Sustainably managing a productive fishery in the Southwest Atlantic for economic viability
The Southwest Atlantic is home to some of the most productive fisheries in the world. This favourable environment forms the basis of a thriving economy within the Falkland Islands, with the licensing of local fisheries (two species of squid and eleven species of finfish) accounting for 64% of GDP.
Fisheries in the Falklands
The Falklands are an archipelago consisting of 778 islands situated on the Patagonian shelf, 480 km east of Argentina in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. The islands lie at a latitude of 52oS, with approximately 1210 km of ocean separating them from the northernmost tip of Antarctica. They are a UK Overseas Territory that are, home to about 3,700 people, most of who live in the town of Stanley on East Falklands. Due to the remoteness of the islands and its proximity to Antarctica, the islands are a haven for a host of marine life including many cetacean and pinniped species, as well as breeding populations of penguins (gentoo, king, magellanic etc.) and other seabirds like albatrosses and petrels. Most of these species are attracted to Falkland waters due to upwellings caused by cold northbound waters meeting the continental slope to the south of the islands. These upwellings bring nutrient rich waters to the surface that forms one of the most productive areas in the southwest Atlantic that many fish and squid rely on for feeding and spawning.
These rich fishing grounds were only properly exploited and managed from 1987 with the introduction of the Falklands Inner Conservation Zone (FICZ) and a proper management regime. This was expanded in 1990 with the introduction of the Falklands Outer Conservation Zone that extended out to 200 miles from the islands’ coastal baselines, following the islands exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This was initiated after local concerns of stocks being increasingly exploited by trawlers flagged in Spain, Poland and the Soviet Union. The provisioning of licences to fishing vessels resulted in the local government increasing their revenue by 500%, leading to the Islands becoming financially independent from the UK excepting foreign affairs and defence. As a result, the fisheries industry now accounts for over 60% of the GDP. In 2022, annual revenue generated from the fishing license fees totalled £30.5 million. Meanwhile, exports of fishery products to the EU between 2014 and 2020 brought in an average revenue of £143.7 million.
Three fishing methods operate within the fishing zones: jigging for Argentine shortfin squid (Illex argentinus), demersal longlining for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and bottom-trawling for Patagonian squid (Doryteuthis gahi) and various finfish species (including pink cusk-eel Genypterus blacodes, Argentine hake Merluccius hubbsi and Patagonian cod Salilota australis). Presently, a fleet of 135 ships flagged in Taiwan, Spain, Korea, Vanuatu, and the Falkland Islands frequent the waters around the Falklands every year at various times, depending on target species. The fishery is predominantly based on squid, with the Argentine shortfin squid and the Patagonian squid (calamari) accounting for roughly 75% of all catches. Consequently, approximately 50% of the calamari consumed in Europe originates from Falklands waters.
Fisheries management prioritises the marine environment and a competitive seafood sector
The Falkland Island Fisheries Department (FIFD) oversees the fisheries within the waters of the Falkland Islands Conservation Zones. Management of these zones depended on a system of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) which was introduced in 2006 after the implementation of the 2005 Fisheries Conservation and Management Ordinance. After around 15 years of operation the government and industry decided to review the success of ITQ since its implementation. Following this review, politicians decided they would provide for a new type of ITQ (known as ITQB), this ITQ would effectively reboot and provide secure access for a period of 25 years subject to the ITQB holding companies meeting a number of key criteria. These criteria ultimately improved the effective control, active involvement and economic efficiency of the Falkland Island partner in downstream joint ventures. In order to ensure aligned goals and strong collaboration between the fishing industry and the government, a Fisheries Accord was drafted and signed in 2020. Sitting under the Accord is a shared Action Plan which is reviewed every six years and progress against which is reported to the politicians on a biannual basis. The Accord has five core pillars and a suite of objectives and actions to ensure a successful outcome. A key goal is that we build a competitive seafood sector whilst ensuring the health of the marine environment and the safety of crew members working on the fishing vessels.
The Fisheries Department also works closely with industry partners to maximise the economic potential of the fisheries while maintaining relationships with scientific institutes such as the Southern Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) and Falklands Conservation, as well as international partnerships with universities in the form of PhD programmes, to ensure the fisheries can be managed as sustainably as possible.
