Are many Northeast Atlantic fish stocks really being fished sustainably?

Are many Northeast Atlantic fish stocks really being fished sustainably?  A new paper by Dr Paul Fernandes (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Robin Cook (University of Strathclyde) suggests they are..."Contrary to common perception, the status of our fish stocks is improving...... many of our stocks are not overfished; nature now needs to take its course for these fish to rebuild their populations".

The researchers assessed some 44 commercially important stocks over a 60 year period to see how they performed against EU targets for spawning stock biomass needed to support a maximum sustainable yield (the maximum amount of catch that can be taken from a stock over an indefinite period of time without sending the stock into a spiralling downward trend.   They calculated 77% of the assessed stocks are fished at sustainable levels.

I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that these claims are already the source of controversy.  It all comes down to how we define sustainable - Professor Callum Roberts (University of York) describes the issue to the BBC...

"At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, politicians committed to re-build fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield (MSY) levels by 2015. The MSY describes the largest catch that can be taken from a fish stock over an indefinite period without harming it.  As time went on, it became more and more apparent that there was no way they could re-build stocks to those levels by that target year, so a less ambitious target was adopted, which is that fishing mortality rates need to be brought down by 2015 to a point where fish stocks can be re-built to MSY levels by some future date."

And when exactly is that future date?  Well....that's another question.

All three researchers do agree on one thing thought - we aren't out of the woods yet...

"it is notable that most cod stocks remain in a poor state despite increasingly stringent management measures. There is a continuing problem of discards, which now involves marketable fish and exposes a significant weakness in the [Common Fisheries Policy] that needs to be addressed in the proposed reforms for 2014"

You'll need access to the journal Current Biology  (or pay) if you want to read the original paper... here is the link

To read more on maximum sustainable yields, have a look at Wikipedia

Image: Fishmonger by the harbour at Lyme Regis. Credit Heather Cowper/Flickr /   (CC BY-NC 2.0)