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Even if fishing in European waters was stopped today, a new report claims, populations would be unable to rebound enough to meet the 2015 targets set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The region has been notoriously overfished but the new research is showing that, in spite of efforts to rebuild numbers, Europe will be in breach of the obligations laid out in the legally-binding agreement.
A Look at UNCLOS
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nation's in their use of the oceans. One of the most significant impacts the agreement had was in the establishment of maritime boundaries, specifying the location and permitted use of territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, international waters, and other areas.
Though not as obvious, the agreement's provisions establishing obligations for the protection of the maritime environment and maintenance of the freedom of ocean research were also critically important.
As part of these provisions, the European Union was required to "maintain or restore populations of harvested species at levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield" by 2015.
The State of Europe's Fish Stocks
Rainer Froese, a fisheries biologist, and Alexander Proelß, an expert on public law, looked at data on major fisheries in the North Atlantic. At current levels of fishing, they found, 91% of species would not reach the populations required by UNCLOS by the 2015 deadline.
In their report, published in Fish and Fisheries, the researchers explain:
Even if fishing were halted in 2010, 22% of the stocks are so depleted that they cannot be rebuilt by 2015...if current trends continue, Europe will miss the 2015 deadline by more than 30 years.
When they dove deeper into the numbers, they found that only six of the 54 monitored species were being fished sustainably. More worrying, they report, is that little seems to have changed since the agreement was signed in the late 1990s.
Facing the Consequences
UNCLOS is a legally-binding agreement but, Nature points out, the penalties for failing to meet the obligations are almost non-existent. Andrew Serdy, a UK specialist in international fisheries law, explained that "sadly, very little beyond temporary embarrassment" will result from the failure. The reason for this, he added, is:
Partly because the EU is merely the worst of a mostly bad bunch and partly because of the unsatisfactory way in which the 2015 deadline came about.
Though the European Union may not face sanctions or firm punishments, there is at least official recognition of the problem. The European Commission commented in 2008 that, according to its accounting, as much as "88% of fish stocks were being overfished."
The Commission claims it is committed to rebuilding populations and reports that the rates of fishing moralities—the number of fish killed through fishing—are decreasing but "not quickly enough."
Read more about overfishing:
Overfishing Means Marine Animals Are Starving: Report
How Overfishing Almost Got Capt. Phillips Killed by Pirates
Overfishing is Slowing, But Only in Areas With Good Fisheries Management
Global Fisheries Hit by Climate Change and Overfishing