In Northeast Atlantic Ocean, Fisheries Managers Must Prioritize Broader Environment

Establishing ecosystem objectives would help maintain and improve biodiversity and fisheries sustainability

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In Northeast Atlantic Ocean, Fisheries Managers Must Prioritize Broader Environment
A black and white fishing trawler, with its net in the water and an orange light glowing from within the cabin, is followed by dozens of black seabirds. The breaching fin of an orca whale is visible on the dark surface of the water, and a rocky, snow-covered mountain rises from the sea in the background.
A fishing trawler works the waters of the Skjervoy fjord in Norway, followed by seabirds and an orca whale. Fisheries policies in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean should ensure that enough fish remain in the sea to maintain the predator-prey balance, which is vital to a healthy ocean.
Oliver Morin Getty Images

The viability of the fishing industry depends on healthy fish populations and ecosystems. However, fisheries managers around the world have typically prioritized catch levels over safeguarding the marine environment. But with our ocean under increasing threat worldwide, setting fishing rules based solely on catch levels isn’t good for the marine environment—or the fishing industry. It would also run counter to governments’ conservation commitments, including a resolution adopted in 2022 by the Convention on Biological Diversity to take an “ecosystem approach” to the use, harvest and trade of wildlife, including fish.

To help meet those obligations and advance ocean health, fisheries managers need to incorporate ecological objectives into their long-term management plans and day-to-day decisions.

Ecological objectives are specific, measurable goals set by fisheries managers to maintain or enhance some aspect of ecosystem health, such as the functioning of food webs or the population status of predators; they are rules that are intended to be responsive to changes in the environment. Such objectives should complement other fisheries aims, such as maximizing sustainable catches or maintaining economic stability.

In the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, fisheries managers should agree on ecological objectives to mitigate the environmental impacts of fishing. Fishing has driven major changes in the region’s marine biodiversity, reducing the richness of food webs and depleting the prey available for top predators. While there are some positive population trends for some key species targeted by fishing (for example, Atlantic bluefin tuna and North Sea haddock), many broader indicators of ecosystem health are trending downward, from seabird breeding success to the average size of fish. By developing ambitious, nature-oriented objectives, managers will ensure that these ecological considerations are central to fisheries decision-making, not an afterthought.

In October and November, the region’s fisheries managers and scientists will meet as part of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) scientific committee and for NEAFC’s annual meeting, respectively. NEAFC parties have a chance to go beyond business as usual and become a leader among regional fisheries management organizations by introducing ecological objectives. Two NEAFC parties—the United Kingdom and Iceland—have expressed willingness to kick-start this process. Fellow NEAFC parties should take note and lend their support.

Agreeing on ecological objectives means adding to—rather than replacing—traditional fisheries objectives. Potential ecological objectives for parties to consider could include maintaining the integrity of food webs (by accounting for how much of the target species is needed by predators or how different species compete with one another); increasing the resilience of fish communities (by preventing overfishing across groups of species and adapting to long-term climate change scenarios); or maintaining habitat health (by protecting areas where target species are vulnerable such as their nursery or spawning areas). With such objectives in place, fisheries decision makers can measure the success of their management by both the health of target species populations and the status of other variables affected by, or affecting, fishing activity (for example, the abundance or breeding success of predators).

These ecological objectives aren’t just related to fishing impacts. They can also help fisheries decision makers be more adaptive and responsive to climate change in the region. For example, marine heat waves in the Northeast Atlantic ecosystems are likely to dramatically affect fish populations, potentially altering traditional feeding, breeding and migration patterns of various species. Fisheries managers should use ecological objectives to get ahead of these changes, ensuring that fishing rules are driven by environmental status rather than solely by historical baselines of catch levels.

Adopting these new objectives would be a vital step in the growing shift towards ecosystem-based fisheries management in the Northeast Atlantic. Failure to adopt such objectives would almost certainly result in fisheries continuing to drive declines in marine biodiversity. This autumn, NEAFC parties must rise to the challenge posed by the worrying ecological changes in the region and set a course towards sustainable, long-term ecosystem-based management.

Jean-Christophe Vandevelde is a manager and Daniel Steadman is an officer working on Pew’s international fisheries project.

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