Mediterranean seafood species in steep decline, new report finds

Published on
October 25, 2017

Following the release of the WWF report “Seafood and the Mediterranean 2017” earlier this year, which found that a very large proportion of assessed fish stocks are threatened by overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea, a new body of work undertaken by WWF  in association with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), provides a more focused perspective.

Reviving the Economy of the Mediterranean Sea: Actions for a sustainable future” outlines the benefits that the Mediterranean Sea brings to the region’s economy and proposes six priorities to achieve a more sustainable future and build on the United Nations’ Strategic Development Goals.

The report finds that along its 46,000-kilometer coastline, the Mediterranean Sea supports around 150 million people and plays a fundamental role in the region’s economy. However, unsustainable development and human pressures including pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing have taken a heavy toll on the sea’s health, putting  the economy and livelihoods of those that depend on it at risk.

The overall value of the Mediterranean’s natural assets was estimated as at least USD 5.6 trillion (EUR 4.75 trillion), with an annual economic output of at least USD 450 billion (EUR 381.3 billion). This value takes in resources such as productive coastlines, fisheries, and seagrass, and shows it to be the fifth-largest economy in the region after France, Italy, Spain, and Turkey. 

Focusing on two sectors – fisheries and tourism – the report looks at how to change the current development model to one that is more sustainable. 

“Developing a strong and sustainable Blue Economy for the Mediterranean region will greatly depend on keeping our sea, coastlines, and marine ecosystems healthy, and where possible to restore degraded ecosystems. We cannot continue to erode the very assets that Mediterranean cultures and economies depend on,” wrote European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, in a foreword to the report.

Tourism is the greatest contributor to the region’s economies, accounting for 11 percent of Mediterranean countries’ cumulative gross domestic product (GDP). However, the current mass tourism model with its aggressive coastal development, excessive water, and energy consumption, and unsustainable management of solid waste and sewage has degraded both the marine and the coastal environment. According to the report, tourism represents more than 90 percent of the annual ocean-based economic output of the Mediterranean and predicted growth could lead to conflicts for the use of space in coastal areas.

The troubled Mediterranean fisheries sector is also a key contributor, with an estimated collective worth of more than USD 3 billion (EUR 2.54 billion). It directly employs more than 180,000 people.

Critical fisheries issues are numerous. The study noted that 80 percent of all assessed fish stocks  in the Mediterranean are threatened by overfishing. Annual fishery discards represent 18 percent of the total catch in the Mediterranean, and around 132,000 turtles are captured every year as bycatch. Over the past 50 years, the Mediterranean has lost 41 percent of its marine mammal populations and 34 percent of its total fish population, while 53 percent of shark species present in the Mediterranean are at risk of local extinction. 

The report includes the bluefin tuna fishery as an illustration of how science-based sustainability and effective control can turn around a seemingly hopeless situation. The species had been abundant in the Mediterranean since ancient times and was a staple of the Imperial Roman diet. From the 1960s onwards, however, it was targeted using industrial-scale fishing methods, with little effective management. As a result, stocks that were once thought to be inexhaustible plummeted by 85 percent and extinction looked like a real possibility by the early 21st century.  

In 2006, following a campaign by governments, NGOs, fishers and other stakeholders, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas adopted a science-based recovery plan with rigorous control measures, and the bluefin tuna population slowly began to recover. By 2016, the reproducing biomass had grown from 150,000 tonnes to 585,000 tonnes and a thriving fishery is once more in operation. The successful revival of the Bluefin tuna population in the Mediterraneanprovides hope that other species may also be helped to recover, according to the report.

To promote a more sustainable future for the wider marine sector, the report makes a number of recommendations, including the introduction of better monitoring and control systems, research on more sustainable fishing techniques, the empowerment of small-scale fishers, and the regulation of recreational fisheries. In addition, marine managed areas need to be used to protect key species and habitats and a campaign for more responsible seafood consumption must be encouraged, the report said.

The report acknwoledges that the challenges inherent in reviving the ocean economy are not trivial, but concludes that failure restore the oceans will imperil the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. 

“We are seeing many fish populations, coastal areas and ocean ecosystems coming under immense pressure around the world and in important regions like the Mediterranean. We are also witnessing an unprecedented focus on the ocean, and leaders in the Mediterranean and beyond can seize this moment to commit to the achievement of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the global climate agreement of 2015,” said John Tanzer, leader for oceans at WWF. “There is no time to lose.”

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