European Commission must seize momentous opportunity to phase out destructive fishing and set the course for ocean recovery
A new report (1) published today by Seas At Risk and Oceana shows that bottom trawling – one of the most destructive fishing techniques – can be largely replaced in the European Union (EU) by far less aggressive fishing gears. Switching to readily available alternatives to bottom trawling offers multiple benefits, such as dramatically improving fisheries resources, protecting the seabed and marine habitats and increasing resilience of the ocean to the climate breakdown.
These findings come as the European Commission is about to publish its Action Plan to conserve fisheries resources and protect marine ecosystems, setting a path to tackle the impacts of fishing to meet the EU’s biodiversity objectives in the ocean.
Andrea Ripol, marine policy officer at Seas At Risk said: “Alternative, less aggressive fishing gears could partly, and reliably, replace bottom trawling in European waters. More importantly, replacing this harmful fishing gear would make a considerable difference for the health of our ocean and our future. The European Commission must seize this opportunity in their upcoming ocean Action Plan.”
Bottom trawling is the main fishing method used in Europe, accounting for 32% of total EU landings (7.3 million tonnes) whilst also responsible for 93% of all reported discards – catches of species which are not kept, but returned to the sea, dead or dying – in the EU (1 million tonnes) over the period 2015-2019. But alternatives exist. More than 25 other types of gear are used in the EU, some of which are used to catch the same species as bottom trawling, like purse seines, set gillnets or pots and traps that altogether represent 66% of total EU landings, but with generally less damaging effects on the environment. Alternative gears can however have their own associated environmental problems, especially in terms of bycatch of sensitive species. Where such environmental impacts on sensitive species cannot be avoided with technical measures, Oceana and Seas At Risk recommend, instead of a switch to these gears, an overall reduction in the amount of fishing in the areas concerned.
“The destructive nature of bottom trawling is no longer seriously disputed. The question is rather: when are we going to act on it?” said Nicolas Fournier, campaign director for marine protection at Oceana in Europe. “Phasing out this destructive fishing method is essential to meet Europe’s biodiversity and climate targets, given its high fuel intensity, as well as the scale of its impact on marine life and on the carbon stored in the ocean floor. The European Commission must embrace this opportunity to shape a new vision of future low-impact, low carbon EU fisheries and prepare for this necessary transition now.”
Many of the main species landed by bottom trawlers – namely sandeels, sprat and blue whiting – are keystone species that are essential links in the food chain of other marine fish, seabirds and mammals. They are not directly consumed by humans, but are rather used to produce fish oil and feed for aquaculture, and could be replaced by alternative feed sources, like insects or plants. In addition, several other species landed in large quantities by bottom trawlers, such as Atlantic cod, are severely overfished in Europe and must be less fished. A reduction of bottom trawling targeting these species would therefore be attainable, and would greatly benefit the marine environment and fish populations, while helping transition EU fisheries towards sustainability and achieve the European Green Deal’s objectives of making Europe climate-neutral.
Ripol added: “Phasing out bottom trawling that targets overfished populations and seafood for non-human consumption would be a good starting point to pave the way for a just transition to low-impact fisheries. While doing so, it is fundamental to safeguard the wellbeing of workers and communities currently dependent on bottom trawling, by providing income security or promoting the creation of alternative employment and retraining opportunities”.
To avoid scaling up the associated environmental impacts of the alternative gears – especially in terms of bycatch of sensitive species like dolphins and turtles – Seas At Risk and Oceana recommend implementing the transition with careful spatial and temporal planning.
EU policy-makers, and in particular the European Commission with its imminent Action Plan, are at a turning point: they need to embrace an ambitious vision for European seas by 2030, when the climate and biodiversity agendas will converge. The report offers a starting point to identify and explore alternative fishing gears and their role in a transition scenario by 2030. Its authors also call for an immediate ban on bottom trawling in sensitive ocean areas, such as all EU marine protected areas and coastal zones.
Bottom trawling in the EU is wide-spread, and amounts to several million hours in protected areas per year, according to Oceana (2). It seriously affects the seabed, its associated ecosystems and carbon-storing capacity, and worsens the overexploitation of fish stocks.
In the North-east Atlantic, about 79% of Europe’s coastal seabed and 43% of the shelf/slope area is physically disturbed, mainly by bottom trawling (3). If ecosystems are degraded or lost, they may release part of their carbon back into the atmosphere (4). After the single pass of a beam trawl, it has been estimated to take seabed communities between 7.5 and 15 years to recover (5).
To add to this, bottom trawlers emit three times more CO2 than non-trawl boats, resulting in bottom-trawled seafood having one of the highest carbon footprints of any protein source – and thereby contributing directly to climate change (6).
In December 2021, a petition was handed over to Commissioner Sinkevičius by e-NGOs on behalf of over 170 000 Europeans. The petition called on the EU to phase out destructive fishing practices to protect the ocean and climate, starting with an immediate ban of bottom trawling in all marine protected areas to be adopted in the upcoming EU Action Plan.
Infographic on the impacts of bottom trawling in Europe (Oceana)
A fact sheet supported by infographics explaining the links between bottom trawling and climate change (Seas At Risk). Bottom Trawling, Climate Change and the Ocean’s Carbon Storage
NOTES TO EDITORS:
4) (Hilmi et al. 2021, Epstein et al. 2022, Sala et al. 2021)
5) (Pedersen et al. 2009: “Mapping fisheries in the German exclusive economic zone with special reference to offshore Natura 2000 sites”. https://www.academia.edu/12152084/Mapping_fisheries_ in_the_German_exclusive_economic_zone_with_special_reference_to_offshore_ Natura_2000_sites)
6) (Clark and Tilman 2017: Environ. Res. Lett. 12 064016)
Posted on: 8 September 2022