Working Group on the Ecosystem Effects of Fishing Activities (WGECO)

Julia Calderwood, Jeremy Collie, Jasper Croll, Simon P. R. Greenstreet, Christian Griffiths, Ellen Kenchington, Tobias van Kooten, Christopher P. Lynam, M. Moriarty, Stefán Áki Ragnarsson, David G. Reid, Anna Rindorf, Marie Savina-Rolland, Victoria Sarrazin, Samuel Shephard, Brian Smith, Murray Thompson

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The 2019 meeting of WGECO was held at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, Copenhagen, Denmark from 8–16 April 2019. The meeting was attended by 16 delegates from eight countries and was chaired by Stefán Ragnarsson (Iceland) and Jeremy Collie (USA). The work conducted centred on three Terms of Reference that had been made by WGECO. In addition, a list of sensitive species prepared by WGBYC was reviewed.
WGECO continued the work initiated in 2018 to examine the ecological consequences of stock rebuilding, with emphasis on benthivorous fish (ToRa). Two case studies were carried out to estimate the predation pressure of fish on benthos. In one, the consumption of benthic invertebrates by demersal fish on the US continental shelf regions was compared with their biomass in sediments. The estimated annual consumption of benthic organisms was a small proportion (<5%) of total abundance for most taxa but as high as 25% for some prey. Benthic food resources do not appear to be limiting the feeding of benthivorous fishes. The second study examined the temporal trends in diet composition and consumption rates of haddock, which has experienced a northerly shift in abundance in Icelandic waters. Some prey types showed clear trends from 2006 to 2019, while others had more variable patterns. Consumption rates of benthic invertebrates, fish and zooplankton/natantia prey types were calculated. The much greater consumption of fish prey relative to the other two prey groups was of interest.
WGECO scrutinized methods to estimate density-dependent effects on fish growth and made suggestions on its estimation from stock assessment or survey data. A simulation study showed that the age-specific growth increment may not be a useful variable to test for density-dependent growth, because it depends on body size. In the WGECO 2018 report, the case had been made that North Sea plaice show density-dependent growth reduction. In 2019, we conducted a more thorough analysis of the spatial and temporal trends in distribution, growth and status of plaice in the North Sea. As the plaice population increased in abundance, the spatial distribution did not expand, apart from an increased occupancy of marginal areas. The observed reduction in plaice weight-at-length may thus be explained by the metabolic stress associated with the effects of rising sea temperature on plaice growth rates. However, the two mechanisms, temperature and density, that can explain reduced weight-at-age are not mutually exclusive.
As part of ToR b, WGECO compiled fisheries-dependent size composition data from four regions: West of Scotland, Irish Sea, West of Ireland, and the Northern Celtic Sea. This novel dataset was used to examine changes in the length composition of the catch in relation to changes in total catch (used as a proxy for fishing pressure). In the Irish Sea, for example, the commercial fishery now catches larger individuals of larger demersal species as the total catch has declined. Size composition of the landings was compared with size composition in the surveys. In the northern Celtic Sea and West of Scotland, the commercial fleets generally take fish of a much larger size than those caught by the survey. By contrast, in the Irish Sea the commercial fleets tend to capture fish across the whole size range available in the environment.
Demersal fish community indicators of species composition and size–structure were investigated for several sea areas, using survey data for state, and fisheries-dependent data for pressure. Together, these indicators can be used to track the wider impacts of fisheries on the ecosystem and monitor the evolving nature of the relationship between pressure and state. Simple empirical approaches for setting targets and baselines for demersal fish communities were tested with sensitivity analyses and applied to additional survey areas. WGECO recommends that these indicators be adopted by ICES for evaluating acceptable status for communities and supplemented where possible with risk-based targets from multispecies modelling approaches. A multispecies model framework was advanced to determine more ambitious risk-based targets for demersal fish community indicators that can be used to minimise the risk that stocks suffer from impaired reproductive capacity consistent with commercial fish stock indicators. Ensemble modelling demonstrated that the fish community in the North Sea is recovering in response to fisheries management.
WGECO reviewed potential indicators of spatial distribution with special attention to the simplicity of use and ease of communicating the results to non-experts (ToRc). Metrics including aspects of latitude, longitude or depth (e.g. range and centre of gravity) and the area containing a fixed percentage of the population (termed core area) were considered simple to use and easy to communicate. Other measures were considered useful for scientific purposes but less easily applied and communicated to managers. The accuracy of selected indicators for spatial distribution were explored in a simulation study. The metrics produced from the simulated raw survey data and modelled data accurately reflected the underlying mean abundance of the simulated data, but more accurately for the more-common species. Changes in the centre of gravity were detected with high accuracy. The percent of occupied area is generally accurate in its trend when there is a strongly aggregated population, whereas classifying occupied area is more complicated when the population is more dispersed. This preliminary analysis provides the context for analysing distributional metrics at the scale of large marine ecosystems. The spatial distributions of three age groups of plaice were analysed as a case study. The observed northerly and easterly movements of plaice distribution and into deeper waters are interpreted as a response to warming sea temperatures. Consistency in area usage over time was examined to identify those areas critical to plaice. This analysis revealed that the proportion of the population using the ‘critical areas’ (defined as the area holding 75% of the population in 60% of years) was stable over the study period, though some decreases have been noted in recent years.
WGECO compared the list of sensitive species identified by WGBYC with the underlying list of species to be monitored under the protection programmes in the EU, using methods reviewed previously in WGECO as well as the sensitivity ratings carried out by IUCN. A resulting list of sensitive species and vulnerable/endangered/critically endangered species is provided. Halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) was the only species suggested by WGBYC which is considered sensitive to fishing. The remaining species, with the exception of the two Hippocampus species, are diadromous species likely to be most sensitive to deterioration of their freshwater habitat. Eleven sensitive species are absent from the list of species to be monitored under protection programmes; WGECO recommends that these 11 should be added to the Commission list to provide information on sensitive and vulnerable species. Further, WGECO recommends that the requirement to return specimens of endangered and critically endangered species to the sea should not be restricted to parts of EU waters and that the status of sensitive species should be monitored on a regular basis, with the aim of providing advice on the adequacy of existing landing restrictions.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherInternational Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)
Number of pages155
Publication statusPublished - 2019
SeriesICES Scientific Report

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