To Improve Fisheries and Ocean Health, Northeast Atlantic Decision-Makers Should Adopt Ecosystem Approach

Management shift would benefit valuable commercial stocks—and broader ocean biodiversity

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To Improve Fisheries and Ocean Health, Northeast Atlantic Decision-Makers Should Adopt Ecosystem Approach
A fishing boat collecting it's net which is full of herring.
A vessel fishes for herring near Norway, a key coastal State in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean.
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In the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, one of the most intensively fished areas in the world, there has been recent improvement in the status of the region’s scientifically assessed fish stocks: The number of stocks subject to overfishing has decreased since the 2000s, leading to signs of recovery in some exploited fish populations.

But this good news doesn’t tell the whole story, as dozens of other indicators show a concerning drop in ocean health. A recent review of the status of marine biodiversity in the region found that of 52 such indicators—ranging from the breeding status of seabird populations to the diversity of seabed organisms – only nine (17%) are trending positively. From declining marine mammal populations to a persistent lack of recovery in large fish species, the study paints a picture of system-wide ocean degradation.

Of the multiple factors driving this decline, poor fisheries management is among the most prominent. For example, vessels net-fishing for cod often inadvertently catch threatened species, such as the harbour porpoise. And the removal of short-lived forage fish such as sandeel or sprat at the base of marine food webs is reducing the food available for predators. In addition, climate change is forcing many species to shift their historical ranges, putting additional strains on ecosystems.

Taking ecosystems into account

Every marine species—including commercially valuable fish—plays an important role in the intricate ecosystems and food webs of the ocean. Fisheries managers should ensure that fishing does not upset these ecological relationships. They can do so by setting policies to keep commercially fished species at levels that are sustainable for the long term, and that safeguard the diverse communities of animals, plants and microorganisms fisheries managers interact with.

And the best way to safeguard these relationships is through ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM), an updated approach that involves not only setting science-based catch limits on target species but also accounting for and managing the effects of fishing and of environmental factors on a range of other species and their habitats.

Next steps in Northeast Atlantic EBFM implementation

In October and November, Northeast Atlantic coastal States will negotiate management for several shared stocks and will be in a position to begin moving towards EBFM. The stocks being discussed are some of the world’s largest and most commercially important—including mackerel, blue whiting  and herring. Those three species in particular have been fished excessively in recent years, principally due to the failure by coastal States to secure agreement on how to share the agreed total catch. Changes in ecosystems may further fuel these tensions, especially for species such as mackerel that are likely to see shifts in productivity and distribution as waters warm under climate change. This makes accounting for ecosystem dynamics in management of these species all the more important: It’s a political, commercial and ecological necessity.

The coastal States should take note of recent progress by other international fisheries managers to implement EBFM, such as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization’s building on single species catch limits by setting additional ecosystem level constraints on catches. Coastal State negotiators should also urgently move towards active implementation of EBFM in order to fulfil their legal obligations and help ensure that fisheries and ecosystems are resilient to future shocks. 

Concrete steps that negotiators can take towards adopting EBFM include incorporating ecosystem considerations in stock assessments; agreeing to develop ecological reference points (catch limits that are derived from ecosystem models); testing and adopting long-term management strategies that factor in ecosystem elements; and assessing the role of spatial and temporal measures to protect key species, either throughout their lives or during critical life stages. 

By taking steps to implement EBFM, Northeast Atlantic coastal States can improve the resilience of international fisheries in the region and uphold their obligations and commitments to maintain and restore a healthy marine environment.  

Jean-Christophe Vandevelde is a manager and Daniel Steadman is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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