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Italy sea nature
Boats fishing in Italy's Adriatic Sea. Photo: Enrico Pighetti.

The fishy business of the Adriatic Sea: can the EU save marine wildlife?

In early June 2021, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure against Italy for its poor management and protection of Nature 2000 areas, the largest network of protected areas in the world spanning across Europe. 

The EU highlighted a special mismanagement of marine areas, like Italy’s Adriatic Sea, located in the country’s eastern shores.

With the biodiversity crisis at its grimmest in this region, Italy’s problem has shifted from a need to create more protected areas, to actually making sure they’re effective in protecting biodiversity and restoring damaged ecosystems.

One particularly vulnerable site is Tegnue di Chioggia, close to Venice in the northern Adriatic Sea. This is a site of community importance, but it’s also a hotspot for litter, explains Tomaso Fortibuoni, a researcher on marine litter at ISPRA. Fisherpeople use the seas in this location to dump old nets.

Biodiversity in the Adriatic Sea is under severe pressure from human activities, but it’s also vital to protect ecosystems and even human beings, scientists say.

italy fishing
Nets in the water. Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

 

“Protecting biodiversity is necessary to prevent ecosystems from collapsing, to preserve ecosystems that are able to adapt to alien species and changing environmental conditions”, explains Carlotta Mazzoldi, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Padua.

Fisherpeople are left with a deserted seabed and nets full of worms at the end of the seasonal fishing ban. The Adriatic Sea, once home to astonishing biodiversity, is now facing incredible challenges linked to climate change and anthropic activities.

The Adriatic Sea is a eutrophic sea, meaning that its primary production is very high. This is because of how it has evolved throughout various glacial eras, but also because of the rich input of rivers such as the Po’ river, which collects nutrients and substances along its flowing path that will then fertilise the sea waters. At present, this eutrophication is reduced, as explained by Mazzoldi.

Due to its position and its oceanographic characteristics of low depth, long-and-narrowness, and affluence of different rivers, the Adriatic Sea represents a unique marine ecosystem in the Mediterranean Sea.

To put regulations in place, the European Commission lays out a conservation strategy for the Italian government to implement. However, the fisheries sector has resisted these efforts.

“European policies are heavily skewed towards the environment, not taking enough into account socio-economic aspects. It is particularly obvious in the implementation of management plans that limit the activities of fisherfolks to the point of threatening the sustainability of the industry itself”, explains Paolo Tiozzo, President of Federcoopesca.

Still, excessive and unsustainable fishing, poor management of protected areas, and the thriving of alien species brought by ships and kept by warmer waters are the leading causes of a severe loss in biodiversity.

A recent report published by ISPRA highlights that although species and habitats have been protected and regulated for decades, only 22% of marine species meet a good status of conservation. The situation is better for marine habitats, where 63% show a positive status, while 37% remain unknown.

Part 1: What are the causes of this biodiversity loss?

Most of the threats to wildlife are anthropogenic, which means they’re linked to human activities by people living on and off the sea. For example, excessive boat traffic, displacement of marine litter and overfishing are all threats to marine biodiversity.

As the Mediterranean Sea altogether, the Adriatic Sea is deeply affected by the changing climate.

Due to its very shallow waters whose temperatures are more prone to vary due to seasonal changes or global warming, the Adriatic waters are more susceptible to global warming.

Warmer waters allow non-indigenous species – brought by ballast water or by natural migration – to thrive and to affect the balance among species, producing two main phenomena.

italy marine wildlife
The blue crab is an example of tropicalization of the Adriatic Sea. Photo: D-Stanley.

 

First, tropicalization might occur when tropical species start populating the sea, such as in the case of the high-performing Blue Crab. “This kickstarts a path where such alien species cannot be stopped, as no activities can be put in place to eradicate them, and they just live”, explains Raicevich.

On the other hand, meridionalization occurs when species already present in the Southern Adriatic migrate North to find cooler water. An example is the Pomatomus Saltatrix, also known as Bluefish.

Due to the semi-closed nature of the Adriatic, however, the rising water temperature means that fish won’t be eventually able to migrate north and will perish.

