Plea to end bottom trawling as EU sets out ocean action plan

A new report has called on the European Union to end the practice of bottom trawling in order to save the continent’s fish stocks.

The report by Seas At Risk and Oceana found that bottom trawling, considered to be one of the most destructive fishing techniques, can be largely replaced in the European Union (EU) by far less aggressive fishing gears.

It added switching to readily available alternatives to bottom trawling offers multiple benefits, such as dramatically improving fisheries resources, protecting the seabed and marine habitats and increasing resilience of the ocean to the climate breakdown.

These findings come as the European Commission is set to publish its “Action Plan to conserve fisheries resources and protect marine ecosystems”, setting a path to tackle the impacts of fishing to meet the EU’s biodiversity objectives in the ocean.

Andrea Ripol, marine policy officer at Seas At Risk said: “Alternative, less aggressive fishing gears could partly, and reliably, replace bottom trawling in European waters. More importantly, replacing this harmful fishing gear would make a considerable difference for the health of our ocean and our future. The European Commission must seize this opportunity in their upcoming ocean Action Plan.”

Bottom trawling is the main fishing method used in Europe, accounting for 32% of total EU landings (7.3 million tonnes) whilst also responsible for 93% of all reported discards, catches of species which are not kept, but returned to the sea, dead or dying, in the EU (1 million tonnes) over the period 2015-2019. But alternatives exist.

The report identified more than 25 other types of gear already currently used in the EU, some of which are used to catch the same species as bottom trawling, like purse seines, set gillnets or pots and traps that altogether represent 66% of total EU landings, but with generally less damaging effects on the environment.

Alternative gears can however have their own associated environmental problems, especially in terms of bycatch of sensitive species. Where such environmental impacts on sensitive species cannot be avoided with technical measures, Oceana and Seas At Risk recommend, instead of a switch to these gears, an overall reduction in the amount of fishing in the areas concerned.

“The destructive nature of bottom trawling is no longer seriously disputed. The question is rather: when are we going to act on it?” said Nicolas Fournier, campaign director for marine protection at Oceana in Europe. “Phasing out this destructive fishing method is essential to meet Europe’s biodiversity and climate targets, given its high fuel intensity, as well as the scale of its impact on marine life and on the carbon stored in the ocean floor. The European Commission must embrace this opportunity to shape a new vision of future low-impact, low carbon EU fisheries and prepare for this necessary transition now.”

Many of the main species landed by bottom trawlers – namely sandeels, sprat and blue whiting – are keystone species that are essential links in the food chain of other marine fish, seabirds and mammals. They are not directly consumed by humans but are rather used to produce fish oil and feed for aquaculture, and could be replaced by alternative feed sources, like insects or plants. In addition, several other species landed in large quantities by bottom trawlers, such as Atlantic cod, are severely overfished in Europe and must be less fished. A reduction of bottom trawling targeting these species would therefore be attainable and would greatly benefit the marine environment and fish populations, while helping transition EU fisheries towards sustainability and achieve the European Green Deal’s objectives of making Europe climate neutral.

Ripol added: “Phasing out bottom trawling that targets overfished populations and seafood for non-human consumption would be a good starting point to pave the way for a just transition to low-impact fisheries. While doing so, it is fundamental to safeguard the wellbeing of workers and communities currently dependent on bottom trawling, by providing income security or promoting the creation of alternative employment and retraining opportunities”.