Measuring the size and productivity of fish populations is a complex task. Some fisheries scientists dedicate their life’s work to fine-tuning such assessments, modelling management approaches and improving accuracy, or at least mitigating against uncertainties. The European Union and several states regularly ask an independent body of scientists—the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)—for advice to help them make decisions on how much fish can sustainably be caught each year. The advice is tailored to specific questions that fisheries managers ask of scientists, relevant legal and policy frameworks, and comprehensive, detailed criteria that ICES has developed and agreed with managers and stakeholders over the years. ICES has been honing its processes for more than 100 years and publishes advice for each stock, normally months before management decisions are taken. As it does every year, that advice will come into play yet again in the coming months as the EU and neighbouring states negotiate limits for 2021.
Even after all that work by scientists, fisheries ministers often set catch limits that exceed the experts’ recommendations. Sometimes such decisions are political—that is, intended to maintain short-term economic returns at the expense of sustainability. In other cases, decision-makers interpret or emphasise some details of the scientific advice over others to rationalise excessive limits, support a more flexible approach, or suggest that uncertainty itself somehow justifies taking more risk.
When given comprehensive scientific advice, ministers have increasingly accepted it and set sustainable limits accordingly. But stocks with less certain data account for a disproportionate amount of overfishing in Europe, and when faced with “precautionary” advice for such data-limited stocks, ministers tend to take more risks and set higher catch limits. This is a reversal of the precautionary approach in international law, which requires managers to move more cautiously—not less—when information is uncertain or incomplete. And this tendency not to value the advice in these cases ignores the efforts that go into its development and the care with which safeguards are designed.
Disregarding or downplaying scientific advice also compounds risk for some of the most vulnerable stocks. Deep-sea stocks in particular demand a cautious approach, not least because it’s so much more difficult to judge the state of these populations than it is for fish that live in shallower waters, and because deep-dwelling species grow slowly and reach reproductive age late in their lives, making them more sensitive to exploitation. When EU ministers decide on deep-sea limits in November, they need to break the cycle of overfishing these already depleted stocks and follow the precautionary scientific advice.
Elsewhere, scientists are making progress toward developing more comprehensive and quantitative advice for data-limited stocks but, in the meantime, ministers must stop setting limits in excess of the scientific advice for a large proportion of stocks.
For its part, the European Commission rightly highlights that the EU has made progress in recent years in managing the subset of stocks with more comprehensive advice. However, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) requirements apply to all categories of stocks, and nearly half of 2020 limits overall were higher than scientific advice when data-limited stocks were included in the calculations. These are often less economically productive species—either because they’ve been overfished into a depleted state or because they’re not commercial target stocks.
Abandoning any aim to recover these stocks risks sending an erroneous message that some stocks or fishing activity can be exempted from the requirements in EU law and that fisheries ministers could choose to put sustainability as a lower priority in some cases. Neither the law nor the Commission’s stated ambitions for the policy suggest this is the case, and this would not be consistent with the EU’s larger political priorities, such as its Green Deal or its Biodiversity Strategy. Further, the UK’s announcements on post-Brexit fisheries policy, and the aims for its fisheries management plans in its domestic Fisheries Bill, suggest that the UK should be a willing partner in ending the overfishing of all stocks.
The Commission made a good start toward setting sustainable 2021 catch limits for the EU, with a commendable set of proposals for Baltic fish stocks that mostly match what scientists advise. Scientists have pulled out all the stops to keep the advice process going despite severe practical challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, by meeting remotely to validate assessments and producing advice on time. In light of all the uncertainty ahead for 2021—politically and in the ecological pressures faced by the fish that underpin our fishing industries—it is now time for fisheries ministers in the EU and beyond to respect this scientific advice in the coming negotiations and not second-guess it in favour of more convenient conclusions.
Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.