Is the remarkable recovery of hake in the Atlantic Ocean a sign of hope for our oceans?

The hake population in the waters of north-west Europe has recovered spectacularly over the past twenty years. What is behind this remarkable recovery and how could this success story be repeated elsewhere?

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the remote fishing villages of Galicia in northern Spain aren’t bustling with activity at 2am, but you’d be wrong.

This autonomous region, with a coastline of more than 1,600 kilometers, is known for its seafood. Dockers here at the Port of Celeiro work through the night, unloading loads of fresh catch before transporting them to busy nearby markets.

Thanks to its privileged geographical location in the northwestern corner of Spain, Galicia offers unparalleled access to the Atlantic Ocean and is a paradise for fishing enthusiasts.

With its flaky texture, the mild-tasting hake is a staple of Galician cuisine and the backbone of the local economy.

“This fish is incredibly versatile – you can prepare it in just about any way you can imagine,” says Domingo Alló Puñal, a chef who prides himself on bringing the best of Celeiro’s seafood to the table. Boa Vista restaurant.

“If the hake fishery closed we would all be out of work. We all depend on hake,” admitted José Luis Fernández Louzao, a local first mate.

However, Galicia has faced this problem before. Not long ago, this critically important species almost disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean, but stocks later recovered, stronger than ever.

Marine scientist Javier López, who leads the sustainable fishing campaign at the conservation organization Oceana told Euronews about the damaging effects that overfishing in the 1980s and 1990s had on the commercial market years later.

“Hake numbers in the Atlantic Ocean have fallen dramatically due to decades of overfishing. The population was so low that the species was on the verge of collapse. This was not only alarming for the environment, for the fish population, but also for the people involved.

“Many fishermen and coastal communities dependent on hake would have struggled to maintain their activities,” he explained.

Fast forward to the present, hake from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean is known for its sustainability, quality and traceability. Selective fishing gear has minimized damage to hake populations in these waters, helping to keep stocks at healthy levels.

Take your hake and eat it too

How does hake fishing sustain fish stocks while meeting local demand? The answer lies in timely conservation measures and a little luck.

The European hake is widely distributed throughout the northeastern Atlantic Ocean; in the 1990s, overfishing reduced numbers to well below sustainable levels. Scientists observing the decline raised the alarm, warning that the northern hake could disappear.

In response, the European Union took decisive steps in the early 2000s. They set strict catch limits based on scientific advice, increased the mesh size of fishing nets to allow young hake to escape and created two large protected areas where the young ones could grow. Fortunately, the sea conditions were favorable, which also played a major role.

These efforts paid off: the northern hake population rose to unprecedented levels. This revival allowed for a gradual increase in fishing quotas so that hake could be fished sustainably.

The same method could be applied to other species that are in decline. López explained that the key is to set concrete, long-term recovery goals, enforce measures and stick to them.

“Achieving this level of recovery and the fact that we currently have an abundance of northern hake in the Atlantic Ocean is no coincidence. It is the result of careful management, control measures and favorable conditions in the oceans. But credit must also go to the fishing industry that has weathered these consequences. measures,” López explains.

Local fishermen face many challenges in the current climate: from low market prices to fierce competition from cheap imports. However, current stock figures are helping the community regain Celeiro’s reputation.

“There were a few years where the fishery dropped quite a bit. Let me give you an example: before we used to catch 4,000 kilos a day, now we catch 1,000 kilos a day. Europe reduced the catches and then increased them. Now the fish population is good, we fish very well,” says José Novo Rodríguez, the CEO of the Port of Celeiro.

While hake numbers in the Atlantic Ocean have recovered, stocks in the Mediterranean are in a precarious state.

Slow recovery of hake in the Mediterranean

A recent report from the European Commission showedthat hake numbers in the Mediterranean would need to increase more than tenfold to achieve sustainability.

Beatriz Guijarrowho directs the assessment of fisheries resources COB-IEO CSICthe Spanish Institute of Oceanography, said hake populations off the coast of the Balearic Islands have been “unsustainably maintained” as the underwater terrain has helped some hake evade trawlers, allowing them to survive.

“Hake is overfished, but according to our data it is not at risk of collapse. A crucial part of the population, the large females, live in areas that are generally inaccessible to trawlers. This helps maintain the population over the years, despite continued overexploitation. ‘ she told Euronews.

The Mediterranean Sea is diverse and complex, making hake recovery a long-term challenge. Area closures, the use of more selective fishing gear and attempts to regulate the number of fishing days were implemented here with a significant delay – twenty years after the measures in the Atlantic Ocean – so it is too early to assess the results.

Can these methods be used to supplement other marine species?

In the port of Alcúdia in northern Mallorca, Joan Jesús Vaquero Enseñat, the captain of a bottom trawler, told Euronews that the fishing sector initially resisted the restrictions, but admitted that the measures are justified today, even if he is only allowed for four days fishing. a week.

According to facts According to data released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2023, the dangers of overfishing of European hake in the Mediterranean have been reduced by 39 percent under current management plans.

While hake numbers in the Mediterranean are now slowly rising, Javier López warned that the species remains vulnerable and numbers could still decline. But with the right measures there is a good chance of recovery.

“The most important lesson here is that we should not wait for a crisis before we act. By taking early action, more complex problems and socio-economic consequences are avoided.

“The sea is generous; with the right measures, its resources can be replenished. There are limits we must not cross, but if we act wisely, we can be confident that the fish will return,” López concluded.

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