Major New Report Highlights How Fisheries Affect Northeast Atlantic Ecosystem Health

Ecosystem approach is key to protecting vulnerable species and habitats

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Major New Report Highlights How Fisheries Affect Northeast Atlantic Ecosystem Health
A fishing vessel nears a coastline in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. A new report found that commercial fishing is significantly degrading the marine ecosystem in this region.
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Marine life and habitats in the Northeast Atlantic face mounting pressure from climate change and human activities such as fishing and are becoming less resilient to these stresses, according to a new report. The “Quality Status Report” (QSR) from the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, or OSPAR Convention, underscores the substantial effect of fishing pressure on the environment and should act as a wake-up call for fisheries managers to urgently prioritize ecosystem considerations in setting rules for fishing in these waters.

The QSR is a once-a-decade review of the environmental status of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. The latest report, drawing from over 120 individual assessments and the collaborative work of more than 400 experts, paints a gloomy picture. Despite the progress made to identify and address pressures from human activities, these impacts still drive biodiversity decline, habitat degradation and weakening of marine ecosystems and are reducing the ability of ocean flora and fauna to withstand climate change and ocean acidification.

OSPAR, which is made up of 15 States and the European Union, is responsible for protecting and conserving the marine environment of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean—for example by promoting the establishment of marine protected areas and guarding against ecosystem damage from activities such as shipping or oil and gas exploration. OSPAR does not manage fisheries. The convention is committed to using an ecosystem approach in its work, which means considering how an activity might affect all marine life and habitats.

Although OSPAR does not oversee fishing, its stark findings of how fishing is altering the ecosystems should prompt careful consideration by fisheries policymakers, particularly the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), which sets fishing limits and other management measures in the high seas parts of the region. NEAFC has also committed to using an ecosystem approach in its work.

The preceding QSR report, published in 2010, concluded that many fish stocks were caught beyond sustainable levels and that fishing pressure was negatively affecting habitats and the structure of fish populations and other species. The 2023 QSR 2023 recognizes some improvements, but gaps and concerns remain.

For example, although the majority of fish stocks in the OSPAR area are now fished within sustainable limits, the ecosystem impacts remain significant and are not addressed. The report highlights the decline in the average length of fish caught, the concerning state of food webs, the amount of prey in the water for predators, and the ongoing dire status and decline of seabird breeding; researchers directly linked those last two factors to fishing-related prey reduction.

To tackle these challenges, the report calls for enhancing understanding of the impacts of fishing on ecosystem health and biodiversity. The QSR further advocates for the implementation of fisheries management measures that prioritize the ecosystem perspective and underscores the importance of assessing the influence of climate change on fisheries and the broader ecosystem.

Ecosystem approach can maintain productive fisheries and conserve biodiversity

The findings and recommendations of the 2023 OSPAR report demand a departure from the status quo. Fisheries managers must acknowledge that, although fishing is their primary focus, they have a responsibility to modify their strategies to adapt and account for fisheries impacts on the ecosystem. Recent international commitments, such as the Global Biodiversity Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, reaffirm fisheries managers’ roles in conserving ecosystems alongside their traditional responsibilities for overseeing sustainable catches of target species. This autumn brings several pivotal opportunities to bring ecosystem considerations into fisheries as Northeast Atlantic States negotiate management measures such as catch limits.

First, the Northeast Atlantic coastal States that manage large fish stocks—such as mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring—should transition to ecosystem-focused long-term strategies. These three species have been fished more heavily than scientists advise in recent years, principally because these governments have failed to secure agreement on how to share the total catch. By resolving such conflicts, or putting long-term strategies in place while the parties work to resolve the sharing impasse, these coastal States could replace annual negotiations with multi-year rules capable of preventing overfishing and accounting for and responding more nimbly to changes in the marine environment.

Second, at the NEAFC annual meeting in November, all parties should commit to initiating a process to develop ecological objectives for the fisheries they manage, including maintaining healthy food webs and restoring depleted predator populations—or preventing localized depletions—in order to better govern international fisheries in the region. This would mark a significant, welcome change and put the ecosystem at the heart of NEAFC decision-making.

Finally, from a governance perspective, both NEAFC and OSPAR should remember their commitments to the ecosystem approach. With the release of the QSR report, it is more important than ever that both organizations fulfill this commitment and work together to ensure comprehensive ecosystem-based management in the Northeast Atlantic, which will in turn build more resilient and productive fisheries and set a benchmark for other regions.

NEAFC and OSPAR should not squander this special opportunity. Most other regions in the world do not have an initiative like OSPAR that is looking after the environment. The Northeast Atlantic does. NEAFC and OSPAR should both take significant steps to foster more robust, institutionalized and accountable collaboration to achieve this.

Jean-Christophe Vandevelde is a manager and Josephine Woronoff is a senior associate with Pew’s international fisheries project.

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