Debate heats up over sustainability of maximum sustainable yield policy for Ireland’s fisheries

Ireland Fisheries Minister Charlie McConalogue

Ireland Fisheries Minister Charlie McConalogue said in an address to Ireland’s parliament that the country is making progress in achieving sustainability for its fish stocks.

In 2022, 38 stocks of interest to Ireland were fished below maximum sustainable yield, up from 20 stocks in 2013, McConalogue said.

“The number of stocks overfished is 15 in 2022, but it must be noted that this is down 22 in previous years,” he said, adding that he is in favor of fishing up to maximum sustainable yield. “We want to follow the scientific advice and I cannot accept going below the scientific advice except in exceptional situations where such a course of action is fully justified.”

But Jenni Grossmann, a science and policy advisor for fisheries at environmental non-governmental organization Client Earth, said McConalogue was being overoptimistic in his assessment.

“That makes it harder to address remaining shortcomings,” Grossman said.

The suggestion that things are broadly heading in the right direction “might well be true in principle,” Grossmann said, but one-third of Ireland’s commercially targeted species had total allowable catches that exceeded scientific advice in 2022.

“NGOs, including ourselves, always highlight that the scientific advice is for the absolute maximum catch not to be exceeded, rather than a recommendation to set fishing limits at this level,” Grossman said. “Indeed, in order to be genuinely sustainable across the board on the water and not just on paper, certain fishing limits should be set well below this advice, for example, to protect other vulnerable stocks caught as bycatch in the same mixed fisheries, or to factor in ecosystem needs – like leaving enough food for seabirds – and to account for the risk of illegal discarding on top of the reported catches if control is poor.”

Grossman noted a technical report from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), an official advisory body of the European Union, found 28 percent of European fish stocks are still subject to overfishing, while 38 percent are being fished at “outside safe biological limits,” despite the E.U.’s own legal requirement to end overfishing in its waters by 2020.

That missed deadline prompted four court cases, including one brought by an Irish environmental group that has been referred to the E.U. Court of Justice.

Grossmann questioned McConalogue claim that Ireland and the E.U. “are fully committed to managing our fisheries in a sustainable way and to rebuilding depleted and overfished stocks.”

Many stocks, said Grossmann, “caught by Irish vessels have been at dangerously and historically low levels for a long time, following decades of overfishing.”

Grossman said Irish Sea whiting – bycatch from the Irish Sea Norway lobster fishery – and Celtic Sea cod caught alongside haddock and whiting, are both “in bad shape.” The E.U. and U.K. set “bycatch TACs” far above the scientific advice, thus inhibiting the recovery of bycatch species, Grossmann said.

Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons


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