Mediterranean blues

14 Jul 2016
The question is no longer if things have really been really getting worse – it is what is the reason for the decline?

The question is no longer if things have really been really getting worse – it is what is the reason for the decline?

Menakhem Ben-Yami looks at the state of the Mediterranean.

If there's a sea in which for centuries too many fishermen have been chasing too little fish it's the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, thanks to the variety of fish fetching high prices on welcoming markets, its fisheries have been surviving rather nicely.

Back, in the 1940s and 1950s, when I was fishing there myself, we were always envious of the much higher catches and bigger fish of the west, but nevertheless we were making quite decent living out of what we caught.

The Mediterranean is poor in nutrients - the more to the east, it gets poorer and less productive. There's also the phenomenon of dwarfism: the same fish species of similar age are much smaller in the Levant Basin than in the western Mediterranean.

Threatened
But now, its biodiversity of 10,000-12,000 species is threatened by pollution, climate change and overfishing, with 93% of them over-exploited, on the verge of depletion. Within the six years between 2006 and 2012, the Mediterranean-Black Sea fish landing weight decreased by 20-30%. 

The question to answer is no longer whether things have been really getting worse, but what the reasons for the decline are: just overfishing, or also other factors? And what could prevent the collapse of key stocks that would cripple small-scale fisheries, whose artisanal boats represent 83% of Mediterranean fleet.

The FAO statistics bond the Mediterranean in one area (Area 37) with the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. With limited freshwater supply and very high evaporation rate, the area's water deficit is compensated by about 1700km3/year inflow of Atlantic water through the Straits of Gibraltar. The summer stratification of the water masses ends towards the winters, when a ‘revolutionary’ mixing event occurs, a result of evaporation of surface waters and, hence, increase of their specific weight which causes them to sink and the cooler, less saline and lighter water to ascend towards the surface.

But, as far as statistics go, one cannot rely too much on the Mediterranean country reports, because of the heavy share of small-scale fishermen in the total and difficulties in data collection and often inadequate reporting practice. Those reports at least partly are based on government fishery officers' estimates and even guesses. On the other hand, since the practice remains the same for many years, one can see multiannual trends and fluctuations.

In recent decades the internal dynamics, both of its population of marine organisms and the Mediterranean ecosystem in general, have been affected by the warming process that's making the Mediterranean less attractive to Atlantic species, hence the remarkable withdrawal of hake from the Eastern Mediterranean – a fish, which in my times made up some 20-40% of trawl catches. But, at the same time, this sea has become more attractive and accessible to immigration of Red Sea species, recently enhanced by deepening and widening of the Suez Canal.  

My personal impression, for whatever it's worth, is that the whole composition of catches had totally changed, and I feel as if I am in a quite different sea. In fact, the fish I see now in the trawl catches remind me much more those of the Southern Red Sea, where I fished in the 1960s, than those I remember from the earlier years in the Levant Basin. For example, the once popular Mediterranean red mullet (Mullus barbatus) had been almost totally replaced in trawl catches by the Indian Ocean immigrant - the goldband goatfish (Upeneus moluccensis). In general, our trawling skippers are saying that apparently most of the fish composing their catches now are Red Sea immigrants.

Declaration
Back in 2003, the Mediterranean nations signed a declaration in Venice aiming to improve scientific research, protect vulnerable areas and limit the fishing effort, while encouraging all the countries that border the Mediterranean to play by the same rules.

The last GFCM session endorsed the strategy for the economic sustainability for small-scale fisheries, which make up the bulk of the Mediterranean fishing fleet, and set out working plan for the years 2017-2020. Now, the EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, believes that such cooperation can be successful provided that challenges are tackled collectively. But more needs to be done, admits Mr Vella.

Mr Vella, himself a Maltese, hopes that the state of the Mediterranean fish stocks and its fishing economy having been diagnosed - taking corrective action would recover Mediterranean fishery resources and fishing industry and its communities. This owing to the progress made at GFCM that gave a significant boost to the European Commission's #MedFish4Ever campaign.

The outstanding recovery of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean is a case where "Concerted better management of this fishery led to concrete results and for the first time in years quotas are being raised."

"For millennia, Mediterranean fishermen have used the bountiful resources of the sea to forge their livelihoods. Now this vital resource is in serious danger, putting thousands of jobs at risk as a core part of our industry is eroded away,” Commissioner Vella said.

“We need to face up to our responsibilities: as policy makers, fishermen, scientists and civil society, including consumers. Experience shows that we can be successful – when we tackle challenges collectively. So today I am here to launch action. I am here to launch our campaign #MedFish4Ever to raise awareness of this problem and to ensure action."