Mediterranean sea

Mediterranean sea

Mediterranean sea

Port of Cavalaire-sur-Mer, France ©

The Mediterranean Sea is the largest semi-enclosed European sea. It is known to be a sea rich in oxygen, poor in nutrients and saltier than other European seas. Its heterogeneity and isolation have generated a great number of habitats which lead to a high biodiversity spot. The biodiversity provide and sustain natural services and resources such as fisheries.

Fisheries in the Mediterranean Sea are characterised by a fishing fleet of approx. 82 000 vessels, where small-scale accounts for 80 % of the total (though these numbers should be considered an underestimation). Overall reported landings oscillate around 800 000 tonnes, mostly concentrated in the western Mediterranean and Adriatic Sea. Fisheries provides around 314 000 direct jobs (FAO website)

The Mediterranean coast hosts many human activities which constitute important causes for the degradation of the marine ecosystems. The main problems it is facing are:

  • fish stocks are dwindling and there are localised pockets of pollution (in areas with strong human concentration and improper waste treatment);
  • there is heavy maritime traffic (particularly south of Sicily and in the Alboran Sea);
  • it is a highly climate change-vulnerable region, with expected shifts on species' distribution and fish population dynamics, and introduction of invasive species;
  • there is a relatively high number of algal and jellyfish blooms, which may change the flux of energy of the food web (e.g. greater predation of fish food, eggs or larvae);
  • there is a decline in certain populations of top-predators, notably sharks, which otherwise help adjust the balance between fish populations.

The methods we have been using so far (technical measures, the recently established landing obligations, national management plans) are only good as ‘preventive’ measures. Even the ‘symptomatic treatments’ we occasionally administer (EU multiannual plans, GFCM management plans) take a long time to produce effects and anyway do not eradicate the ‘disease’.
To treat the causes of this problem and reverse the steady decline of fish stocks, we need a proper cure. In this case the cure consists of immediate, exceptional measures at both EU and international level. Such measures need to be embraced by all Mediterranean countries in unison and need to take into account the economic risks as well as the environmental ones.

State of fish stocks

In the Mediterranean Sea, fish stocks are exploited by EU fishing vessels almost exclusively in the north western Mediterranean (e.g. the Balearic Islands, the Gulf of Lion, Corsica, Sardinia and the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas) and in the north Adriatic Sea, while the central Mediterranean (e.g. the Strait of Sicily and the Ionian Sea) and the eastern Mediterranean (e.g. the Aegean Sea and the Levantine Sea) are jointly exploited with non-EU countries.

According to the scientific advice, the large majority of fish stocks assessed are shrinking and some are on the verge of depletion. All in all, only 9 % of fish stocks assessed are fished at levels below MSY (COM(2016) 396). Despite recent improvements, the number of stocks whose status is unknown remains still large.

For fish stocks such as hake, red mullet, anglerfish and blue whiting, current fishing mortality rates have been more than six times higher than MSY. These species represent around 43 % in volume of the total reported catches of the EU fishing fleet (source: STECF and GFCM reports). Fishermen themselves report that they catch less and less fish every year, with potentially serious repercussions on the industry’s performance and on the economy of coastal communities.

There are several reasons for the poor state of fish stocks: while pollution and climate change certainly play a role, there can be no doubt that extensive overfishing is one of the key causes.

The EU has been using a number of methods to counter overfishing: EU countries have been reducing their fleets and our legislation features national and international fisheries management plans, catch limitations and environmental requirements.

Intense international cooperation encourages all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea to play by the same rules. However the European Commission believes an extra effort by all is now required. To avoid the collapse of fish stocks and its undeniable impact on the ecosystem, and to guarantee a future for the fisheries industry in the Mediterranean Sea, all Mediterranean countries need to act urgently and collectively.

"Doing nothing is not an option" says Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. "Solutions can be found, and I want both EU Members and Mediterranean third countries to build sustainable fisheries together, like we did for blue fin tuna. We need to extend that success across species, across national waters and across fishing traditions"