A New Way to Manage North Sea Fisheries

Published on October 5, 2005

A plan to manage North Sea fisheries as a whole ecosystem and encourage greater stakeholder participation was unveiled at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) science conference in Aberdeen, 20-24 September.

The draft Fisheries Ecosystem Plan (FEP) seeks to manage North Sea fisheries in a more sustainable and inclusive way. Rather than managing fish stocks in isolation, ecosystem-based management takes account of interactions between fish species and stocks and their physical and chemical environment, and recognises the key role people have to play in managing marine ecosystems sustainably. The FEP proposes that fishermen take ‘stewardship’ roles to protect the marine environment, much as farmers and landowners have stewardship over the countryside, and that stakeholders play a bigger role in developing fisheries policies.

The plan was developed by an international team of marine experts and social scientists as part of a three-year project funded by the European Union. To identify the key issues, the team interviewed fishermen and other stakeholders from England, Scotland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark. They gathered opinions and views on the state of the North Sea ecosystem and which management measures were preferred by various interest groups. They then developed models of what would happen to the North Sea ecosystem under various management scenarios. These were then taken back to the stakeholders in order to develop a ‘tool box’ of acceptable management measures.

The consultation revealed widely disparate views on the current health of the North Sea fish stocks, with most fishermen feeling optimistic about the health of most fish stocks, while many other stakeholders were concerned about the effects of over-fishing and global warming. However, there was universal concern over the impacts of discarding unwanted catch. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was heavily criticised for being too centralised, excluding fishermen and making it difficult for them to plan ahead. Single-stock quotas were not considered to be an effective management tool because they encourage discarding in the North Sea’s mixed fisheries.

People are central to the plan, which takes the approach that sustainable fishing must be sustainable for communities as well as marine ecosystems. To that end, it proposes a network of small no-take zones rather than excluding fishermen from large protected areas. These zones would be targeted at specific habitats (such as sponge gardens), benthic species, non-target animals such as cetaceans and some birds, as well as juveniles of target fish species. In the remaining areas, the plan proposes that fishing effort should be immediately and permanently reduced, either by restricting numbers of boats or setting a limit on each boat’s catch. The plan also proposes the use of less damaging fishing methods – such as using lighter and more selective gear – to protect non-target species and habitats, and a combination of technical measures and area closures to reduce the problems of bycatch and discards.

The FEP will now go out for further consultation and review.