Industrial-scale fishing has had a significant impact on marine ecosystems. Despite decades of management plans and regulations, many fish stocks are still overexploited, and marine environments continue to be degraded. “Fishing management approaches often do not consider the wider ecosystem consequences of fishing,” explains FishMan project Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Silvia de Juan, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Science (ICM-CSIC), Spain. “To move towards a more sustainable world, we need to better understand how fisheries alter ecosystems, and how this failure to reach long-term sustainability goals might impact society.” Such ecosystem-based approaches include respecting quotas, and avoiding catches of undersized individuals and vulnerable species. The EU’s reformed Common Fisheries Policy, which includes measures such as a discard ban for several commercial species, known as the Landing Obligation, and improved fishing gear, has played a critical role in moving European fisheries towards more sustainable practices.
Understanding fishing practices
The FishMan project, undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, sought to better understand the implementation of these regulations as well as the continued ecological impact of fishing. This was achieved in part through an analysis of current trawl fishing practices in the north-west Mediterranean. “We wanted to take into account all the components of fishing, from the biophysical properties of fishing grounds to the perceptions of fishermen,” adds de Juan. “The goal was to study the consequences of fishing activities from different perspectives.” Through this work, de Juan was able to shed new light on the consequences of trawl fisheries in Mediterranean ecosystems. A key focus was on the loss of some of the most vulnerable marine species, as well as the socio-economic impact of measures on local fisheries. “Small decisions such as fishing in certain habitats or discarding fractions of the catch can have significant effects through the system,” notes de Juan. “Ecological conditions are fed back to fishermen through their ability to catch fish. These cascading effects needs to be considered in the formulation of fisheries management plans.”
Assessing ecosystem impacts
A lasting legacy of the FishMan project will be its holistic approach to assessing the ecosystem impacts of fisheries, encompassing key ecological, social and economic indicators. This will lead to more accurate predictions of the effects of fishery restrictions in the future. The approach pioneered by FishMan could also help to identify alternative fishing practices capable of reducing ecosystem disturbance, while having minimal socio-economic impacts on fishermen. “Our framework was successfully tested by a north-west Mediterranean trawling fleet,” says de Juan. “We demonstrated that our framework is a promising tool for monitoring the effective implementation of ecosystem approaches to fisheries management.” Some of the project data still needs to be processed, and de Juan expects this information will further flesh out FishMan’s wider societal perspective of sustainable fishing. “Incorporating the human dimension will ensure that our research results are applicable in real-world scenarios,” she explains. “Taking into account the perception of fishermen is essential if we are to effectively advance towards an ecosystem-based approach.”
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