MARINET informs OSPAR Committee on shortcomings in MSFD Descriptor 3 definition

MARINET, which has Observer status at OSPAR, has informed the OSPAROSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic made up of representatives of the Governments of the 15 signatory nations. Committee considering how best to define the “good environmental status” Descriptors of the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) that the definition being advanced for commercial fish and shellfish stocks, Descriptor 3, has serious shortcomings and that they must be urgently addressed.

At the OSPAR Committee meeting on 16th and 17th October 2012 in Paris, attended by Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, EU Commission, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK (Observers: ICES, BirdLife International, CEDA, Seas at Risk and WWF), MARINET presented an Agenda Paper which outlined these shortcomings, and their remedy.

The legal text for Descriptor 3 in the MSFD reads: “Populations of all commercially exploited fish and shellfish are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock.” Thus if these conditions are met then, in theory, the commercial fish or shellfish stock in question will have attained “good environmental status”.

However, MARINET has drawn OSPAR’s attention to failure to correctly define “safe biological limit”.

“We observed” said John Stansfield, MARINET’s European Co-ordinator “that the definition currently being used is simply referenced to the spawning stock biomassbiomass The amount of living matter. This is therefore a different measure to numbers of organisms. So, for example, there is much more biomass in 1 elephant than there is in 1000 fleas and there may be more biomass in 100 large cod than you would find in 150 small (because of over fishing) cod. which exists at the present time which is often a seriously depleted stock level due to over-fishing and other factors, and that the definition of a truly healthy stock – as required by the central, core principle of the Directive – in fact requires the safe biological limit to be referenced to the maximum level of abundance of the stock which current ecological conditions will permit.”

“Moreover, and of equal importance” explained John Stansfield “there has been a failure to define “. . . exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock.”

“We observed that the definition currently being used has simply referenced this requirement of the Descriptor to the spawning stock biomass level being used earlier, i.e. the existing, depleted stock level, and that under this approach a healthy age and size distribution for the stock is regarded as simply ‘the proportion of fish larger than the mean size of first sexual maturation’. In other words, the number (%) of fish surviving one year beyond sexual maturation, and nothing more.”

“We have informed OSPAR” said John Stansfield “that this is a wholly inadequate definition. Firstly, it denies the fact that the most fecund cohort in a stock’s population are the older fish because every time an adult grows older and doubles in length, so its reproductive capacity also doubles thus making older fish a key component of a healthy and reproductively robust stock. Secondly, it denies the ability of stock levels to be restored to a genuine safe biological limit i.e. to re-attain the stock’s maximum level of abundance which current ecological conditions will permit.”

Despite a serious and informed discussion, the OSPAR Committee took no action, believing that under its Charter the question of the definition of Descriptor 3 is primarily the responsibility of the EU governmental institutions, rather than OSPAR .

“We brought this matter before the Paris meeting of OSPAR” said John Stansfield “because failure to act to correct the shortcomings in the current definition of Descriptor 3, and to implement the principles we have set out, will not just result in a debasement of the integrity of the law and, within a wider context, the outcome of the reform process in connection with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. But it will also, even more seriously, likely result in a profound collapse in the present ecological structure of the North East Atlantic. Fish and shellfish are key members of the ecological structure, and therefore their continued poor condition and the failure to act to correct and restore that condition, may have consequences for the ecosystem as a whole that are irredeemable and irreversible.”

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