Mediterranean fish stocks have declined dramatically. More than 90% of those assessed are overexploited, with some on the verge of collapse. For far too many stocks, it has not been possible until now to attain sufficient data: 50% of catches are still not legally recorded[i] and 80% of landings are from data-deficient stocks[ii]. This has resulted in a constant trickle of lost jobs and income coupled with an intense environmental impact, leaving society to suffer the cost of poor management. The cost is particularly high for artisanal boats, which represent 83% of Mediterranean fleet.
Continued unsustainable fishing of shared resources will provoke the widespread collapse of fish stocks, along with the fishermen and communities that depend on them, marine ecosystems, and cultural traditions. Efforts, such as minimum sizes and Total Allowable Catches for fish, technical regulations for fishing gear and practices, and measures to limit effort and capacity, have been significant but have so far failed to produce adequate results.
This critical situation is testified across the full range of actors, including fishermen, industrial leaders, scientists and environmentalists, and it affects the entire Mediterranean basin. Regulations are in place but not adequately implemented, or the implementation has been delayed and consequently results are not yet tangible. Urgent and bold actions are needed to reverse this, and we are all partly responsible.
The first step is to properly acknowledge the situation, as well as our shared and corresponding responsibility, at all levels.
The second step is to secure strong political leadership to mobilise the urgent actions necessary to rebuild a sustainable fisheries sector. This should materialise in a strong political ministerial declaration by 2017, and ensure effective and coordinated initiatives at national and regional level, in the European Union as well as in non-EU Mediterranean countries, the ICCAT and the GFCM.
Third, we need the engagement and strong commitment of all stakeholders – from policy- and decision-makers to fishermen, scientists, NGOs, supply chain managers and civil society at large – to contribute with integrated solutions towards long-term sustainability.
If stocks collapse beyond the point of no return, the consequences could be catastrophic and irreversible: unpredictable changes in marine ecosystems, widespread economic ruin for fisheries-dependent communities, and deep social distress. While still significant, the economic costs and social impact of acting are much smaller than those predicted if we fail to act now.
Science tells us that the potential for recovery still remains strong, as in the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, but we must make sure that fish populations revive as soon as possible. This would deliver extensive benefits, including higher and more predictable yields, higher profitability, job and food security, better environmental status and services. All this would lead to inclusive and sustainable prosperity.
If political and industrial stakeholders fail to ensure the sustainability of our shared marine biological resources, infringing the Common Fisheries Policy and the Barcelona Convention, the European Union would be forced to adopt drastic emergency measures, such as closures and financial penalties (Art.12 of the EU Regulation 1380/2013). For some stocks, it could be too late.
The most immediate objective must be to avoid the collapse of critical fish stocks such as hake or swordfish, adopting a socioeconomic approach based on environmental science and ensuring implementation of existing law. In the medium term, the objective is to develop and enforce effective measures that will ensure profitable and sustainable fisheries in a healthy Mediterranean, forever.
Key necessary improvements (from regional to national level) must start with the diagnosis of higher priority issues, followed by the implementation of concrete action plans, with credible tools and binding timeframes.
While exact measures need to be defined, their typology and expected results are clear:
The seriousness and urgency of the issue requires determined political leadership at the highest level, including all countries fishing in the Mediterranean. Within the European Union, the eight Member States with Mediterranean shores (Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus), supported by the EU and the MEDAC, should lead by example, especially in those areas predominantly exploited by them.
The two Regional Fisheries Management Organisations GFCM and ICCAT should pilot all joint efforts and ensure international coordination and effective results across the whole basin.
Industrial associations, researchers and NGOs also have a vital role to play, engaging and capacitating all actors (including consumers, recreational fishermen and other maritime users), to bring Mediterranean fisheries back onto the track of sustainability.
Overfishing, poor management and gaps in the implementation of current legislation, in force at regional, national, EU and international level, are the proven main causes of the current state of Mediterranean fish stocks and the associated economic problem.
However, pollution, navigation, and other sources of environmental stress, such as climate change and invasive species, are also having a direct impact on the abundance and resilience of fish populations, and need to be tackled in parallel.
Other complementary measures to promote good governance (e.g. more transparency and protected areas) and market mechanisms (e.g. traceability and minimum sizes) are also necessary aspects.
Finally, fisheries-dependent communities need innovative and diversified strategies for fisheries management and sustainable development, in order to protect not only fish and the marine environment but the millenary cultural heritage associated with them. Projects such as pescatourism, short circuits and other cross-cutting initiatives have already proven successful.
The EU has put forth great effort to improve the sustainability of fisheries at EU and global level. The EU Common Fisheries Policy calls for all EU stocks to be exploited at Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2020 and for all EU vessels to comply with the CFP no matter where they fish.
Following encouraging success in the North East Atlantic, where fish abundance and industrial profits are increasing, the EU is determined to bring overfishing in the Mediterranean to an end, bringing actors together at all levels, and supporting adaptation with accessible funds such as the EMFF and the TAIEX mechanism of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Such funds are available for direct measures, as well as for complementary actions such as socioeconomic programmes, research, cooperation and capacity-building.
We are all partly responsible for this situation, and therefore we all need to contribute in our corresponding capacity to reverse it.
Policy- and decision-makers: It is of the utmost importance to understand the stakes of the problem, and mobilise appropriate resources and leadership to find urgent solutions.
Industrial stakeholders: In representing the fishers directly involved in the exploitation of biological resources, and with detailed knowledge of the real situation, organisations such as Europêche or LIFE have a vital role to play, promoting co-management and the implication of stakeholders in defining solutions.
Scientists and enforcers: Research, surveillance and control organisations are also fundamental actors, allowing for management to be based on better knowledge and a transparent and level playing field. Among others, they could:
NGOs and civil associations: By helping to increase knowledge and awareness, protect the environment and represent communities, they can foster cooperation and co-management. As the last but largest link of the chain, coastal citizens and consumers at large must engage to ensure that market choices help support the transition towards more sustainable models, contributing towards social innovation and heritage protection in fisheries-dependent areas.
 International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas
 General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean
 Mediterranean Advisory Council
 European Maritime and Fisheries Fund
 Technical Assistance and Information Exchange
 European Fisheries Control Agency
 Food and Agriculture Organization
 Union for the Mediterranean
 Regional Fisheries Management Organisations
 Low Impact Fishers of Europe