Every year, upon the European Commission’s request, the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) draws up a report on the health status of fish populations in Europe. The 2022 report confirms the trends observed in the Atlantic over the past 20 years: decreasing overfishing and increasing abundance. However, the situation differs from region to region. The Celtic Sea and Bay of Biscay are seeing continual improvement while the state of affairs in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas remains concerning.
The STECF writes up an annual report on the status of resources in European waters zone by zone and evaluates the overall performance of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The 2022 report, which was recently published, presents trends from 2003 to 2020 for the northeast Atlantic and from 2003 to 2019 for the Mediterranean.
In the report, the STECF concludes that the latest data align with the general trends observed over the last 20 years: fewer overfished populations and an overall increase in fish biomass. Thanks to the management measures of the Common Fisheries Policy and particularly the implementation of the MSY (maximum sustainable yield) objective, the demographics of exploited fish populations in European waters have been improving. There were significant improvements between 2019 and 2020 in the northeast Atlantic as well. But the STECF prefers to err on the side of caution: activity slowed due to COVID-19 and so the lessened fishing pressure may only be temporary.
At the end of the 1990s, 90% of fish populations evaluated in the northeast Atlantic were overexploited, and close to 80% were during the first half of the 2000s. In 2020, the percentage dropped to “only” 28% (and it had been 38% in 2019). Despite this progress, the CFP’s 2020 goal for 100% of fish caught to come from sustainably managed populations has still not been met.
Northeast Atlantic: less than 30% of populations are overexploited
In the northeast Atlantic zone, 72% of fish populations are not overexploited. Fish biomass has been climbing since 2007 and is 33% higher in 2020 than at the beginning of the 2000s for the best-tracked populations; it’s 50% higher on average for other populations subject to less tracking. Scientists point out two spots to keep an eye on in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, where the situation has not improved over the past few years, unlike in the area around Iberia, the Bay of Biscay and the Celtic Sea. These differences urge caution and demonstrate that the situation can change quickly from one year to the next and between one zone and the next depending on changes in fishing pressures and in the general ecosystem.
Mediterranean: 86% of populations are overexploited
In the “European” Mediterranean, the situation remains critical. Despite faint signs of improvement in recent years, fishing pressures remain very high, close to double the target value advised for management under the Maximum Sustainable Yield principle. In total, 29 of the 34 fish populations evaluated in the report are still considered overexploited (86%). Few populations are being studied closely and this number is not increasing. The data collected shows that fish abundance remains low despite a slight improvement that is difficult to confirm due to the small number of evaluations performed.
The status of fish populations in European waters has experienced a miraculous renewal over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, this universally positive trend is less homogeneous today. The progress curve is flagging, even stagnating, with some significant disparities between different marine areas. This slowdown could be related to climate disruption.
European fishing by the numbers
- Nearly 74,000 fishing vessels
- About 130,000 fishermen
- 6 million days at sea
- More than 4 million tons brought to shore, whose value exceeds 6 billion euros
- Almost 19 kg per inhabitant in 2018