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Is the Mediterranean becoming a second ‘Dead Sea’?

Is the Mediterranean becoming a second ‘Dead Sea’?
25 Jul
Officially declared the world’s ‘most overfished sea’, the Mediterranean is having a crisis beneath the surface

Whether it’s the marine advocates of Oceana, who want biodiversity to become a priority, or the fisherman returning to shore with empty nets and emptier pockets: overfishing is a problem hitting all areas of the planet. Now, a new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared that the Mediterranean Sea, once described as the ‘global icon of coastal paradise’ and an ‘international biodiversity hotspot’, has become the world’s ‘most overfished sea’.

It states that among the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions showed the highest percentage (62.2 per cent) of unsustainable stocks, closely followed by the Southeast Pacific at 61.5 per cent and the Southwest Atlantic at 58.8 per cent. According to a report from the WWF, in 2017 Mediterranean countries consume some 7.5m tonnes of fish each year, with only 2.75m tonnes of that coming from domestic sources.

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Various EU studies have found that 90 per cent of fish stocks assessed are overexploited in the Mediterranean. Our Fish, an ocean advocacy organisation whose focus is on ending overfishing and preventing wasteful discarding, has suggested that the overfished species could join the list of localised extinctions, alongside sharks and rays, while the number of predators has also declined by over 40 per cent from previous records.

A spokesperson for Oceana, an ocean advocacy organisation formed of various foundations including the Pew Charitable Trusts, has stressed that ‘urgent and bold action such as curbing bottom-trawling fishing, safeguarding areas where fish grow, and setting annual fish catch limits in line with scientific action’ are vital steps to prevent the area from degrading any further.

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One of the big concerns flowing from this is food security. At a global scale, the WWF notes that ‘more than 30 per cent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits’, placing more pressure on nurseries to replace that which has been lost. Populations of tuna and mackerel have already experienced a 74 per cent drop worldwide during the 40-year period from 1970 to 2010, and sea bream has been predicted to follow suit.

Meanwhile, with a fast-growing population, food demand is only going to swell. According to Jon Fisher, senior conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy: ‘70 per cent more food will be needed by 2050’ to sustain the global population.

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Action is being taken to try to reverse the situation in the Mediterranean at least. 2017 saw the signing of the MEDFISH4EVER Malta Declaration, its goal being to coordinate action between agreeing parties to provide full protection of fish stocks in the region. As of October 2017, the declaration had 13 signatories, including countries from the European Union, Turkey, Tunisia, Montenegro, Albania and Morocco.

Coordinated by the General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean, the ten-year pledge has already seen progress, including directions to create ‘allocated zones for aquaculture’. It is hoped that delegation and zoning will allow fish stocks and the environment to recover.

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However, there are concerns that any tangible action being taken is slow-moving. ‘Talk is cheap,’ commented a spokesman for Our Fish. The advocacy group wants immediate action to ‘rectify fisheries management’, something it feels can’t be achieved simply through debate. Moreover, while it may not be asking the public to actively prevent nets being dropped into the water, it is pushing for the EU to do more to intercept current illegal fishing practises.

There is evidence of successful ocean protection and management programmes being employed across the Atlantic, leading Our Fish, among others, to question why similar methods are not being employed in the Mediterranean. For example, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) has successfully set global total allowable tuna catch limits for 2015 to 2017 and 2018 to 2020. The aim: a ‘rebuilding target of 20 per cent of the original spawning stock biomass’. These limits apply to all cooperating partners, ranging from the South Korea to South Africa to the EU. Our Fish reports this scheme to be working, noting a 35 per cent increase in such fish stocks when compared with previous annual figures. The hope is that similar results can flow from the Mediterranean.

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