At the same time, many of the activities currently carried out in such areas have a huge impact on global warming, such as in the case of offshore gas platforms. 

“If climate change is one of the leading factors in biodiversity loss, more should be done to reduce the use of fossil fuel and promote renewable energy”, explains Antonio Nicoletti, Head of national MPAs and biodiversity at Legambiente. “We should start by closing down the Teodorico platform, which is a violent action by Eni against the principle of the protection of biodiversity right in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.”

The fish in the room

The Mediterranean Sea is the most overexploited sea in the world, according to FAO. Within the most exploited water basin in the world, the Adriatic Sea has historically faced great anthropic pressure from fishery, industry, and tourism tracing back to early ages, breaking the grim record of being the most utilised and overfished section of the Mediterranean.

In the Adriatic Sea, vessels catch fish faster than stocks can replenish, and as predicted by ecological theories, overfishing has caused long-term changes, leaving bigger examples of fish and reducing the presence of vulnerable species.

The origin of this overexploitation traces way back in time, with the Austro-Ausburgic empire ordering the killing of all the sharks to avoid competition in fishing.

Due to its oceanographic features of being a long, narrow, and semi-closed sea, the Adriatic Sea has throughout history been densely populated and its resources have always been shared by different peoples, explains Mazzoldi.

In the aftermath of WW2, the Italian fishing industry was abundantly financed. “The real mistake was to incentivize fishing efforts in the 70s, with subsidies for industrial fishing and trawling”, comments Domitilla Senni, Founder of MedReAct.

According to the National Coordinator of Sea Shepherd Italy Andrea Morello, the major issue of the contemporary fishing industry is fishing like the resources were endless, leading to the current state of overstressing of the marine ecosystems. 

Despite the oneness of the sea, the responsibilities differ across different countries.

For instance, the Italian intensive industrial fishing industry is way more advanced, whereas on the Croatian side fishing efforts focus more on small pelagic fish and the tourist industry has a larger impact compared to the Italian shores, explains Sasa Raicevich, Head of the Unit Conservation, management and sustainable use of national marine resources at ISPRA.

 

The worrying effects of overfishing

Overfishing in the Adriatic Sea means less fish and less oxygen. First, this leads to a harsh decline of commercial species that can be fished. “The most concerning consequence for the fishing industry is the decline of productivity. If natural resources are overexploited, the resources that can be gathered decline drastically”, explains Raicevich. “There is this paradox for which fishing too much becomes detrimental for fisherfolks’ pockets.”

Second, it results in a dramatic simplification of the marine ecosystems. “Modifying the ecosystems”, continues Raicevich, “makes it less diverse and more vulnerable to changes and to the proliferation of invasive species”, which alter the systems even further.

Third, overfishing prevents the sea from acting as a carbon sink. Indeed, biodiversity loss does not only have negative impacts on the fishing industries and the small fisherfolks who struggle to sustain themselves. Even worse, and in a less anthropocentric way, it erodes the chance of the sea to trap Co2 in return for oxygen.

“The Mediterranean Sea altogether is a hotspot for climate change”, elaborated Senni. “Within the Mediterranean, there are mechanisms that can help, but they are hindered by activities such as trawling. It is not just about preserving fishing stocks or protecting ecosystems: it is a matter of safeguarding the ability of the sea to act as a carbon sink.”

 

What are the solutions?

Solutions are many, and complex. One of the possible solutions to the biodiversity loss linked to overfishing is putting a halt to fish consumption.

“It is necessary to eliminate an excessive demand for fish in the markets, otherwise profit will always win”, suggests Morello. “Right now we need to ask ourselves whether it is worth carrying on a habit, if we really need to eat that tuna, or if we can leave it in the water, and let the sea recover.”

Another market-based solution suggests convincing consumers to only support artisanal and small fisheries.

“Sustainable fishing must go hand in glove with sustainable consumption. This means encouraging consumers to eat locally sourced fish or even better to eat certain species instead of others”, says Mazzoldi.

Although many advocate for plant-based diets to let the oceans recover, the majority of the experts interviewed for this article agreed on the need to make fishery sustainable instead of scrapping it completely.

