Workshop on EU regulatory area options for VME protection (WKEUVME).

Under regulation (EU) 2016/2336, the EU fleet will be banned from bottom fishing in all waters between 400 and 800m in depth, apart from within the existing fishing footprint. Within the fishing footprint, EU vessels will be prohibited from bottom fishing in any closed areas that might be introduced to protect VMEs. To meet these regulatory requirements, ICES was requested by the European Commission to provide “advice on the list of areas where VMEs are known to occur or are likely to occur and on the existing deep-sea fishing areas (ref. (EU)2016/2336)”. The ICES workshop WKEUVME was tasked to produce the technical evidence base for producing a set of regulatory area options, building on 2019 work (Technical Service and WKREG workshop), as well as previous ICES advice (ICES 2018a) and technical services (ICES 2018b). The work drew upon the most recent fishing activity and vulnerable marine ecosystem (VME) distribution data at ICES, which has been quality assured following the respective annual ICES data calls for VMS/logbook (link) and VMEs (link). The assessment procedure herein is fully documented, with the respective scripts to run the assessment available on an open source platform (WKEUVME GitHub site). Two “assessment sheets” with respective regulatory area options for two larger ecoregions (Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast, and the Celtic Seas) were produced. These assessment sheets served as the basis for dissemination documents for managers – stakeholders meeting of WKEUVME in September 2020, and could be incorporated into their respective annual ICES Ecosystem and Fisheries Overviews in future. There are also strong links to shallower water assessment procedures developed by WGFBIT (Working Group on Fisheries Benthic Impact and Trade-offs) that have been developed for the ICES Ecosystem Overview advice in the context of Descriptor 6 seafloor integrity of the EC’s marine strategy framework directive (MSFD). WKEUVME used a data-driven approach to provide management options for this request. Two broad scenarios were provided, each with two options. For each option a set of rules was defined for producing the outcomes. The first scenario defined VME closure polygons without any modification by known fishing activity. The first option under this scenario focused on VME habitats and areas with a High or Medium VME Index score (a multi-criteria assessment method developed by WGDEC). The second option included areas identified in option 1 and added in areas where four types of VME elements were present (areas where VMEs are likely to occur: seamounts, banks, coral mounds, and mud volcanoes); allowing managers to choose the level of precaution they wish to apply in protecting VMEs. The second scenario identified areas where the fishing footprint overlapped with VMEs and then used VME biomass/fishing intensity relationships to identify a threshold (swept-area ratio (SAR) < 0.43) for areas where effort was low and unlikely to have caused Significant Adverse Impacts to the VMEs (at C-square resolution). Two options for closing areas under this scenario were presented: the first where VME habitats and areas with a High or Medium VME Index score (irrespective of fishing effort) and only Low VME Index score with low fishing effort were closed; the other where all areas of VME presence (habitats and Low, Medium and High VME Index values) were closed, but only in areas of low fishing effort, on the basis that any VME habitat in heavily fished C-squares would be degraded. To allow managers to evaluate the impact that closing these areas might have on different fishing métiers, and the trade-offs with protection of VMEs, WKEUVME tabulated fisheries data summarizing the percent of the fishing activity occurring within the 400-800 m depth band, relative to the EEZ of the relevant countries in each ecoregion. Further, WKEUVME used the percentiles of fishing effort (SAR) to map core fishing grounds both in the fishing footprint years (2009-2011) and in two, 4-year periods following. Summary statistics, graphs and maps were produced for the assessments. Achieving a high level of VME protection in closures requires the creation of many closures (>100) with many small (~ 50 km2) and fewer larger closures (> 1000 km2). Full protection of all areas with a high probability of containing VMEs will affect 9-11% of the footprint of the fishery, while closure scenarios that avoid highly fished areas, and that are therefore less likely to support viable VMEs, would reduce this to around 3-9% of the footprint. Through this process a number of data sources that were not in the ICES VME Database were identified; e.g., data from the Northern Iberian Shelf, the Gettysburg Seamount on Gorringe Bank, the Tasyo mud volcano field and the Guadalquivir Diapiric Ridge in the Gulf of Cádiz. WKEUVME used this and other published information as supporting material for the assessments until such time as the data is submitted to ICES. A meeting with managers and stakeholders was subsequently held. This commenced with presentations describing the availability of fisheries and VME data and the way in which they were utilised by the Workshop, the rationale behind the scenarios and options that were selected, and the management implications of each option. The advantages and disadvantages of the regulatory options in terms of VME protection and the impact of potential closed areas on the fisheries were examined separately for the Celtic Sea Ecoregion and the Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast Ecoregion, where stakeholders familiar with each region were able to express their preferences. The stakeholders present were supportive of the work done by ICES and felt that the 4 options were operationally feasible. Concerns were expressed over the data limitations, notably the occurrence of VMEs that are not in the ICES VME Database.

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ICES (2020). Workshop on EU regulatory area options for VME protection (WKEUVME). ICES Scientific Reports/Rapports scientifiques du CIEM. 2 (114). 237pp..,

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