A scientific basis for regulating deep-sea fishing by depth

The deep sea is the world’s largest ecosystem, with high levels of biodiversity and many species that exhibit life-history characteristics that make them vulnerable to high levels of exploitation. Many fisheries in the deep sea have a track record of being unsustainable. In the northeast Atlantic, there has been a decline in the abundance of commercial fish species since deep-sea fishing commenced in the 1970s. Current management is by effort restrictions and total allowable catch (TAC), but there remain problems with compliance and high levels of bycatch of vulnerable species such as sharks. The European Union is currently considering new legislation to manage deep-sea fisheries, including the introduction of a depth limit to bottom trawling. However, there is little evidence to suggest an appropriate depth limit. Here we use survey data to show that biodiversity of the demersal fish community, the ratio of discarded to commercial biomass, and the ratio of Elasmobranchii (sharks and rays) to commercial biomass significantly increases between 600 and 800 m depth while commercial value decreases. These results suggest that limiting bottom trawling to a maximum depth of 600 m could be an effective management strategy that would fit the needs of European legislations such as the Common Fisheries Policy (EC no. 1380/2013) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC).

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