By Peter Brannen
How Oceana’s ambitious plan for European fisheries could drastically increase the amount of protein in one of the most historically overfished places on Earth.
Conservation can sometimes seem like a vague, if noble, venture. When, for instance, is a place truly saved, or an ecosystem fully restored?
But what if there were a way to measure the progress of a conservation campaign—to match good intentions with hard data? And what if you could not only protect the environment from further harm but bring it back to a state of relative abundance.
That is exactly what Oceana is aiming to do in Europe over the next seven years. By 2020 the organization hopes to increase the catches of European fisheries by 40 percent. It’s called a biological outcome goal. It’s a new approach and it’s an ambitious one.
“It’s an opportunity to radically change the face of the European Fisheries and to show that another management model is possible,” said Executive Director of Oceana in Europe, Xavier Pastor, who is leading the effort.
Already Oceana has seen its work in the Europe—historically one of the most overfished, mismanaged regions in the world— pay off. Since it started working in the region ten years ago, the number of Atlantic overfished stocks have been cut in half while the number of stocks that are now fished at scientifically-validated sustainable catch limits, known as maximum sustainable yields (MSY), has increased exponentially.
Once ailing stocks, like Spanish anchovy, are experiencing a rebirth as science-based quotas become more widely adopted. Marine protected areas have grown by 38 percent since 2010 and formerly intransigent actors like the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) have shown encouraging signs recently that they are ready to protect the Bluefin tuna and swordfish stocks they manage.
“We are already starting to see the results, so it’s not just something that’s hypothetical or a wish list,” says Pastor.
The approach is also based on hard science. While increasing fisheries by 40 percent in the course of a few years might sound incredible to some, it’s exactly the sort of increase projected by a study published this fall in the journal Science. Though it might seem counterintuitive that catching fewer fish could eventually result in more for everyone to eat, in Status and Solutions for the World’s Unassessed Fisheries researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Washington, Seattle, describe how, by instituting measures like protecting critical habitat from destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling and by setting science-based quotas, fish stocks worldwide could see dramatic increases.
Oceana got a running start on these goals when, in a stunning move in February, the European Parliament voted to overhaul the management of its fisheries policy, known as the Common Fisheries Policy. If passed into law, the reform will secure changes in the three key areas that Oceana has been campaigning for: science-based fishing quotas, bycatch reduction and key habitat protection. The new CFP will ensure that fish stocks are caught at sustainable levels (MSY) by 2015. It will also, remarkably, put an end to the wasteful practice of discards, put Europe on a path to low-impact fishing, and set up a network of fish stock recovery areas. The EU Parliament will negotiate with the Council of Fisheries ministers to reach a final agreement on the details of the reform by June.
“Once fish stocks start to recover above MSY levels resource abundance will result in healthier fish stocks, greater and more stable fishing opportunities and better revenues for fishers,” Pastor says.
He predicts a domino effect of better management once fishermen see for themselves the advantages of the new conservation-based approach, when fish is unloaded in European ports in quantities not seen in generations.
But getting to a 40 percent increase won’t be easy. Already, the new science-based, conservation-minded approach has run into stiff industry resistance.
“This transition phase requires strong political will and represents the biggest challenge in how best to reduce fishing pressure while minimizing impacts on the fishing sector,” says Pastor. “Weak, populist politicians and fisheries managers are the worst enemies of recovering fish stocks.”
Unlike many conservation campaigns, if it’s successful it will be obvious: every year more fish will be landed at ports around the continent, more plates will be served and more fish will be in the ocean. And if it’s successful it could herald the arrival of a new era for fisheries.
“If we can do this in Europe though, we can do it anywhere.”