Development of the Ecological Quality Objective (EcoQO) for the North Sea demersal fish community is described. Size-based metrics were identified as the most effective indicators of the state of the community, but such metrics are also sensitive to environmental influence. Redefining the large fish indicator (LFI) produced a metric more sensitive to fishing-induced change and therefore more useful to managers. Fish stocks were thought to be exploited at a sustainable rate in the early 1980s, so in a process echoing the precautionary approach to fish stock management, this was considered the reference period for the LFI, suggesting a value of 0.3 as the appropriate EcoQO. The LFI declined from around 0.3 in 1983 to 0.05 in 2001, followed by a recovery to 0.22 in 2008. However, analyses of the longer-term groundfish survey data suggest that, even were fishing pressure to be reduced to early 20th century levels, the LFI would be unlikely to rise much above a value of 0.3. The response of the LFI to variation in fishing pressure suggested a more complex relationship than anticipated, underscoring the need for operational theoretical size-resolved multispecies fish community models to support management towards broader ecosystem objectives.
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