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Ocean Award winner urges EU not to squander the fisheries bonus of lockdown

May 08, 2020 by Charles Clover

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The COVID-19 virus lockdown could end overfishing in European waters this year, something European ministers have utterly failed to do despite being required to by law, according to Rainer Froese, a renowned fisheries scientist and a winner of this week’s Ocean Awards.

The lockdown, says Dr Froese, has brought a halving of demand from overseas markets and restrictions on the restaurant trade so fishermen are unable to sell all of their catch and many vessels will stay in port rather than fish out quotas given them by Europe’s politicians.

Ironically, the fishing industry in Europe is clamouring both for compensation and, controversially, to be allowed to catch 25 per cent more fish next year to catch up.  But Dr Froese says that Europe’s politicians are already allowing the industry to catch more than the law allows.

Dr Froese, a senior scientist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, said he had been much involved with Common Fisheries Policy Reform over the past decade and found himself “bitterly disappointed.”

“This is the year, 2020, when European seas should have been fixed and when overfishing should have ended for good.  That is the law.  We fought very hard to get that in writing so there is no debate.  And it is the law. But they don’t implement it.

“In 2019 of the number of stocks for which there was data, 41 per cent were overfished.  In 2020, the year when it should be zero according to the reforms of the CFP, it is more – 46 per cent.  The numbers do not even go down.  That really angers me a lot.”

Dr Froese, who helped create the wildly successful online encyclopaedia on fish, FishBase, received the Science Award from a panel of independent judges for empowering scientists to assess fish populations swiftly and to challenge conventional wisdom.

He applied the first of three novel statistical methods for which he won the award to reassess 400 European fish stocks in 2016.

He found that two thirds of the fish stocks were subject to overfishing and about half were so small that successful reproduction was endangered, with overfishing worsening the further south you looked from the Barents Sea to the Mediterranean.

 “This did not really surprise me. But what surprised me was that while the total catch from the 400 stocks was 8.8 million tonnes, an additional 5 million tonnes could be obtained if we just did it right and implemented the law” – which says stocks must be rebuilt and quotas must be set such that stocks remain larger than the minimum size needed to support high long-term catches.

Since the total production of fish from aquaculture in Europe, including Norway, is 3 million tonnes, Dr Froese’s work shows that we would not need fish farming if we managed wild fish properly.

The time it would take to get to stock recovery and high catches depended on the degree of depletion of the respective stocks, but on average catches had to be reduced for only two years, then they could be set to what they were before. Then they would gradually increase to near the maximum sustainable amount within 5-10 years.  Profits of fishers were predicted to double over the same time span.

In a study based on his latest statistical tool for assessing data-poor fisheries, he looked at the populations of rarer by-catch species in North Sea commercial fisheries, such as Thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata) and Vahl’s eelpout (Lycodes vahlii).

He found that the Thorny skate existed at only 10 per cent of its unexploited population size and therefore justified its listing on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable to extinction.

Vahl’s eelpout was not on the red list but at only 11 per cent of its original spawning size it may be included following Dr Froese’s assessment.

Dr Froese was also responsible for the idea behind a paper that came out last year which showed that trawling pressure was higher in Europe’s marine reserves than outside.

His fellow authors were looking for sharks and rays when they found that the abundance of sharks was actually higher outside protected areas than inside them.

“You ask what can be done for those bycatch species?  First of all stop trawling in those protected areas, because they are not protected.”

In a long-standing dispute within European law, member states are responsible for marine reserves while the Commission and Council of Ministers have competence for fisheries, so Europe has never managed to agree restrictions on fishing in marine reserves.

Dr Froese’s results were dismissed by the European Commission when he presented them in Brussels on the grounds that they were not done by the Commission’s client marine science agency ICES.  He has had trouble when getting his results published from peer reviewers who practice conventional methods, but he persists and his reputation rides high internationally.

Dr Froese is building a web platform using his three statistical methods which he hopes will empower scientists all over the world to properly assess the status of their stocks. “There is no excuse for bad management anymore”, he says.

Conventional data-rich fish stock analysis takes a lot of manpower over several weeks or months, whereas the three statistical methods pioneered by Froese can be in a few days to get statistically meaningful result. “This is empowerment,” he says.

Dr Froese says his methods may turn out to be become the most widely-used in the world, precisely because most of the fished stocks currently have no assessment and regular fisheries scientists can do them with the data at hand.  “Data-rich assessments are overly complicated. This is a breakthrough. It will make a big difference,”  he says.

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