By Lewis Smith
A recovery plan for swordfish in the Mediterranean has been agreed for the first time to combat overfishing.
The measure was welcomed by conservationists as a “paradigm shift” in attempts to save the swordfish from a population crash.
However, it was also criticised as too little and “over a decade too late” by campaigners who are frustrated at what they see as a failure of fisheries managers to tackle the problem quick enough.
Moreover, the reduction in catches agreed by fishing fleets fell far short of the “substantial” cut demanded by scientists who had called for them to be slashed by 70 per cent.
The recovery plan was agreed at a summit in Portugal agreed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) which conceded that swordfish in the Mediterranean were “highly depleted” and overfished.
As part of the recovery plan it was agreed catches of swordfish in the Mediterranean should total no more than 10,700 tonnes in 2017 and that by 2022 catches would be reduced by 15 per cent to about 9,000 tonnes. In 2014, the last year for which full figures are available, 9,793 tonnes were landed.
Carmen Vella, the European Union’s fisheries commissioner, was among those to welcome the deal as a step towards conserving swordfish. He described it as laying “the groundwork towards the conservation and sustainable exploration” of the species.
Oceana, a conservation group that has been campaigning for substantial cuts in swordfish catches for years, described the recovery plan as “too weak”.
Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe said: “We welcome this paradigm shift for Mediterranean swordfish and for Mediterranean stocks in general, which are over 90 per cent overfished.
“But we would have hoped for a stronger recovery plan. Sadly, the plan is too weak, too far from scientific advice and still puts the stock at risk”.
Oceana is also frustrated that fishermen are allowed to catch swordfish as small as 90cm long yet the females don’t breed until they are at least 142cm long.
Giuseppe Di Carlo, of WWF, described the measures as “a step in the right direction” but expressed concern at the level of catches allowed in 2017.
In an assessment carried out by scientists this year for Iccat it was concluded that swordfish in the Mediterranean needed much greater protections.
“The stock is overfished and subject to overfishing,” they concluded.
They also raised serious concerns about the huge quantity of juvenile fish being caught before they are mature enough to spawn.
“The Committee again noted the large catches of small size swordfish, i.e. less than 3 years old (many of which have probably never spawned) and the relatively low number of large individuals in the catches,” the scientific report to Ichat stated.
“Fish less than three years old usually represent 50-70 per cent of the total yearly catches in terms of numbers and 20-35 in terms of weight.”
The scientific team acknowledged that, following a steep fall in the population, the number of swordfish in the Mediterranean has “stabilised” over the last two decades. However, they warned that it is is at a level too low to be considered healthy or sustainable.
One of the problems contributing to the difficulty in increasing the size of the swordfish population is the number of countries involved in catching them. Getting an agreement between them all is difficult, and further complicated because some countries that catch the fish do not report their landings to the international fishing regulators.
Italy catches more swordfish in the Mediterranean than any other nation, being responsible for 45 per cent. Spain follows with 13 per cent, Greece with 10 per cent and Tunisia with 8 per cent. Other nations which report their catches to Iccat are Algeria, Cyprus, Malta and Turkey, which small quantities also recorded by Albania, Croatia, France, Japan, and Libya.
It is thought fishing fleets from Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Monaco and Syria also catch swordfish but their landings are not reported to ICCAT or the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.