The EU is one step closer to eliminating seabird bycatch

A bycaught Cory's Shearwater. Photo: John J Borg
A bycaught Cory’s Shearwater. Photo: John J Borg

11 March was a historic day for European seabirds. After years of dialogue, the European Commission has proposed a new legislation that will make it mandatory for all fishing vessels in the EU that incidentally catch seabirds to put in place measures to stop them from doing so.

Seabirds forage in areas of the ocean that are rich in fish, which are also targeted by commercial fishing vessels. This overlap can cause seabirds to be accidentally caught on hooks or entangled in nets meant for the fish. It is estimated that at least 200,000 seabirds are accidentally caught annually in EU waters. This includes species on the verge of extinction such as the Balearic Shearwater. However, until today the EU had not enacted any legally binding legislation for fishers to solve this problem. This proposed legislation is a game changer.

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Failure to act on ambition

Fishing boats in Ireland. Photo: WIlliam Murphy/Flickr

As experienced and successful politicians, ministers are adept at obfuscation; the Teflon characteristics that Bertie Ahern was celebrated for. So how to respond to a minister responsible for fisheries when he asserts that, “the state of fish stocks generally is improving”, as if he is an innocent observer, while ministers continue to set fishing limits above scientific advice, 38 out of 62 assessed stocks are outside safe biological limits, and it is not known how many stocks have actually been restored to healthy levels? For the duration of the present government this minister has held responsibility for fisheries, yet in this time the rate of EU overfishing has even increased. So does “generally improving” resonate as a reasonable response?

He goes onto reiterate “his commitment that all fish stocks should reach the target of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2020”. But this is not what the legislation, which he was pivotal in negotiating as chair of the EU Presidency in the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, states. The law is unequivocal on this:

“In order to reach the objective of progressively restoring and maintaining populations of fish stocks above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, the maximum sustainable yield exploitation rate shall be achieved by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks.”

“…at the latest by 2020 …”, there is no “should” in there, and there is clear reference to ‘above biomass levels’.

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Seabirds and fishing gear – a conundrum

Cory’s Shearwaters following a fishing boat © Pep Arcos

Every day across the world, fisher men and women are out at sea, along coasts or far offshore in search of a good fish catch. Seabirds are irresistibly drawn to their boats, the bait, and the promise of a tasty and easily caught meal. But getting too close to fishing gear is dangerous, and unsuspecting seabirds get accidentally hooked or entangled, and then drown.

Unintentional deaths like this are called ‘seabird bycatch’, and it kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds each year. It’s also costly for the fishing industry as a hooked bird is an expensive missed chance to catch a fish.

The scale of this problem is enormous, yet for some years we have had very simple ways to prevent seabirds from being caught in the first place. Over the last decade, BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force has been on a mission in fisheries around the world; collaborating with fisher communities to create solutions to prevent seabird bycatch.

So far, they’ve achieved impressive reductions in numbers killed in southern Africa and South America. But despite their proven success, it has been a long and steep journey to introduce the same programme in Europe.

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Sustainable fishing seminars in Valencia

The Seminar on Mediterranean Fisheries (‘Seminario sobre el Caladero Mediterráneo’) concluded last weekend in Valencia. Fishermen and administrators, as well as environmental NGOs and scientists, held a debate about fishing regulations in the region. The long-term objective was to simplify the current regulations and to adapt to the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Diverse topics were discussed: technical regulations in the Mediterranean, CFP adaption (with an emphasis on minimizing bycatch), international coordination, innovative techniques and the future of marlin and blue tuna fisheries.

Read more here… (Spanish only)