Information on fish stocks should be relevant and coherent

Is a glass half full or half empty? That depends on the individual’s point of view and what he or she chooses to emphasise. Data on fisheries faces the same issue – it can be read in different ways depending on who is doing the reading.

On 26 September the European Commission hosted a seminar in Brussels on the state of fish stocks in European waters, where the latest research on EU fisheries was presented. Scientists gave overviews of stock in the Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Seas, as well as on the economic performance of the EU fleet. Following the presentations a panel comprising representatives from the Regional Advisory Councils, the Advisory Committee for Fisheries Management, the catching and processing sectors, NGOs, and the European Commission discussed the issues raised by the presentations. The seminar was chaired by Ms Lowri Evans, Director General of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who summarised the main conclusions of the meeting.

Data on fish stocks should be communicated accurately to allow consumers to make properly informed decisions.

Information presented misleadingly

Matthias Keller, secretary of the German Fish Processors’ Association, and chair of the Working Group on market and trade policy of the Advisory Committee for Fisheries and Aquaculture (ACFA) pointed out in his presentation that data on the status of stocks used by NGOs painted a more alarming picture of the stocks than was warranted. This interpretation, says Dr Keller, is then picked up by the media and used by consumers as a basis for their purchasing decisions. He therefore appealed for better communication that provided reliable and understandable information to the media and the NGOs on the state of fish stocks.

As an example Dr Keller quoted the following line from a Communication of the European Commission on fishing opportunities in 2013 (COM(2012) 278 final), “In the Baltic Sea, 5 out of 7 known stocks remain overfished. Only cod in the Eastern Baltic and herring in the Bothnian Sea are fished at maximum sustainable yield rates.”

”This information, says Dr Keller, “is not only misleading media and consumers, it does not represent the latest status quo of the scientific knowledge because the Communication only refers to the numbers of stocks without taking into account the potential of each stock.” To demonstrate the outcome of a classification by two different approaches he chose 14 stocks in the Baltic (mainly cod, herring, sprat, flounder, plaice, turbot and two other flatfishes). Classifying the stocks by fishing mortality (F, the proportion of fish in the stock that are taken by the fisheries) against FMSY (the F associated with the long-term sustainable exploitation of the stock), Dr Keller showed that 4 stocks were unsustainably fished i.e. F> FMSY, 4 were sustainably fished i.e. F< FMSY, while for 6 stocks were deficient in data and could not be analysed.


Consumers need accurate information

This information can be interpreted in different ways. NGOs emphasise that only 29% (4 out of 14) of the stocks in the Baltic Sea are sustainably exploited, which Dr Keller says is true, but irrelevant for consumers seeking to make informed buying decisions. It is far more important for consumers to understand that 69% of the landings are derived from the 29% of the stocks that are sustainably fished. This approach to communication gives consumers a completely different impression, which is why the industry calls for the dissemination of reliable and understandable information. Ultimately, the way the facts are presented is important for the image of the fishing sector.