“Fishing exists and is an important human activity, and there is a need to make it more sustainable and less impactful, to maintain biodiversity or restore it where lost”, states Mazzoldi. According to her, positive examples of protected areas promoting sustainable fishing are already in place, such as in the case of Torre Guaceto, Puglia.

italy sea nature
Ghost nets in the Adriatic. Photo by ADRINET

 

According to Morello, however, what lies behind legal and rule-abiding fishing is approximately 10% of illegal fishing, measured in incidental capture of non-target species, known as bycatch. “Sustainable fishing does not exist in Italian seas at this historic moment. Bycatch is not bycatch at all. It is clear to everyone that certain fishing methods will kill sharks and dolphins”, which are protected species.

Those supporting fishery management suggest that every human activity has an impact and that it is a matter of making this impact more sustainable, in environmental and socio-economic terms.

“The issue with management is that it needs to combine biological needs with the needs of the fishing industry, that can’t be strictly limited or stopped from one year to another”, comments Enrico Arneri, from the Institute for Marine Resources and Biotechnologies.

Following another market-based solution, he suggests regulating the days for fishing taking into account the needs of the market. This means making available to the market an amount of fish that doesn’t make the prices collapse, transferring the responsibility for a higher commercial price to the consumer.

Part 2: How the EU regulates biodiversity and fishery

Marine ecosystems are the EU’s most extended ecosystem type, covering up to 5.8 million km². Seas, fishing, and marine biodiversity are the competence of the European Commission, but the implementation of the EU strategy and its translation into policymaking is the prerogative of the Italian government.

“Fishery policy in the Adriatic sea is managed by the EU Commission with general goals and strategies that are then translated and implemented at the national level, supported by the General Fishery Commission for the Mediterranean, an FAO organism aiming to sustainably manage fishing resources in the Mediterranean sea”, explains Raicevich. This means goals and tools are European, while the implementation and local actions are carried out at the national and subregional levels.

The policies concerning the Adriatic Sea, like all the other European seas, are negotiated in the EU Commission by all the Member states.

The EU presents a clear strict approach to blue development and growth, which passes through a variety of policies and actions aimed to advance technologies, reduce the impacts, and enhance protection regimes.

Among them, stricter fishing policies attempt to reduce and modernize the fleets allowed to fish, while policies to enhance biodiversity promote the establishment of MPAs and strictly protected areas for habitats and fish stocks recovery (especially after the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030) and the improvement of river and sea water quality. 

All these converge in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which aims to protect all European marine environments reaching a Good Environmental Status, referring to ecosystems being in good physical, chemical, and biological condition with self-reproduction or self-restoration capability. In other words, in a sea with a good environmental status, species composition, ecosystem structure and ecological functions are not impaired.

But how to tackle overfishing?

The first method entails working on the inputs, limiting the fishing efforts.

This means reducing the number of animals getting killed, be it through the limitation of the time spent in the sea or modifying the technical aspects of the allowed gears, prohibiting certain fishing methods or banning fishing in certain areas.

If reducing time spent in the sea refers to cutting down the days fisherfolks are allowed to fish, setting a seasonal fishing prohibition, modifying technical aspects of gears means for instance introducing nets with larger and more selective mesh so that bycatch of smaller fish that are either too young or belong to non-commercial species can be reduced.

Parallelly to modifying the gears, some advocate for banning certain non-discriminative and intrusive methods, such as trawling and suction dredging. “There are areas in the Middle and North Adriatic where cutter suction dredgers are still used to gather clams, but really everything they come across, contributing to the desertification of the sea. This violence against the sea should be prohibited”, explains Nicoletti.

Identifying which fleets are fit for fishing depending on their technical and technological advancement is also pivotal. This means not only downsizing the fleet but also agreeing on which vessels and boats can fish specific species or in specific areas. Otherwise, according to Arneri, the moment the fish stocks get better, everyone will start exploiting them again.

Lastly, prohibiting fishing in certain areas, such as nurseries or reproduction spots, is vital for biodiversity.

The second method consists in reducing the outputs.

This refers to introducing fishing quotas, which set a limit to the maximum tons of fish that can be collected.

