Pan European Networks - Government - page 205

Pan European Networks: Government
Framework Directive and the Water Framework
Directive will, together with the coming directive
for maritime spatial planning and the reform of
the Common Fisheries Policy, provide a unique
opportunity to move towards an integrated
management of the seas of Europe.
Prosperous fish stocks are a central part of a
healthy marine ecosystem. Particularly large
predatory fish are of vital importance for the
functioning of marine food webs. The current
state, with low populations of predatory fish, has
given rise to changes in food webs that lead to
a loss of large vegetation, which, in turn, forms
the habitat for young fishes. This means that
while many fish are dependent on healthy
habitats, the health of the habitats is, at the
same time, partly determined by the abundance
of fish. Only by acknowledging that ‘everything
depends on everything else’, by going from
single-sector management to integrated
ecosystem-based management, will we be
successful in preserving and restoring both fish
stocks and threatened habitats.
Europe and globally, many of the major fish stocks have been
in severe decline during recent decades and are currently at
levels too low to maintain profitable commercial fisheries or
attractive sport fishing. Much of the blame for the decreasing stocks has,
rightfully, been put on overfishing. In Europe, a recent agreement to take
action towards more sustainable fisheries brings hope for the depleted
stocks. However, a broader approach may be necessary to accomplish the
goal, since overfishing is not the only cause of declining stocks and catches.
Loss of habitat – the natural environment on which fish depend – has
contributed to the long-term decline of many species. A large part (77%)
of the catch in European waters is made up of species that are dependent
on near-shore environments, usually during their early life. These coastal
habitats are under high pressure from a growing human population.
Activities such as coastal construction, dredging, bottom trawling,
gravel extraction and land fill are slowly moulding the shallow-water
environments, from structurally complex habitats into smooth bottoms
lacking shelter for young fish. These processes have been going on for
a long time, and in many areas of Europe, a major part of the coast is
affected. In combination with eutrophication – an excess release of
nutrients into the water from land run-off – this development has led to
a loss of many shallow coastal habitats. With this loss there has been a
decrease in several valuable ecosystem services provided by the shallow-
water habitats, one of which is their function as fish nursery areas.
Little research has been done on how fish stocks are affected by this
creeping process of habitat loss. However, recent studies suggest that
availability of nursery areas may be a major factor determining
population sizes of fish. This means that habitat loss will have inevitable
consequences for those fish dependent on specific habitats for their
reproduction. This may sound self-evident, but the fact is that the strong
links between healthy coastal habitats and fish production have not been
taken into account in the management of fish stocks in Europe.
This obvious failure is due to two major factors. The first one is that there
has been a lack of knowledge on how much fish depend on specific
habitats and on the distribution of these underwater environments. We
simply know too little about where we have valuable habitats, and
therefore too few habitats are protected. Currently, large efforts directed
at mapping marine habitats are going on around Europe, filling this gap
in our understanding.
The other factor is that marine management in Europe has been highly
sectoral, with little communication between authorities managing fisheries,
the marine environment, and coastal development. There is, however, a clear
policy change within the EU, with several directives now aiming at stimulating
cross-sectoral management of marine waters. The Marine Strategy
Future fisheries
Fish stocks and coastal habitats in Europe have been in decline for decades.
Ulf Bergström
outlines the current situation – and the role European
policy can play in reversing this
Ulf Bergström
Department of Aquatic Resources
Swedish University of
Agricultural Sciences
© Ulf Bergstro
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