One third of the world’s oceans must be closed to fishing for 20 years if depleted stocks are to recover, scientists and conservation groups have warned.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York, has reviewed 100 scientific papers identifying the scale of closure needed. “All are leaning in a similar direction,” he said, “which is that 20-40% of the sea should be protected.”
Friends of the Earth, the Marine Conservation Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds all support the idea of a 30% closure.
The proposal comes in the wake of a green paper calling for radical reform of the common fisheries policy, which EU ministers admit has failed. It reveals that 88% of European Union stocks are overfished (against a global average of 25%), while 30% are “outside safe biological limits”, meaning they cannot reproduce as normal because the parenting population is too depleted.
The European Commission suggests a reduction in fleet size and a dramatic cut in fishing among its series of measures, but Roberts believes these will not work without the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs).
“If we are ever going to have sustainable fisheries, MPA networks are essential,” he said. In Iceland, Canada and the US, MPAs have “brought real increases in fish populations and real recovery of seabed habitats”, he added.
The most convincing example is New England, where stocks, said Roberts, were “in a dreadful state” in the 1990s. Off Georges Bank, nearly 20,000 sq km – a quarter of the fishing grounds – was closed to vessels and fishing was reduced by “a draconian 50%”. In the last 10 years, Roberts said, there had been a “spectacular recovery”. Off Lundy Island in Devon, one of only three no-take zones (similar to MPAs) in British waters, the lobster population is eight times higher within the reserve. “We have already seen benefits in the lobster fishery immediately outside it,” said Giles Bartlett, fisheries policy officer at WWF.
But the fishing industry says that pressure on stocks just outside a protected area can “mitigate against the impact” of the MPA. “It almost creates a bull’s-eye for fishermen, who know the area on the periphery isn’t protected,” said Tom Rossiter, research and development manager at Seafish, the UK seafood industry body. “If you shut off an MPA, it will move the fishing effort elsewhere.”
There are currently 4,000 MPAs covering just 0.8% of the world’s oceans.