New forecasting models would help manage mixed fisheries more effectively

Fisheries management is evolving and there is growing awareness that resource users should be more involved in decision-making and should supply information about resource status if fisheries management is to become sustainable.

Ellen Sax, ProBio Partners, Netherlands
The Norwegian city of Ålesund was the site of the ComFish meeting on mixed fisheries issues in the North Sea.

A results-based management (RBM) approach that has been described in the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) Green Paper has rules that focus on the outcome of fishing leaving “the more detailed implementation decisions” to the industry. Public authorities would set the limits within which the industry must operate, such as a maximum catch or maximum by-catch of young fish, and then give industry the authority to develop the best solutions economically and technically. This would contribute to better management by making the policy considerably simpler.


Mixed fisheries present a number of challenges

Sometimes however, the implementation of polices could trigger undesirable outcomes and among other challenges, the “mixed-fisheries” approach, which is typical for demersal fish species, is acknowledged by scientists, fishers and other stakeholders as being one of the most difficult, even though some of its issues are common to those encountered in general fisheries management within an ecosystem approach to management. It is therefore no coincidence that “mixed-fisheries issues in the North Sea” was the topic chosen for the second ComFish Regional Participatory Stakeholder Event (RPSE) held in Norway, on 25-27 February 2013. As expected, the subject stirred lively discussions and debates among the 29 participants from the US and eight European countries, representing the European Commission, the North Sea Regional Advisory Council, research institutions, fishers associations, government and other key stakeholders in the fisheries sector.

The North Sea basin borders Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK, and is populated by a variety of demersal fish species of which the most significant are cod, haddock, monkfish, plaice, saithe, sole and whiting. Catches of various species are interlinked due to the technical interactions between fishing fleets and gears. In addition, their availability, abundance and economic value differ contributing to the complexity of the problem. For example during the 2000s, the cod stock declined drastically; at the same time, a significant increase of the stock of haddock (which is to a large extent caught together with cod) was observed.

Fishing effort reductions have been introduced since, through the European Commission cod management plans, in addition to Total Allowable Catches (TACs) as the main outcome of consultations between EU and Norway. Rigid management measures could for example result in the closure of haddock fisheries because the TAC of cod had been reached and bycatch of more cod (becoming a ‘choke’ species) is not allowed.


An interesting event along a stunning Norwegian coastline

The methodology of the workshop ensured that the participants’ wide fields of expertise have been spread equally through the three working groups created. With the help of facilitators, the participants of each group identified and described challenges related to mixed fisheries. After grouping challenges from four different perspectives (expert knowledge, management, economic and social), experts prioritised challenges and, most difficult, suggested possible solutions. After a day-and-a-half of intensive exchange of opinions, participants agreed that the issues surrounding mixed fisheries are complex and notwithstanding the identification and ranking of challenges, feasible solutions are not necessarily always easy to find. However, the workshop provided stakeholders with an opportunity for reflection, and also stimulated innovative thinking.

Ellen Sax, ProBio Partners, Netherlands
Participants came from the US and eight European countries and represented the European Commission, the North Sea Regional Advisory Council, research institutions, fishers associations, government and other key stakeholders.

The excellent location chosen by the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, the organiser of the event, i.e. on the Hurtigruten boat, sailing from Bergen to Trondheim, catalysed the event’s participative approach and facilitated the exchange of ideas and networking among participants.
“I participated in the ComFish workshop in Norway as vice-chair of the Advisory Committee (ACOM) of ICES” says Carmen Fernandez. “The fact that participants came from rather different backgrounds (fishing industry, science, managers), with different experiences and perspectives on the mixed fisheries problems and potential ways forward, made the meeting both challenging and very interesting. I found the participatory approach taken, working in a combination of subgroups and plenary session discussions, fruitful, as it encouraged people to express their views and concerns. I also feel the meeting helped to improve understanding and communication between the different stakeholders, collectively identifying main challenges and brain-storming about possible solutions and ways ahead. My thanks to the organisers for putting together such an interesting event and for taking us to the beautiful Norwegian coastline”.

The quality and reliability of catch data was one of the “hot” issues identified, especially for stocks/species where it may trigger a stop in fishing operations, as well as how to measure interactions in mixed fisheries. There was consensus among participants that if fisheries management is to be sustainable it needs to be based on reliable data, and a prerequisite for reliable and robust data management is the involvement of fishermen in the data collection and data management process. This will involve training to improve fishermen understanding on how data collection and data management are interconnected.

