An illegal fishing boat at sunset in Saint-Raphaël, France. Overfishing, bottom trawling, and pollution haunt the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Carlos Suárez / OCEANA

By Agata Mrowiec
16 August 2018

(Oceana) – The Mediterranean is the top tourism destination worldwide. Sunbathers and swimmers flock to the sea during summer holidays.

Idyllic though it may seem, all is not well. The Mediterranean is the world’s most overfished sea, with the highest percentage of unsustainably harvested fish populations, according to a recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Increasing human activity makes Mediterranean marine ecosystems some of the most imperiled in the world.

Of all the human threats to the Mediterranean, overfishing, bottom trawling and ocean plastic pollution are the most destructive. They are the worst offenders, trashing the world’s most popular sea.

Missing fish

Overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea began around the 1970s with the development of technology that allowed fleets to fish farther, deeper and with greater intensity. As a result, 90 percent of Mediterranean fish populations are now harvested in excess of science-based recommendations. The most commercially important species, including European hake, red mullet and anglerfish, are exploited 10 times over suggested limits. 

MedReAct, an environmental organization protecting Mediterranean marine biodiversity, blames political inaction, inadequate control measures and weak enforcement for the critical state of fishing. Oceana holds the European Union accountable for this dire situation. Taken together, the Mediterranean EU member states catch the most fish in the region, and have the biggest and most powerful fleet.

In the face of this crisis, fisheries ministers from most Mediterranean countries gathered in 2017 in Malta, where they signed the MedFish4Ever Declaration, a 10-year strategy for cooperative management of the region’s fisheries.

“I hope that this declaration will come to be seen as a turning point for a bright future for fishermen, coastal communities and fishing resources alike,” said Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in a press release from the European Commission.

Underwater bulldozers

Bottom trawling is another widespread problem in the Mediterranean. Large, heavy nets are towed along the seafloor, acting like ocean bulldozers that can wipe out everything in their way.

“Trawling affects a lot of species like a Hoover and this has an impact on us, small-scale fishers,” a 34-year old fisher from Malta told Oceana. “I see a lot of difference in the past 10 years,” he said, “and I think there needs to be something done before it’s too late.”

Trawling can cause irreversible damage to sensitive habitats like deep-sea coral reefs, gorgonian gardens and sponge grounds. It rips up coral and sponge bed habitats that fish and shellfish depend on for breeding, spawning, and nurseries. This can significantly hamper the recovery of depleted fish stocks.

Bottom trawling carves tracks in the Mediterranean seabed, Cabrera National Park, Spain, 17 September 2007. Photo: OCEANA

Trawling is also wasteful. Scientists estimate that it generates as much as half of all discarded fish and marine life globally. Most unwanted catches are juveniles that die in nets and are tossed overboard. Undersized hake and red mullet, which live and feed near the bottom, can make up 60 percent of bycatch for Mediterranean trawlers. These fish will never have a chance to grow and reproduce, risking damage to the population.

Industrial trawlers also cause habitat loss. Corals, sponges, and seagrasses are particularly vulnerable. Some Mediterranean seagrass beds, which act as nursery grounds for many fish species, have already disappeared.

In 2016, Oceana successfully contributed to banning bottom trawling in the Strait of Sicily, between Malta, Italy, and Tunisia, and in another region between Mallorca and Menorca in the Balearic Islands. The Western Mediterranean Sea should be next. Oceana in Europe is now calling on fisheries ministers in Spain, France, and Italy to ban bottom trawling to at least 100 meters deep, and all year-round to protect fish recovery and vulnerable marine life. [more]

Overfishing and pollution have trashed the Mediterranean

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