have been nearly completely ignored by the European Union,” states Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Investigation for Oceana in Europe. He adds, “The deep-sea gillnet fishery in the Northeast Atlantic reveals many errors made in EU fisheries policy. These problems need not only to be solved for NEAT waters- they must be solved before the fishery expands into other areas.”
In a letter received by Oceana, the Asociación de Armadores de Artes Fijos (Spanish Fixed Net Ship-owner Association) voiced their strong disapproval of the deep-sea gillnet fishery proposal supported by their own MEPs. This sector, which has worked for years towards re-establishing and recuperating the severely decimated fish populations in the Cantabric Sea in the Northeast of Spain, fears that their conservation efforts will be undermined if the EU proposal is agreed, which will allow fishermen of other fleets to use less selective gear. The Association declares that the deep-sea gillnetters operating along with them in the Cantabric Sea should comply with the guidelines in the Spanish regulation.
The report by Oceana urges the EU to correct the way this fishery has been allowed to operate in the past, and to implement and enforce the recommended management measures as a vital step towards achieving a more sustainable deep-sea gillnet fishery.