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Mediterranean fisheries: All is not lost that is in peril
© Cristina Mastrandrea
SSF Italy

In July, the new GFCM 2030 Strategy aiming at securing a sustainable future for fisheries and aquaculture in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea was approved by its 22 contracting parties. WWF is very pleased with the priorities identified through a consultation process with countries and stakeholders alike as well as with the approach adopted by the GFCM that makes the strategy more actionable and measurable.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an improvement in the state of the stocks for the Mediterranean Sea, something we hardly thought possible. The efforts put in by all actors, including the fishing sector, are paying off. Perhaps it is too early to pat ourselves on the back, but the future is certainly more encouraging. In this context, WWF continues to be a firm believer in the potential and need to invest in the small-scale fishing sector. Accounting for the overwhelming majority of Mediterranean fishing vessels (83 percent) and fishing-based jobs (57 percent), small-scale fisheries has the largest potential to make a faster turn towards a more equitable, gender balanced and sustainable approach to fisheries. In the context of building back better, this sector requires urgent and specific investments, which should not only be aimed at fishing better but also at improving social security and health. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated clearly the weakness of this sector in terms of social welfare.

While we approach the future with a more positive outlook, I would still like to address two issues that have emerged in 2021 as elements of concern.

The first is the interaction between the fishing industry and the post-2020 biodiversity framework. There is still a huge gap between the fisheries sector and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – including OECMs – which is a challenge to the process of improving ocean governance and management. We are experiencing this challenge both in the context of the new ocean treaty (BBNJ), currently being negotiated at the United Nations, but also as we move forward with the revision of the Aichi target 11 and the 30% protection target within the Convention For Biological Diversity. For WWF, MPAs and other spatial measures are effective fisheries management tools which, if used appropriately, can achieve important results towards rebuilding stock and biomass. This is true for coastal zones as well as the high seas. A recent WWF Report demonstrates how commercially valuable stocks (hakes and groupers, for example) could recover with 30% of the sea effectively protected. While several countries (Italy, Spain, France) have already expressed support for the 30% target, many other Mediterranean governments are reluctant to commit.

The second issue concerns the challenge of addressing the most impactful fishing gear — trawling. There is much debate over the best way of decreasing or halting altogether the use of heavy, destructive and unselective fishing gear. WWF is in agreement with the science available on the negative effects of destructive gear, yet we do not see how it is possible to phase it out without a solid and effective plan addressing the socio-economic consequences of such a move. A combination of approaches would perhaps be best suited to minimising the impacts of destructive fishing. These approaches include the management of fleet capacity according to the abundance of the resource, on the basis of the best available scientific advice. In addition, we believe that applying more selective gear would address the issue of the production of large quantities of discards, which today is a distinct feature of bottom trawl fisheries. The amount of unwanted by-catch that is discarded at sea is estimated to range between 20% and 65% of the total catch, and includes individuals under regulatory size as well as other marine organisms that cannot be commercialized. It is of the utmost importance to avoid displacing the fishing effort from trawling into other sectors, such as small-scale fisheries, which have their own vulnerabilities. While we apply these approaches, social safety nets must be in place for the fleets and crew that become redundant.

Closely linked with the use of destructive gear is the issue of harmful fishing subsidies. This past month we received both good and bad news concerning the ongoing negotiations to remove harmful subsidies for the ocean. The bad news is that the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed to reach an agreement on subsidies and much remains to be done to find a compromise that works for all countries. The WTO pledged to adopt the agreement before the next ministerial conference at the end of November. The good news is that the European Parliament voted to make it legally binding for the EU and Member States to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 and all other environmentally harmful subsidies by 2027. Subsidies policies should support rather than undermine sustainable fisheries and communities’ livelihoods. In the Mediterranean, capacity-enhancing subsidies still make up 47% of the total 2.7 billion euros invested in the fishing sector. These subsidies sustain heavy gear fisheries and overcapacity, while only 2% of fishing subsidies reach small-scale fishers. Subsidising harmful and destructive fisheries makes no sense if we want to transition towards a more sustainable economy.

Transitioning towards a more sustainable use of the ocean and the marine space, including the need to stop overfishing, isn’t going to be easy. Yet the tools are all there, the political ambition is on the rise, the understanding of how much is at stake is far greater. This all points in the same direction: all is not lost that is in peril.