Defined on scientific advice, but oftentimes then increased, fishing quotas are very popular in the North Sea. “This type of effort to cut overfishing, however, only makes sense when the fishery is monospecific, like in the Nordic case”, explains Corrado Piccinetti, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Bologna.

The Adriatic response: protected areas and selective gears

In the Adriatic sea, the main approach to tackle overfishing is limiting the inputs, due to the varying nature of biodiversity in the sea.

One type of restriction of the fishing efforts is the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), which refers to geographically distinct zones where objectives of safeguarding biodiversity and maintaining marine ecosystem services are set.

One example of fishery restricted areas is the Pomo Pit. “The Pomo Pit presents an area of around 1200km² where fishing is completely prohibited and a buffer zone where it is allowed for just two days a week and only for certain vessels”, explains Arneri.

italy sea wildlife
The robot Blucy in the water. Photo by SUSHI-DROP

 

Fisherfolks were initially against this kind of measure, but then learnt to appreciate the results, ending up being the ones advocating for the implementation of MPAs, says Raicevich.

Despite the goal of having 30% of European seas as MPAs by 2030, the Adriatic Sea is missing the target by a lot, presenting not even 6% of protected areas.

Today, only 9.68% of the Mediterranean Sea has been designated for protection, of which only 1.27% is effectively protected, according to WWF.

“The plan for the management of the Adriatic suggests the creation of other MPAs, but the scientific debate [on where and how to create them] is not over yet”, elaborated Arneri.

According to Mazzoldi, one of the reasons for the lack of creation of more MPAs is that its conformation and its great anthropic pressure make it hard to identify areas in the Adriatic Sea that can be effectively shut down to and protected from human presence.

Another critical aspect lies in the fact that once established, MPAs need to be granted real protection.

“Sometimes there’s little clarity about the roles, or maybe they are bouncing the responsibility around, and no one does anything. I am afraid this is more about inefficiency on behalf of the Italian public administration. There’s plenty of technology and tools to check, it only needs the will to do so and to not be afraid of upsetting fisherfolks”, comments Fortibuoni.

Limitations such as the difficulty to identify spots that can be entirely closed to human activities, as well as the lack of real protection once established, threaten the efficacy of MPAs.

Another action undertaken in the Adriatic to enhance sustainability is the reduction of the size of the fleet, together with the modification of gears.

The Italian fleet has been declining in the last decades, now presenting around 12.000 trawlers with around 25.000 people employed.

However, an aspect working against it is the technological progress of the fishing industry, according to Senni. For instance, a 20 meter-long contemporary fishing boat might have a higher capture capacity compared to a 20 meter-long boat from 20 years ago.

In other words, under the same condition, the hourly efficiency of new boats is much higher and might balance out the bans and limitations, if only inputs are regulated. On the other hand, if outputs are regulated too, the tons of fish you’re allowed to fish is set and is not nullified by higher efficiency elements.

Some key projects

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Interreg is one of the European instruments to promote cross-border, transnational, and interregional cooperation through project funding.

Many of the Interreg projects aim at enhancing biodiversity, tackling the consequences, and sometimes the causes, of anthropic activities.

One example is ADRINET, a project developed to track down lost nets and gears posing a threat to the ecosystem, as well as to repurpose fisherfolks to sea-caretakers. The project is over and although most of the objectives were met, the problems lie at the national level, where Elisabetta Bonerba suggests there aren’t structural funds to make these changes sustainable beyond the project. 

Another example is SUSHI-DROP, which has launched the first underwater scientific expedition of its newly-devised AI-driven robot that collects data on biodiversity and maps the sea bed even at depths traditional methods such as deep divers cannot reach.

Another one is InnovaMare, which expects to create in a period of 10 years a flock of artificial fish that, through machine learning, can report back to the cloud on sea conditions and marine litter.

Although many are torn about the real efficacy, innovativeness, and after-funding long-term sustainability of Interreg projects, their strength lies in the fact that they help go beyond provincialism. “To successfully manage a shared sea like the Adriatic, a joint response is necessary”, explains Raicevich.

