Something fishy is going on in European waters. In the first full assessment of all the region's marine fish species, researchers have found that more than 90 species are on the brink of extinction. In addition, nearly one-third of fish population trends that could be assessed were found to be in decline.
According to the report, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), sharks and rays are at greatest risk, with around 40% of the creatures in Europe threatened with extinction. They highlight overfishing as the main driver of the declines, followed by accidental fish catch, development along coastal areas, and pollution.
Fisheries contribute a huge amount to the European economy, thought to be worth almost $566 billion annually. Despite the massive financial value of the industry, over two-fifths of European stocks with data available were considered to be overfished, and a further 45% of stocks for which assessments are not available were estimated to be in a similar situation. This puts massive strain on the communities and industries that directly and indirectly rely on fishing to make a living.
“It is alarming that many commercially and ecologically important species continue to be at risk in Europe,” says Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN’s species survival commission. “We need to take urgent action to reduce target and incidental catches of threatened species, and to set and enforce fishing quotas based on scientific understanding of population declines.”
Even though officials previously agreed to manage stocks at the level that scientists set—and despite repeated warnings—policy makers have ignored them time and again, often increasing the amount that can be caught. For example, the quota for cod is set to increase by 5% from last year, even though biologists suggest that instead of being upped, it should actually be cut by 20%.
The report looked at the population trend for those species for which sufficient data was available to make an assessment. Worryingly, there was only enough data for 30% of marine fish species. Europe has one of the longest histories of scientific inquiry, one of the longest histories of commercial fisheries, and most marine fish species have been identified and are relatively well known in the region. So the fact that the population trend for almost 70% of marine species is still unknown is really quite shocking.
“We have no clue how big [their] population is, whether it’s shrinking, what percentage is it now of what it should be—we just don’t know,” Rainer Froese, a marine ecologist told Science. “But there’s a high suspicion that actually they are not in good shape.”