Europe can end overfishing in its seas and restore its fisheries “forever” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, an ocean scientist has urged.
Despite European politicians failing to limit catches in 2020 to sustainable levels, falls in demand from overseas markets and closures of restaurants at home in lockdown have hit the industry hard, leading to a large drop in fishing.
As a result, 2020 could be the first year when overfishing does not take place in European waters, according to Dr Rainer Froese, from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.
Conservationists warn European ministers are under pressure from the fishing industry to provide compensation and allow increased catches next year to make up for the economic consequences of the crash in demand.
But Dr Froese urged politicians to make the “right” decision and impose quotas for 2021 that protect fish stocks – as they are required to do under the law of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Though the UK is leaving the CFP as part of Brexit and has pledged to manage its stocks sustainably, how fisheries are managed by the European Union will continue to have implications for Britain, as fish cross national boundaries.
Under the reformed EU-wide policy, overfishing should end in 2020, with catches set at levels that allow fish stocks to replace their annual losses, so they are not in decline.
But with ministers setting more generous quotas for the industry, 46% of stocks are still overfished, Dr Froese said.
Fleets are not going out of port to catch fish in the face of the pandemic, which Dr Froese said could lead to catches that are 30-50% less than the quotas allow, giving stocks a chance to rebound.
Allowing stocks to recover would ultimately deliver economic benefits because if the overall amount of fish in the sea is bigger, the amount that can be fished sustainably is also larger, he argues.
He told the PA news agency: “While our ministers failed, coronavirus may come to the rescue, in a way, because demand has crashed. Fisheries will not fish out the too-high catches.
“And so actually, this could be the year where for the first time there is no overfishing in European waters.
“What does it mean for the future? Well, if you fish less then more fish remain in the water, and these fish will grow, and they will reproduce.
“So there will be more fish in the water, and the more fish there are, the higher the catches can be at a sustainable level.”
Normally, to allow stocks to recover, fishing has to be drastically reduced for a year or two, which EU ministers have shied away from, he said.
“What the ministers were too afraid of doing, now the virus has done for them.
“And now they should, instead of going back to the old ways, grab this chance now to do the right thing, fixing fisheries forever.”
He argues that even in 2021, a sustainable catch could look much like the quotas that were allowed in 2020, because the stocks will have had a chance to increase.
But overfishing is like taking a loan from nature which has to be repaid with a 60% interest rate.
Dr Froese has been awarded the Science Award in the fifth annual Ocean Awards from BOAT International and Blue Marine Foundation in association with Fishmongers’ Hall for developing new methods to help scientists assess fish populations swiftly.
Blue Marine Foundation’s executive director Charles Clover said the UK and EU were mutually dependent when it came to managing fisheries.
“We have to manage our seas well, but we have to make sure Europe is managing its seas well and it isn’t.
“This will have an impact on us, so we need to make sure Europe does what Rainer Froese says and complies with its own laws.”