Not everyone is happy

EU-backed actions aimed at reducing the fishing efforts are very negatively welcomed in Italy, especially among fisherfolks who accuse the EU Commission of tearing apart their long fishing tradition and their chance at an income from the fishery.

“We are not against the protection of the environment. However, the plan to establish 30% of MPAs by 2030 seems excessive to us. The marine spaces left would be too reduced to sustainably carry out fishing efforts. Soon we’ll need to establish a reserve for fishermen,” said Paolo Tiozzo, President of Federcoopesca.

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Fishermen in the Adriatic Sea. Photo by Karl Andrich from Pixabay

 

The recent protests against the reduction of fishing efforts that have shaken up different harbour cities in June are yet another example of the discontentment related to the European approach to the protection of biodiversity.

“Certain specific traditional fishing methods have indeed been banned because, for instance, they used nets with very tight mesh”, says Raicevich. “But it is worth remembering that bans and regulations are oftentimes translated into local necessities and that the Italian government has a role in the negotiation and reception of the norms.”

Fisherfolks themselves believe Brussels’ actions to be an intrusion to national freedom of action. “As fisherfolks are often sovereigntist, they consider the fishery policy dictated by the EU as an imposition from above, they consider these limitations an intrusion of the national free will”, says Fortibuoni.

On top of that, the EU is accused of not taking into account the peculiarities of the different seas and regulating different seas with the same norms.

“For years the Mediterranean has been the neglected child of the European fishery policy, which has been deeply influenced by the Nordic industrial fishery”, explains Domitilla Senni. “Now this is more of an alibi.”

“At the beginning of the rationalisation of the fishing industry in Europe there might have been a tendency to implement ideas more suitable for the Nordic sea, but years have gone by and I don’t feel like subscribing to such statements anymore”, confirms Arneri.

Under the impulse of both the Commission and the Fishery in the Mediterranean region, the Mediterranean has recently seen an increasing interest in quantitative approaches peculiar to the Nordic sea, such as stock assessment, which refers to the mortality exercised by the fishing industry. This, however, refers to a renewed commitment to science-based approaches, according to Raicevich, who suggests that “It is not just about whether they are adequate, it is really a matter of implementing measures, making sure they are respected, and verifying the results.”

The weak link: the Italian State

What really appears to be missing is a strong national-level actor able to enhance the dialogue among stakeholders and take responsibility for thoroughly implementing EU norms in a way sustainable for biodiversity, people, and the economy.

The Italian administration is struggling to conjugate local interests of the traditional fishing sector suffering from restrictions and the emptiness of the seas with the need to further the protection of marine ecosystems.

According to Antonio Nicoletti, Legambiente national referee for MPAs and biodiversity, this is a cultural issue. “Our country is almost completely surrounded by the sea, yet we have forgotten to have around 8000km of coasts. In Italy, the Mediterranean sparks debate only when it comes to migrants trying to cross it. If Italy does not start from the sea again, the biodiversity problem won’t be solved”, affirms Nicoletti.

Italy sea fishing
Fisherman on a vessel. Photo by Greg Montani from Pixabay

 

One glaring example is that the Recovery and Resilience Plan didn’t mention the sea, if not only in terms of harbour infrastructures.The zoologist Ferdinando Boero had to start a battle to include biodiversity and marine ecosystems. And we are literally immersed in water, yet it is so boldly ignored”, confirms Senni.

On top of that, Italian fisherfolks view the sea as something that belongs to them, where they can roam around unbothered and unregulated. “Once a fisherman told me that he liked to be out in the sea because there were no traffic lights. But this is not a viable narrative anymore”, says Senni. “And the real problem is the political class, which needs to mediate and find solutions to safeguard short-term and long-term interests.”

Most of the sources identified the main problem in the lack of political will to implement solutions protecting biodiversity, in the fear of upsetting local interests and losing support from the influential fishing industry.

Not only failing to truly meditate between Brussels and local interests, the Italian government and public administration is also struggling with internal coherence.

“There are problems between the ministries in Italy, especially between the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Ministry of the Ecological Transition. They push for contrasting things. Then overall, it gets more political consensus to let everyone do whatever they want compared to applying rules”, comments Fortibuoni.

