Small-scale fisheries account for more than 80% of the fishing fleet in the EU, spanning a broad range of gears, target species, locations, and vessel types. The many threads of SSF activity play an important role in the livelihoods of coastal communities across the European Atlantic, promoting employment, supporting coastal economies, and playing a key role in social and cultural wellbeing. To understand how they impact on marine environments, our Natural Capital work theme worked with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive overview of the perceived interactions of fishing gears on marine environments in the Northeast Atlantic.

The diverse nature of small-scale fisheries, coupled with their ability to adopt different gears and patterns (both geographical and seasonal) across the year, makes them difficult to monitor and manage effectively. In addition, the inshore nature of their fishing grounds mean that they encounter frequent competition for space with many other marine users, such as tourism activities, recreational fishery, aquaculture productions, wind and wave energy farms, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other coastal developments. While automated monitoring systems that track fishing activity do exist, they are not currently fit for the needs of the small-scale fleet, meaning that it is difficult to understand the true impact that SSFs are having on marine habitats.

Using stakeholder insight to evaluate perceived impacts of SSF gears

CABFishMan has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholder groups, including fishers, fisheries managers, conservation organisations, and scientific researchers to develop a new method to score and rank the potential impacts of SSF gears on marine environments. The work specifically seeks to fill a gap in current understanding of the impacts of SSF in the Northeast Atlantic, and offers a comprehensive evaluation of the interactions that are expected to occur when using different types of fishing gears across different habitats. 

The approach scored an array of impacts, including physical and chemical impacts (e.g. sea bottom degradation and greenhouse gas emissions), biological and ecological impacts (e.g. bycatch of non-commercial species), and fishery impacts (e.g. discards and ghost fishing). The assessment process drew upon stakeholder knowledge, asking them to rank the expected frequency, severity and duration of 16 impacts according to their experience. The cumulative score of this process was defined as a Fishing Gear Impact Score and taken as an overall rank for the SSF gear impacts.

In terms of fishing gear impacts, trammel nets were perceived as having ‘very high’ impact, and boat dredges and set gillnets as having ‘high’ impact, with variation noted in the perceptions across the three countries represented (Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom). Pots and traps and set longlines were perceived as having ‘low’ or ‘very low’ impact, with handlines perceived to be the lowest impact gear. 

Bycatch of non-commercial species and its discards were perceived to be the most common fishing gear impact (trammel nets, set gillnets and boat dredges). Overall, the fishing gears perceived as having the highest impact on threatened or protected habitats were the mobile gears, while on bycatch of threatened or protected species the static gears were perceived to have the highest impact. Discards of target species was an impact perceived for all the fishing gears analysed, except for handlines. The fleets perceived as having higher losses of fishing gears capable of ghost fishing, were trammel nets and set gillnets, although this was also considered an issue for pots and traps and set longlines.

Fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were perceived to contribute highly to the overall impact of fishing gears, primarily across mobile gears (boat dredges and bottom otter trawls), but also within static gears (trammel nets, set gillnets, and pots and traps). Impacts induced by noise emissions were also most commonly associated with mobile gears, while trammel nets and set gillnets were the gears perceived to have the greatest impact by the litter dumped at sea. 

There was little consensus across participating countries regarding fishing gear impacts on sea bottoms. Static gears were overall perceived to have a higher impact on hard bottoms than mobile gears. Mobile gears were perceived to have a higher impact on soft bottoms. 

Trammel nets, set gillnets, pots and traps, and boat dredges were perceived to be the gears most likely to cause conflict with other gears, particularly static gears.

Looking to the future: Developing tools for sustainable, collaborative management

The goals of this work were to:

  • Evaluate and rank fishing gears according to the fishing gear impact score; 
  • Identify potential impacts of SSF in the Northeast Atlantic;
  • Assess the potential impacts on European Nature Information System (EUNIS) habitats; and
  • Map the impacts of SSF across the NE Atlantic.

In developing this assessment, CABFishMan will create a base of understanding from which the impacts of small-scale fisheries can be evaluated and understood, and proposals for their mitigation can be made. The project will work to produce evidence and recommendations for adjusting existing legislations, adding value to SSF products, encouraging diversification of the sector, and promoting long term sustainable management.