Figures estimate 73 per cent of Mediterranean fish stocks are overfished, with fishing pressure on average twice the level considered sustainable. This is severely hampering the long-term health of a sea already in peril.
This summer’s heat, fires and floods showed once again that our region is a climate change hotspot. Our common sea, which we have long relied on to absorb heat and CO2 emissions, is undergoing repeated marine heatwaves. Ambitious and urgent action is needed to save our sea.
Fisheries ministers are gathering in Malta this week for the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean’s (GFCM) MedFish4Ever High-Level Conference, which “aims to take stock of advances and inspire reinforced ambition towards sustainable Mediterranean and Black Sea fisheries and aquaculture.”
This follows the “MedFish4Ever Declaration” signed by ministers in Malta in March 2017, setting forth “their intent to improve the situation of Mediterranean fisheries over the next decade through a series of ambitious targets and activities towards strengthening fisheries management and governance”.
Yet six and a half years later, fisheries ministers must face the sobering reality – many of the already existing protection measures aimed at curbing illegal fishing in the Mediterranean exist only on paper. Grand statements make for good headlines, but out on the water, a lack of compliance and enforcement is putting Mediterranean fisheries, ecosystems and livelihoods at serious risk.
Taking decisive action to end bottom trawling in the Mediterranean Sea in areas where it is already banned, and hence considered illegal, should be a top priority for every government represented in Malta this week, in order to achieve sustainable fisheries and protect marine biodiversity.
First, it is vital to recognise that not only is illegal bottom trawling taking place in the Mediterranean but this destructive practice is putting ecosystems and livelihoods at risk, while rules created to protect them are not being enforced.
Second, urgent steps must be taken – collectively – to end illegal bottom trawling by strengthening transparency, compliance and the enforcement of GFCM measures.
In November 2022, the Med Sea Alliance launched the interactive online Atlas of trawling activities in areas of the Mediterranean where trawling is banned and considered illegal. This tool enables identification of areas with presumed and confirmed illegal trawling. By cross-referencing satellite data with maps of protected areas, the Atlas can identify instances where trawlers appear to be fishing in closed areas.
Between January 2020 to December 2021, the Atlas recorded presumed infractions of bottom trawling by 305 different vessels across 9,518 apparent days of fishing activity in 35 closed areas, including Fishery Restricted Areas, Marine Protected Areas and those Natura 2000 sites where bottom trawling is banned according to the EU Regulation on Mediterranean fisheries.
In addition, 169 cases of confirmed infractions were found between 2018 and 2021, based on research on media outlets and information released by national control authorities.
Bottom trawling is one of the most unselective and destructive forms of fishing, driving significant depletion of fish stocks, capturing high levels of bycatch, causing long-term damage to marine habitats, disturbing significant quantities of carbon stored in seabed sediments, contributing to coastal erosion, and threatening the livelihoods of small-scale fishers who rely on sustainable fish stocks for their income and community well-being.
This destructive practice is putting ecosystems and livelihoods at risk
The impacts of bottom trawling are well documented and include high levels of incidental captures and discards of protected or threatened species, particularly sea turtles, sharks and rays, and some cetaceans.
Discard ratios vary widely depending on the fishing method and geographical area. Mediterranean trawlers show by far the highest discard ratios, ranging from 34 to 44 per cent across the region. Compounding this issue, bottom trawlers along with longliners are accountable for about 80 per cent of the vulnerable species incidentally caught in the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
Moreover, bottom trawling is the most widespread source of human-induced physical disturbance to the ecological integrity of global seabeds. Trawling can adversely affect habitat complexity, which in turn negatively impacts the biomass, diversity and abundance of marine species.
The extent of habitat damage and the speed of recovery can vary significantly, ranging from a few days to decades, depending upon factors such as the habitat type.
From a climate perspective, bottom trawling disturbs seabed sediments, representing one of the planet’s primary carbon stores. This resuspended sedimentary carbon can then be reconverted to carbon dioxide, which is likely to increase ocean acidification and accelerate the climate crisis by reducing the ocean’s capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon effectively.
This week, the Med Sea Alliance is issuing an urgent call to action to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean and its members – which includes 22 countries and the EU – to take decisive action to strengthen transparency, compliance, and the enforcement of measures to stop the scourge of illegal bottom trawling.
Mediterranean fisheries ministers have the power to end illegal bottom trawling in no-trawl areas. Doing so would be a win-win for fish stocks and fishing communities. The technology required for enforcement is affordable and easy to use, and effective measures to improve compliance have been successfully adopted in other regions.
Fisheries ministers of the GFCM have the responsibility to ensure that trawling in the Mediterranean is properly tracked, non-compliance is tackled, information is publicly available, and existing rules are fully enforced.
Fisheries ministers gathered for MedFish4Ever in Malta must ensure that during the forthcoming meeting of the GFCM will take place in Split, Croatia, on November 10, member governments swiftly adopt a compliance mechanism that would allow it to impose and take corrective measures to stop illegal bottom trawling.
Aniol Esteban is chair of the Med Sea Alliance and director of the Marilles Foundation (Spain); Zafer Kizilkaya, president of Akdeniz Koruma Dernği (Turkey) and awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2023; Domitilla Senni, president of MedReAct (Italy) and Thodoris Tsimpidis, director of Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation (Greece).