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Commentary. Overfishing in Italian waters has decimated the anchovy population. Poor governance, focused on profit over sustainability, is the cause. Fishing quotas are the only way to save the species.

Who’s eating all the anchovies?

Can you imagine anchovies completely gone from our dinner tables? It could actually happen, and Italy is mainly to blame for this situation.

The silvery glint given off by anchovies swimming near the surface was the inspiration for the legend that they were once a family of very bright stars that were too vain, so God decided to throw them into the sea. Now, these little blue fish, one of the great bounties of our seas and among the main features of our gastronomic culture, are facing a serious risk. For years now, the scientific data has been showing a progressive and worrying decline in their population because of overfishing. The situation is so serious that the possibility of limiting the maximum fishing quotas for anchovies is being considered at the EU level.

On Jan. 25, the Fisheries Commission of the European Parliament held a hearing to discuss the multi-annual plan for the stock of small fish found in the Adriatic Sea. It was a very technical discussion, in which many experts presented their data and the results of their studies, some of which were alarming.

The proposal for a reduction in the fishing quotas for each country has been put forward by some MPs, and has caused much discussion among others, concerned about the impact it would have on businesses. However, looking at the current data, there is no margin and no time left to try any other solution if we really want to avoid the looming catastrophe. It is an extreme situation, to which, unfortunately, our own country has contributed on a fundamental level.

The anchovy is the No. 1 species of fish caught in Italy, and our country is the top fisher in the Adriatic Sea, followed by Croatia. In 2012, an initial alarm was sounded by Greenpeace, with a report which stressed the serious depletion of the anchovy and sardine populations in the northern Adriatic which had started in the early 1990s. A population decline was confirmed later, between the mid-1990s and 2000.

A similar situation was reported in 2013 for the Strait of Sicily, another area of ​​priority for the fishing of these species. According to the scientific experts of the FAO/GFCM, in 2012-2013 the stock was already suffering, and their recommendation was to not increase fishing activities any further. These worrying figures were later confirmed not only by the FAO but also by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) of the European Commission.

These warning signs have been known for a long time, and now the latest scientific assessments are showing a widespread decline of this species in almost all the waters bordering Italy. According to Greenpeace, the state of necessity in which we now find ourselves represents a major failure of Italian politics. A management system based on exemptions, loopholes, a lack of transparency and the unsustainable use of public subsidies has led to the destruction of marine habitats and the decimation of our fish stocks.

Fishing in Italy is going through a dramatic upheaval caused by inadequate policies and by management measures which for decades have been based solely on economic profit, and which have gradually encouraged the proliferation of overfishing. Yet another worrying signal, beside the decrease in the profitability of fishing by more than 30 percent in just one year, is the reduction in the size of the fish caught: they are getting smaller and smaller, or younger and younger, often not having reached sexual maturity, which weighs heavily on their rate of reproduction. We fish too much — more than three times the sustainable limit — and we fish badly.

As for the European funds allocated for the fisheries sector, which for Italy have amounted to around €19 million between 1994 and 2006, instead of being properly invested in scientific research and in the selective distribution of fishing activities to ensure long-term profitability, they were used for the construction of new fishing vessels, of higher and higher capacity, which have emptied out the sea and devastated small coastal fishing, which has a much lower impact on the environment.

In Italy, small sea fish are mainly being caught in two ways. The first is the fishing light method, using a small rowboat called a lampara which accompanies the fishing vessel and which has artificial lights that attract small fish, which are in turn captured in a net after some hours of waiting—a traditional and selective method. The second is pair trawling, which consists of two fishing vessels towing a net between them, a system that leads to a high percentage of unwanted fish, either of the wrong species or too small. It is precisely concerning this second system, which is invasive and not very selective, that Italy takes a large share of the blame.

Instead of encouraging traditional fishing, dozens of licenses to fish with the pair trawling system have been granted over the years, supposedly for scientific research. These so-called special licenses are temporary fishing licenses that, theoretically, should be granted only for a limited time and under close monitoring. No scientific study or work has ever been published that would explain why these have been granted, but they have been issued on a de facto regular basis for almost 20 years, first in Veneto and then in Sicily. In 2016, Minister Martina was found to be granting such licenses to fishing vessels that had engaged in illegal activities, continuing a tradition of poor transparency and non-compliance with the rules that has always been typical in this sector.

The European-level debate is still ongoing, and it is unclear when it will arrive at a decision—possibly just before summer. Fishing caps are disliked by those who think in terms of companies and job numbers. According to the Italian MEP Marco Affronte from the Greens/European Free Alliance, who in 2004 was appointed scientific director of the international three-year project Adria-Watch, it is necessary to set up a management system, without destroying the industry. Due to this, he says, any proposal must be discussed with, understood by, and, if possible, supported by the companies working in this sector.

Based on current data, scientifically informed opinions are warning that the measures taken would have to require a 10 percent cut in the level of anchovy fishing for the next three years, and a 20-25 percent cut for sardines, at the very least in order to minimize the risk of the collapse of the existing stock. Therefore, putting a stop to fishing as it has been done up to now is something we cannot avoid. However, to apply such measures is a matter of political will, which until now has been lacking.

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