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Balancing nature and industry: EFFOPs science-based approach to Sandeel Fishing


The response to the recent British consultation on spatial management measures for industrial sandeel fishing highlights the importance of a science-driven approach in managing sandeel fisheries. By incorporating precautionary measures and considering ecosystem needs, stakeholders aim to ensure the sustainable management of sandeel fishing while protecting the marine environment. The current management system for sandeel fishing is based on scientific advice provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). This advice emphasizes the need for precautionary measures and sets catch quotas to safeguard sandeel populations and the wider ecosystem. By adhering to this advice, stakeholders demonstrate their commitment to responsible and sustainable fishing practices.

The current scientific support and certifications

The sandeel fishery management receives scientific support from reputable sources such as ICES. Comprehensive assessments, along with certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and MarinTrust, validate the precautionary nature of the current management approach. These certifications ensure that the fishery operates in an environmentally friendly manner, with minimal impact on the ecosystem. The advice provided by ICES is widely recognized as scientifically sound, considering factors such as fish population abundance, status, and the overall impact of fishing on the ecosystem. Additionally, the ICES advice, which is considered the authoritative source for EU fisheries, sets quotas based on a robust management strategy evaluation that incorporates precautionary measures. The sandeel fishery management prioritizes the preservation of sandeel populations consumed by predators, aligning with the needs of the ecosystem. To ensure food availability for all sandeel predators, the sandeel natural mortality is predicted and set at a sufficiently high level, in line with ecosystem-based advice. The ICES advice recommends reducing fishing pressure when the sandeel stock falls below safe biological limits, such as the MSYBtrigger for long-lived stocks and Bescapement for short-lived stocks. For sandeel, the ICES MSY strategy, known as the bescapement strategy, aims to maintain a specific amount of fish (Bescapement) in the sea for the subsequent spawning season, rather than applying a constant fishing mortality rate. By avoiding excessive fishing pressure on large biomass and leaving smaller biomass unfished, this management strategy minimizes density-dependent declines in sandeel recruitment and mitigates potential impacts on other species. The Bescapement level ensures less than a 5% risk of negatively affecting recruitment in the following year. Furthermore, the biomass is predicted while considering the consumption of sandeel by fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, ensuring that natural predator mortality takes precedence over fisheries mortality. If achieving Bescapement becomes unattainable in a particular year, the closure of the fishery is recommended. Additionally, in years of exceptionally high recruitment, fishing mortality is capped to reduce pressure on large year classes. This management strategy aims to minimize density-dependent declines in sandeel recruitment, as well as the potential impact on other species, by avoiding excessive fishing pressure on large biomass and leaving smaller biomass unfished.

Looking Ahead

Ongoing scientific assessments, led by ICES, aim to establish a benchmark for the sandeel industry. Stakeholders recognize the importance of incorporating the latest scientific advice into future management decisions. Pending the release of updated ICES advice, EFFOP has advocated that maintaining the current management strategy is recommended, ensuring decisions are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive scientific assessments. EFFOP has also advised that there is a limited or negligible likelihood of any direct positive outcomes or improvements in the ecosystem  resulting from the full closure of industrial sandeel fishing in English waters within the North Sea. This is primarily due to the fact that the existing management practices already adhere to the ICES ecosystem-based advice, which takes into account the ecosystem’s needs and ensures sustainable fishing practices. A balanced approach, considering scientific evidence, stakeholder consultation, and sustainable management strategies, will ultimately contribute to the ongoing preservation of the sandeel fishery and the surrounding ecosystem.