This appears to be true for the implementation of new marine protected areas and the protection of the already existing ones. 

“Legambiente has been fighting for years to open a protected area around Mount Conero, a crucial area for biodiversity, but also tourism”, says Nicoletti. “Local actors don’t want it because they want to do with the sea as they please. The sea is a regional prerogative, but its protection is a duty of the State, which should do more.”

“From an administrative standpoint, there are frictions about the coastal MPAs, where tourism, small fisheries and local interest get in the way to avoid the constitution of other MPAs”, explains Senni. “However, the protected areas that should really be implemented are those in the high seas, because that’s where industrial fishing and trawling industry interests unfold.”

Italian politics also appears to ignore the fact that there is a need to rethink the fishing system altogether.

“The problem is the lack of political will to intervene, which allows everyone to blame Brussels instead of taking action. Keeping doing business as usual is not an option, the resources are not enough. This type of fishing is just too destructive”, affirms Senni.

Sustainability must be conceived in holistic terms, meaning that to be sustainable, an action or a strategy must be biologically, socially, and economically sustainable in the long run. “Sustainability does not only refer to marine good status, but it also pertains to the economic sustainability of the fisherfolk”, affirms Fortibuoni.

Less fishing licenses should be given to amateur fisherfolks, as their impact, although smaller in size, is way less trackable compared to the industrial one, according to Nicoletti.

But as regards the professional fisherfolk, ways to reconvert their activities and knowledge should be identified and implemented. 

“Fisherfolks should be allowed to be out in the sea for longer doing a variety of activities, such as policing areas, assisting struggling wild fauna, cleaning up the seabeds. They need to be part of a conversion that values their knowledge of the sea”, affirms Nicoletti.

Another example of reconversion is sustainable tourism, whale watching business being one of the many yet untaken opportunities, according to Morello.

Part 3: Results exist…

“The number of overfished stocks is decreasing, very slowly but it is decreasing”, suggests Arneri.

Some species are recovering, such as the Smooth-hound and the Red Tuna, for which a special mix of reduced fishing efforts and a quota system was put in place.

“A case study of great European fishing management is the red tuna. All the supply chain was reviewed, checks were put in place at different stages, from inspections on the boat to fishing certifications. Now the fish stocks are better”, says Senni. “Fisherfolks complain there is even too much tuna now.”

… but they have limitations

“By 2030, we need to meet the goal of 30% of protected areas and 10% of strictly protected areas, but we are so far from that. Although they make miracles, our system of MPAs is underfinanced, managed without common lines, and all the results are thanks to the people directly involved in the management”, explains Nicoletti.

In 2018, around 75% of fish stocks were overfished. In 2012, it was 88%. Although some assessed commercial fish stocks signs of recovery in the North East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, they remain critically overfished in the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the report on the State of Mediterranean and Black Sea Fisheries (SoMFi 2020), while this is the first time in decades that the GFCM has been able to report some positive trends, most of the stocks remain overexploited.

“There is a positive trend in action there, the rate of mortality has decreased, but we are still far from the goals of sustainability in the Mediterranean”, recognizes Raicevich. “Some more measures have been adopted to further limit the fishing efforts of 30% in the next four years, but this will come with socio-economic implications.”

Even if less, fish stocks are still suffering. “Although measures were adopted, results are not immediate. Probably there is going to be a need to further cut down on fishing”, acknowledges Arneri. “The system is in motion at least.”

We depend on the sea

Some argue that a less intense fishing effort does not equal an increase in biodiversity.

According to Piccinetti, the fish left in the sea by fisherfolks just becomes part of the diet of other species that will flourish, eventually causing an imbalance between predators and prey.

“Removing fishery as balance regulator among the species won’t leave more fish in the sea. The balance between species will autoregulate, but not according to the rules we want”, articulates Piccineti.

But what we need to understand, highlights Morello, is that we do not only economically depend on the sea, we depend on the sea for our own existence.

“When we will be able to step away from anthropocentrism to biocentrism in the relationship with this blue resource, then at that point we’ll be able to implement more holistic and serious answers to its crisis.”