The waters of the EU are in a “dismal” state, with only a third of fish populations studied in the north-east Atlantic considered to be in good condition, according to more than 200 scientists and conservationists.
The analysis, issued on Monday, follows a scathing report from the European court of auditors two years ago, which warned that the EU had failed to halt marine biodiversity loss in Europe’s waters and to restore fishing to sustainable levels.
The EU has left 99% of continental waters unprotected from “high-impact activities” including bottom trawling and industrial-scale extraction, the scientists say, with only 1% set up as “true” marine protected areas (MPAs), By 2017, only 10.8% of the surface of Europe’s seas had been designated as MPAs.
In a declaration – published before a meeting in Brussels next week at which countries will agree common positions on December’s Cop15 global biodiversity conference – they urged member states to “raise the bar” of ocean conservation away from the “disastrous status quo”.
The scientists and conservationists, who include Alexandra Cousteau, president of the foundation Oceans 2050 and the granddaughter of the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, urged member states to ban bottom trawling and industrial fishing in all EU MPAs.
“As of today, bottom trawling is conducted in 59% of the EU’s so-called ‘MPAs’, ironically depleting vulnerable species within their boundaries even faster than in nearby unprotected areas,” the declaration said. “As they stand, EU MPAs fail to provide conservation benefits.”
Bottom trawling is “the most destructive and fuel-intensive fishing practice”, causing widespread destruction of marine life, the declaration said. It also disturbs carbon stored on the seafloor, adding to emissions and exacerbating global heating.
Research from 2018 found that trawling intensity was greater and the abundance of marine life lower inside many EU MPAs than in nearby unprotected areas.
Last year, a study written by Sala and others said fishing boats that trawl the ocean floor released as much carbon dioxide as the entire aviation industry.
The scientists said a transition to “low-impact fisheries” and the protection of 30% of the EU’s waters by 2030 – including 10% as strictly “no-take zones”, a key mandate of the EU’s biodiversity strategy – would help restore marine life. It would also help replenish depleted fisheries, and “resuscitate exhausted small-scale coastal fisheries” and the livelihoods they support.
The Cop15 biodiversity summit will take place in Montreal, Canada, in December.