The high seas fishing grounds east of the Patagonian Shelf are one of the few areas around the world with important fishery resources for which there is no effective regulation under any Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO). The absence of an RFMO is largely due to the geopolitical situation between Argentina and the Falkland Islands. In previous years, bilateral work between the two countries existed through workshops, joint research cruises, and the development of the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission (SAFC). The SAFC, initiated in 1991, facilitated the exchange of fisheries data, the co-ordination of joint research cruises and scientific analysis, and provisioned conservation advice to the respective governments. Although not a consistent timeline, the SAFC worked effectively and had the potential to develop into an RFMO for the Southwest Atlantic. However, difficulties in communications between the Falkland Islands and Argentina in recent years have postponed discussions, straining management efforts.
Licensing squid jiggers is a substantial source of revenue
The jigging fleet is composed of up to 106 vessels flagged in Taiwan and Korea that target Argentine shortfin squid from February every year. This fishery currently sits outside the ITQ property right system and vessel apply on an annual basis to access this fishery.
Jigging consists of attracting plankton with bright lights, which attracts squid onto hooks hanging in the water around the boat. With a native range extending far north beyond the Falklands’ zones into the high seas, managing the Argentine shortfin squid straddling stock can be difficult, as recruitment of the stock varies from year to year and occurs outside Falkland waters. In recent years, the establishment of a Maritime Authority, subsequent implementation of the maritime ordinance (Port State inspections) combined with a change the in the licensing process for this fishery, has resulted in significantly improved health safety and wellbeing for the crews of these vessels. As a result of these changes there has been a significant reduction in the number of operational and wellbeing issues across this fleet.
Due to the sheer number of vessels jigging for this species of squid, licensing revenue accounts for half of total licencing revenue despite more Patagonian squid being landed in the Falklands than the Argentine shortfin squid.
Managing semelparous species
With a single-year lifecycle and a single spawning per individual throughout this lifecycle, squid require careful and ongoing stock assessments throughout the fishing season, to ensure the population remains stable. This is important for ensuring healthy recruitment of the stock in the next seasons. As a result of this fragile and short lifecycle, squid stocks are susceptible to intra-annual environmental changes. With the help of scientific observers collecting biological data and scientists analysing this data, the two Patagonian squid seasons are monitored closely to ensure sustainable exploitation using the depletion model. This model calculates an estimate of population abundance over time by evaluating what levels of abundance and catchability must be present to sustain the observed rate of the catch. For example, in 2019, the second Patagonian squid fishing season was closed early as biomass estimated from the depletion model was projected to fall below the conservation threshold. Management decisions like these, that come about as a result of short chains of communication between science, management, and industry have allowed catches to remain stable over the years and stocks to remain healthy. As a result of this cooperation, the Patagonian squid fishery here in the Falklands is considered to be one of the best managed squid fisheries in the world.
The Argentine shortfin squid fishery has the same potential but heavy fluctuations in recruitment from year to year remain understudied as the stock straddles different EEZs and the high seas, and international cooperation on management regimes are difficult to achieve at present.
Shifts in the finfish trawling catches
The finfish trawl fishery of the Falklands has experienced several shifts since the start of the monitoring programme: from a dominance of southern blue whiting (Micromesistius autralis) in the 1990s, to longtail southern cod (Patagonotothen ramsayi) from the mid 2000s into the mid 2010s, and the current dominance of Argentine hake. These changes may be indicative of large-scale changes in the environment, niche shifts, and/or overexploitation of shared-stock species with South-American countries.
Argentine hake is an ecologically important fish currently supports the largest groundfish fishery in the southwest Atlantic. However, relatively little is known about their ecology and distribution within the Falkland Islands. The species has experienced large increases in abundance in the last several years in the water surrounding the islands although it is unknown what fraction of the population migrates into the fishery. Data collected from research surveys around the Falkland Islands suggests that there may be possible variations in migratory behaviour between males and females as well as differences in distribution depending on the age and size of the fish. As hake are relatively fast growing, aging the species is particularly challenging, so internal research aims to shed light on growth trends by assessing hake from different areas of the fishing zone to better understand their ecology.
