Story | 03 Jun, 2015

First complete assessment of European marine fishes highlights major threat from overfishing

A total of 7.5% of all European marine fish species are threatened with extinction in European waters, according to the European Red List of Threatened Species published today by IUCN and the European Commission. While some species are recovering, marine management has been less successful for many other commercial fishes: 40.4% of European sharks, rays and chimaeras face an elevated risk of extinction.

The Red List report, financed by the European Commission, is the first ever complete assessment of marine fishes native to Europe, assessing all of the 1,220 species present in the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, Baltic Sea, North Sea, and the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, including many highly exploited species that support large commercial, recreational, and artisanal fisheries. The highest number of threatened species can be found in the Mediterranean Sea, the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula and the Macaronesian islands.

Sharks, rays and chimaeras (Chondrichthyes) were found to be the most threatened marine fishes in Europe, with 40.4% of them threatened with extinction, and 39.7% experiencing declining populations. For example, the Critically Endangered Angelshark (Squatina squatina), which was formerly found throughout European waters, is now mostly restricted to the Canary Islands due to the impacts of fisheries bycatch.

"These findings are crucial for informing policy on nature and maritime affairs, and effectively implementing EU legislation, such as the Habitats Directive, the Marine Strategy Framework and the Maritime Spatial Planning Directives, to improve the status of threatened marine species,” said Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Policy. “They also demonstrate the need to ensure full compliance with the requirements under the Common Fisheries Policy by harvesting species at levels which ensure Maximum Sustainable Yield for all EU fisheries."

“Full implementation of existing marine legislation is vital to achieving the EU’s 2020 biodiversity targets,” said Luc Bas, Director of the IUCN European Regional Office. “A healthy marine environment is not only essential for Europe’s economic prosperity by securing the long-term viability of our fisheries sector, but our oceans also provide food security for millions of people and numerous ecosystem services.”

The report shows that existing marine management measures have been successful for certain species, such as the Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) or Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus), whose stocks have improved. However, for some other species, such as the Atlantic Halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus, Vulnerable), Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar, Vulnerable) and Turbot (Scophthalmus maximus, Vulnerable), management has been less effective.

“While we have seen some progress, it is alarming that many commercially and ecologically important species continue to be at risk in Europe,” added Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC). “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 and multi-annual management plans for all commercial species of marine fishes.”

The report identifies overfishing as the main threat to marine fishes in Europe, both in targeted fisheries and as by-catch. Other major threats include coastal development, energy production and mining, as well as pollution and climate change.

Turbot, for example, a common and widespread species in shallow European waters, has experienced a decline of 31% over the last 27-29 years as a result of over-exploitation, and is now classified as Vulnerable.
The Atlantic Salmon (Vulnerable) has also been affected by overfishing both at sea and in rivers, as well as water pollution and sedimentation. Overfishing at sea, in particular with drift nets, is a major threat to the species, as is by-catch in the mackerel fishery. In addition, in recent years, salmon prey species have been depleted by commercial fisheries, and extensive salmon farming has affected wild populations through the introduction of diseases and parasites.

Although Europe has the most significant scientific capacity in the world, for a fifth of all assessed marine fish species (20.6%), there was insufficient scientific information available to be able to evaluate their extinction risk, according to the report. Knowledge is also lacking on the population trends: the assessments show that 8.4% of the populations are declining, 21.5% are considered stable and 1.7% are increasing, but the trends for as many as 68.4% of the species remain unknown.

“We still have substantial knowledge gaps on population trends, taxonomy and distribution, especially for deep-water and rare species. It is therefore essential to improve monitoring and data collection for marine fishes in Europe,” said Kent Carpenter, Manager of the IUCN Global Marine Biodiversity Unit. “As we gain more knowledge, some of the data deficient species might also prove to be threatened.“