The EU agreement would set catch limits at FMSY by 2015 where possible, and by 2020 in other cases. It has also promised to move to BMSY, but without a firm date, to the chagrin of conservationists. “That’s one of the unfortunate things,” says Saskia Richartz, fisheries policy director for Brussels-based Greenpeace EU. Richartz also worries that EU ministers will have the final say in setting catch limits and may not stick to the science. “It now says in the text very clearly [ministers] must stick to scientific advice,” says Richartz. But “it remains hope rather than certainty” that ministers will honour the FMSY targets set by scientists.
Rainer Froese, a marine ecologist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, is also not entirely pleased with the agreement. He says that the council has won a loophole in the ‘discard ban’, in that some fishermen will still be able to throw back up to 5% of their catches. Critics also say that the 5% exemption will make excessive discarding difficult to enforce, because it will be hard to prove that fishing operations, caught in the act of throwing animals back into the sea, are exceeding their quota.
Froese also worries about the willingness of member states to set catch limits in line with FMSY, and says that there will be pressure on scientists to increase their estimates of FMSY in a way that benefits the industry. His own research suggests that the fisheries for some stocks, such as the North Sea cod, will need to be closed altogether for several years before the population can recover.
Other experts are more positive about the reform, and note that catches in recent years have already moved closer to scientists’ advice. There are even signs that some northeast Atlantic stocks are bouncing back: EU data indicate that the number of overfished stocks — in which more animals are caught than prescribed by FMSY — dropped from 94% in 2005 to 47% in 2012. Some stocks of herring, plaice and haddock are now fished at FMSY levels.
Massimiliano Cardinale, a fisheries researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Lysekil, says that although some stocks are recovering, the big challenge will be recovering the over-exploited and commercially important top predators such as cod and tuna. Bringing them back would reshape entire ecosystems off Europe’s coasts, he adds.
This will not happen by 2015, and probably not by 2020, says Cardinale, but with a bit more time “the ecosystem might look more like it should do”.