Managing stocks of fragile species
Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean seabass, is a highly prized deep-water fish that can grow upwards of two meters long. This slow-growing species with low reproductive rates is vulnerable to overfishing, and is unsustainably fished in the Southern Ocean by illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. Patagonian toothfish stocks in the Falkland Islands are managed at sustainable levels using longlines which have minimal impact on the marine environment. As a result, the fishery was certified as compliant with the MSC Fisheries Standard in March 2014, and recertified in November 2018, effective until May 2024. Since 2007, Patagonian toothfish have been targeted using bottom longlines with umbrellas (a net covering that protects the hooks), which reduces the direct access of marine mammals and seabirds to the fishing hooks and consequently their predation of fish caught on the longliners. These umbrellas have been crucial in mitigating seabird mortality during line setting when birds dive to approach the baited hooks—no seabird hookings have been observed since 2005.
Reducing the collateral damage of fisheries: SEDs and BSLs
The Falklands harbour over 63 species of seabirds, 70% (500,000 pairs) of the world’s population of black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys), and are important breeding grounds for the Southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus). A major target area for fisheries management in the Falklands is seabird and marine mammal monitoring and bycatch mitigation. The main legal instruments are the Marine Mammal Ordinance 1992, which prohibits the killing or taking of marine mammals, and the Fisheries Ordinance 2005, which sanctions the implementation of measures to prevent or mitigate mortality or injury of marine mammals and seabirds during fishing operations. As a commitment to these legal frameworks, mitigation measures employed by fishing vessels within the zone include “tori-lines” and “fixed aerial arrays”.
Following a marked increase in seal mortality in 2017, the FIFD carried out trials of different mitigation measures targeted at marine mammals. This led to the requirement of trawlers targeting Patagonian squid to install seal exclusion devices (SEDs) inside the fishing nets to allow for the effective escape of seals that become trapped in the net during fishing activities. The use of standardised SEDs is regulated under licencing conditions and seal mortalities have remained negligible since the first implementation of SEDs in 2017. Under licence conditions, vessels have to facilitate the escape of seals while the fishing gear is still in the water.
Concurrently, all squid trawlers have since been obliged to accommodate an external observer for the duration of the Patagonian squid fishing season to document seabird and marine mammal interactions with vessel gear. Furthermore, mitigation measures also extend to discard regulations on vessels. This comprises the ceasing of discards during the deployment and hauling of nets, thorough cleaning of nets before every deployment, and discarding in batches rather than continuously while the vessel is trawling. A new discard policy was implemented in January 2021 making it mandatory for all vessels to have a storage tank for discards to diminish interactions with both seabirds and marine mammals.
New fishery patrol vessel brings improved control capabilities
During 2022 the Falkland Islands Government embarked on a procurement exercise to replace the aging fishery patrol vessel Protegat (a converted fishing vessel). At the end of April 2023 FPV Lilibet, a Damen 5009 coastguard class vessel owned and operated by Laurus Dominicus Ltd arrived in the Falkland Islands. This is a new build with modern command surveillance technology on board. The vessel is smaller and lighter than previous patrol vessels, but this has resulted in an almost 100% improvement in speed capability. The vessel will operate according to the weather, but can currently achieve a limited (by UK flag) maximum of 19.7 knots. Once she is flagged in the Falkland Islands the maximum speed should be as certified at just under 29 knots. Speed along with a number of other key capabilities including the single manned bridge and rear deployed rib system means that she will deliver significantly greater capability for the Falklands fishery (as well as search and rescue efforts as needed).
Whilst the Falkland Islands Fishery may be seen as a relatively young and small fishery in the global context, it is clear to see that it is continually evolving and growing its economic return to the Falkland Islands. Today the Falkland Fishery it can be recognised as a significant member of the global fisheries family. Moving the fisheries management to a stable long-term system is key to building collaborative relationships with both industry and third-party research institutes, ensuring that the success of our fishery continues is maintained for future generations of Falkland Islanders.
For more information, contact:
Falkland Islands Fisheries Department
Bypass Rd, PO Box 598, Stanley
Falkland Islands, FIQQ 1ZZ
Tel: +500 27260