Ecosystem-based approach to fisheries


The European Commission has published a Communication on the role of fisheries management in implementing an ecosystem approach to marine management.

In this text, the Commission outlines how the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) can help implement a more joined-up approach to protect the ecological balance of our oceans as a sustainable source of wealth and well-being for future generations.

The key objectives are to minimise the impacts of fishing on the wider marine environment by reducing the overall level of fishing pressure and to ensure that fisheries' measures are used fully to support the cross-sectoral approach defined by the EU's Marine Strategy and Habitats Directives.

This should ensure protection for vulnerable habitats and sensitive species, prevent disruptions to the food chain, safeguard the integrity of key ecosystem processes and, thus, create a healthy marine environment which will positively support a thriving fishing industry, alongside other sustainable human activities.

The present Communication forms part of the first wave of actions to be implemented under the new integrated Maritime Policy (see IP/07/1463).

Commenting on the approach set out in the Communication, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Joe Borg said - "Protecting the integrity of our marine environment is not only an end in itself, it is also an essential precondition for a sustainable, forward-looking maritime sector. Without healthy ecosystems, fish stocks cannot thrive and fisheries cannot be profitable. This is why the application of an ecosystem approach results in a win-win situation."

The CFP is committed to the progressive implementation of a precautionary, ecosystem approach to fisheries management, as stated in the 2002 Regulation on the Common Fisheries Policy. The goal of an ecosystem approach is to ensure the sustainable management of living aquatic resources within meaningful ecological boundaries. This means considering the whole ecosystem - not simply that isolated element within it which is of economic interest - and minimising both the direct and indirect impact of fishing operations on the future functioning, diversity and integrity of the ecosystems concerned. Nor can fishing, itself, be considered in isolation - instead, it has to be seen in its interaction with other human activities.

The first task of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management must, therefore, be to reduce fishing pressure, which is currently running above sustainable levels in a majority of commercial EU fisheries. To do so will not simply reduce the mortality rate for target fish stocks, it will also reduce the incidental impact of fishing activities on other species which are taken as by-catch and on their habitats.

This approach is already being enacted through the introduction of multi-annual plans which set target rates for fishing mortality in line with the EU's commitment to manage for maximum sustainable yield (see IP/06/931) and with the Commission's new policy to reduce by-catches and eliminate discarding in European fisheries (see IP/07/429). In the longer term, these measures will not only lead to lower fisheries impacts on ecosystems, but also to a more profitable fishing sector as fish stocks recover their productivity.

Another key element in protecting ecosystem integrity is to ensure that fisheries policy is fully coherent with - and supportive of - the actions taken under the cross-sectoral Marine Strategy and Habitats Directives. The Marine Strategy Directive (see IP/07/1894) - adopted last year - forms the environmental pillar of the EU's integrated Maritime Policy. It deals with the protection of Member States' marine waters - focusing on their ecosystems at the regional level - and calls on the Member States which share a given region to establish strategies to achieve 'good environmental status' and a roadmap of how they intend to get there. The concept of 'good environmental status' includes biodiversity conservation, as well as broader ideas of ecosystem integrity and health.

The 1992 Habitats Directive deals with specific habitats which have their own defined characteristics and are clearly delimited in space. The Directive provides the legal basis for establishing a Europe-wide network of representative protected areas (Natura 2000). Recent years have seen an increased focus on establishing a network of marine protected areas designated under the Directive.

A number of measures have been implemented under the CFP since 2002 to address particular environmental issues - for example, to protect specific vulnerable habitats including provisional protection measures pending Natura 2000 status, to reduce incidental by-catch of sea mammals, to protect specific stocks on which sea bird colonies depend (e.g. sand-eels) or to ban destructive fishing practices.

Measures will include proposals on an action plan to protect sharks (2008) and another to protect sea-birds (2009), simplified technical measures, development of indicators and promotion of an ecosystem approach in Regional Fisheries Management Organisations.

Member States are encouraged to use aid under the European Fisheries Fund to strengthen the implementation of this approach.