Science and a responsible fisheries management system needs to be more than number crunching

Representing the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association, Ian Kinsey believes that “ComFish workshop provided an opportunity for scientists, management and stakeholders from the fish capture sector, to better their understanding of where the other is “coming from”. This is not an easy task when scientists do not give the impression that they share the same perception as the fisherman, concerning the healthy state of most commercially important fish stocks in the North Sea. Fishermen are not claiming that stock assessments are easy, they are just asking for their real time observations/input to be taken more seriously. Science and a responsible fisheries management system needs to be more than number crunching, and should reflect the fact that fisheries and ecosystems are dynamic, and cyclic, and need to be managed by setting TACs in accordance with the real time state of the stock/fishery, and appropriate technical, spatial/ temporal regulations.”

It was pointed out during the discussions that a formal definition of the mixed-fisheries approach is currently lacking. The mixed nature of the cod fishery is an additional challenge related to other problems like the overall fishing mortality of cod being far too high for a stock in need of recovery. The fishing mortality of cod has decreased in recent years, but not as much as intended. It has been mentioned that discarding cod contributes substantially to the overall fishing mortality and that during peak fishing season, up to half of the catch may be discarded (dead fish thrown back). Other issues like misreporting of species (e.g. cod reported as haddock) were mentioned and also that discards are not made only of fish below the minimum landing size, but also in the form of “high grading” (discarding legitimate fish to focus on higher value species/sizes).


For more precise predictions new forecasting models are needed

A mixed-fisheries approach has a higher level of complexity in relation to the traditional single-stock approach. However, several challenges of mixed fisheries are common to general fisheries management. Participants agreed that a mixed-fisheries approach will increase the need for more precise predictions of the effects of fishing and that this requires information and data with a higher resolution than the current single stock approaches. Such predictions require the development of new forecast models.

The number of species caught in a mixed-trawl fishery in the North Sea is relatively high and it was discussed whether the objectives of the mixed-fisheries management should apply to all stocks or only to those of high economic importance. It was suggested that a Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) approach for all stocks would lead to the underutilization of most stocks. The size and species selectivity would be however a tool in the support of the management objectives. More species-selective fishing gear could be a practical tool for avoiding unwanted or ‘choke’ species; however, the potential economic loss due to such gear being overall less effective, should also be considered.

Ellen Sax, ProBio Partners, Netherlands
Fishermen want their real time observations to be taken more seriously in the stock assessment process.


A valuable insight in different aspects of mixed fisheries

“I have enjoyed the opportunity of getting a better understanding of the nature and challenges of mixed fisheries through ComFish workshop” is the opinion of Geir Ervik, Senior Advisor in the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs. “The workshop had a very participatory frame and ‘bottoms up’ content. The involvement of the industry was especially useful and the informal exchange of views contributed to an open-minded process. The workshop gave me valuable insight in different aspects of mixed fisheries. For future discussion about solutions we must emphasize the use of selective gear, the closure of areas to protect juveniles and the establishment of by-catch quotas.”

The issue of how to communicate the wealth of complex information related to mixed fisheries has been largely discussed. Communication is essential and it concerns not only the “informed” stakeholders (e.g. fishermen, industry, government, scientists, academia, etc.), but also the general public, the latter being generally more attracted by the sensational side of the communication. Stakeholders should make sure that the “story” about mixed-fisheries topic is spread correctly and it doesn’t create confusion at the general public level. Currently there is a lot of confusion, particularly at the consumers’ level regarding the decision of buying and eating “sustainable” fish, in the context of fish becoming an expensive commodity combined with a period of economic recession in Europe. It is therefore paramount to prevent misleading information which often appears in the media and to ensure that information can be trusted.

This is in fact on of the main objectives of ComFish, or “Strengthening the impact of fisheries related research through dissemination, communication and technology transfer”, an EU-FP7 funded project (DG Research and Innovation) and whose aim is to identify important fisheries topics with long term impacts, and ascertain whether scientific results have been properly communicated to fisheries stakeholders. For more information on ComFish visit

Anca Sfetcovici
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