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By: Lukas Erichsen, Chairman, Sea Shepherd Scandinavia &
      Regitze C. Hansen, M.Sc. Animal Science

The EU's fishing fleet numbers 88,000 – the second largest in the world – and can fish freely across the European Union. (Courtesy CC BY-SA 3.0)The EU's fishing fleet numbers 88,000 – the second largest in the world – and can fish freely across the European Union. (Courtesy CC BY-SA 3.0)The new European fishing quotas for 2016 have been determined (1), and have been raised compared to last year’s quotas, as proposed by the executive European Commission in its reformed Common Fisheries Policy of 2014. These policies were intended to end decades of overfishing, as well as help fish populations recover, but quotas were instead raised by politicians who are intent on protecting the revenue of the fishing industry in the short term, whilst ignoring long term ecological and economic consequences.

A Loss of Ocean Biodiversity

According to research published by The Journal of Science, the world’s oceans could be empty of ocean life by 2048 (3). This means, that a new major extinction might be approaching fast - an extinction caused by legal and illegal overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and climate change. The sad reality of this statement is that this massive extinction is not only a prediction - it is happening right now. As of today, 29% of edible fish and seafood species have dropped by 90%, which has resulted in the total collapse of these fisheries (4). Scientist Dr. Boris Worm and his group of researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada, concluded in their research that marine ecosystems are complex, fragile and a key component in all ocean habitats and wildlife, and we are at risk of facing massive issues with rising water levels, ocean acidification and toxification, as a direct result of loss of ocean species (4).

MSY - A fishy policy?

The European Council (EC) intends to have all fisheries fishing sustainably by 2020 at the latest, by fishing at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) standards. The concept of maximum sustainable yield is, theoretically, the largest catch that can be taken from a fish population without depleting the resource. It has become popular amongst governments and lawmakers to use MSY to regulate fishing, as well as other natural resources, but the term has also come under massive criticism from experts (5). One of the criticisms is the equations used to calculate MSY levels, namely one very important component of these equations - the size of the species’ population. 50-80% of fish populations in European waters are categorized as being either data deficient or vulnerable (6), and as such, determining the correct MSY levels for these species would be impossible, as population size is a key component of calculating the MSY. Yet, they are still being fished.

In 2012 Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research criticized the European council (EC), claiming that they were mismanaging the North Sea cod population by allowing overfishing in the territory. The claim proved to be well founded, as the cod population was being overfished 300% higher than MSY levels, despite repeated scientific advice (7). The same issue is present in Irish Fisheries, where it was recently established in a 2015 report, that the Irish fishing fleet has netted 24% more in the past 15 years than the amount scientists deem to be sustainable (8). When scientists and experts are unsure whether the MSY method can be trusted – and considering the current state of our oceans – it seems reckless for the EC to allow fishing on MSY level for 36 fish populations.

COP21 – Disregard for the Oceans

At least 50% of the oxygen in the world comes from the ocean. Every second breath you take comes from the sea (9). Yet, at the recent COP21 climate summit in Paris, the state of our oceans were in complete disregard. There was no mention of the impact of industrial fishing on biodiversity depletion, or the entanglement of oceanic wildlife in commercial fishing gear left behind by fishing vessels. No mention of phytoplankton populations, the world’s primary source of oxygen, that have declined by 40% since 1950 (10). No mention of these issues or any of the numerous other problems our oceans face right at this moment. The political world seems focused on short term economics instead of long term survival of all inhabitants of this planet. Is it really a good idea to exploit species right to the limit? The oceans are the lungs of our planet, and we should treat them with respect. As has been said so many times, if the oceans die, we die. Is that a risk we are willing to take?

EU fishing graph

Figure 1: Sample of variations between proposal and final decisions of fisheries 2016. EU Council Decision versus EU Commission Proposal. Graph depicts variations between proposal and final decision of fisheries quotas. The difference (in percent) is highlighted for each species. Datasets lacking significance (p-value < 0,05) not represented in graph (11). (click to enlarge)



(1) Council of the European Union (2015): Outcome of the Council Meeting. [online]. Council of the European Union, Rue de la Loi 175B, 1048 Brussels, Belgium. [cited 20th December 2015]. Available online:

(2) Worm, B. Science, Nov. 3, 2006; vol 314: pp 787-790. News release, SeaWeb. News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

(3) Worm, B., E. B. Barbier, N. Beaumont, J. E. Duffy, C. Folke, B. S. Halpern, J. B. Jackson, H. K. Lotze, F. Micheli, S. R. Palumbi, E. Sala, K. A. Selkoe, J. J. Stachowicz, R. Watson (2006): Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science. Vol. 314, pp. 787 – 790.
(4) Milner-Gulland, E. J., R. Mace (1998): Conservation of biological resources. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-0-86542-738-9.

(5) European Parliament (2013): Data-Deficient Fisheries in EU waters. [online]. European Parliament, 60 rue Wiertz / Wiertzstraat 60, B-1047 Brussels, Belgium. [cited 2nd January 2016]. Available online:

(6) Froese, R., M. Quaas (2012): Mismanagement of the North Sea cod by the European Council. Ocean & Coastal Management. Vol. 70, pp. 54 – 58.

(7) The Sunday Times (2015): Irish fleet nets ‘24% too much’. [online]. Times Newspapers Ltd, 1 London Bridge Street, SE1 9GF, England. [cited 2nd January 2015]. Available online:

(8) National Geographic (2010): Biggest Marine Census Complete. [online]. National Geographic, USA. [cited 2nd January 2016]. Available online:

(9) Scientific American (2010): Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950. [cited 22nd December 2015]. Available online:

(10) Values represented in graph found in: Council of the European Union (2015): Outcome of the Council Meeting. [online]. Council of the European Union, Rue de la Loi 175B, 1048 Brussels, Belgium. [cited 20th December 2015]. Available online:

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