Cuttlefish, Common

Sepia officinalis

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Beam trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — English Channel Inshore: French Waters (0-3nm)
Stock detail — 7d, 7e, 7f, 7g, 7h
Picture of Cuttlefish, Common

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: November 2020

An ICES assessment for English Channel cuttlefish was carried out for the first time in 2020, but had high levels of uncertainty. MCS therefore continues to assess the stock using data limited (Route 2) methodology. The ICES assessment indicated that the stock was likely to have been overfished and subject to overfishing. Common cuttlefish have low to moderate vulnerability to fishing pressure but species resilience is unknown.

No EU regulations or quotas apply to this stock despite its importance in terms of landings volume and value. Cuttlefish in this area benefit from some local management and from more general laws that regulate trawling. France, applies a minimum landing weight of 0.1-0.3kg for cuttlefish, this acts as a proxy Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS) of 8-9cm. However, this is smaller than the size of maturity (~16cm) meaning that fishers can land any number of juvenile cuttlefish. Landings often contain juveniles that haven’t yet had chance to spawn.

Beam trawling is not a well-targeted gear and has the potential to cause significant habitat damage.

Biology

Cuttlefish (family Sepiidae) belong to a specialised group of molluscs, known as cephalopods, which also includes octopus and squid. In the North East Atlantic and Mediterranean, the main commercial species is the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), although other species (S. elegans and S. orbignyana) are fished in the Mediterranean. Cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles, like squid, but differ from other cephalopods by the presence of a significant internal skeletal/buoyancy structure, the cuttle bone, which is often found washed up on beaches. The common cuttlefish typically has a two year lifecycle, whilst in southern areas one year is normal. After overwintering in deeper waters, cuttlefish move into shallow coastal waters to breed in spring and summer. Females only breed once, and die soon after laying up to 4,000 eggs, which are around 8-10 mm in diameter and known as sea grapes. They take up to two months to hatch. Males live longer, and breed more than once. Cuttlefish can attain body lengths of up to 45 cm and weigh up to 4 kg, although typically 20-30 cm and 1-2 kg is normal.

Stock information

Criterion score: 1 info

There is concern for the stock, as biomass is declining and fishing pressure is increasing. Common cuttlefish have low to moderate vulnerability to fishing pressure but species resilience is unknown.

Cuttlefish represent one of the main cephalopod species of commercial interest in European waters and the English Channel is the most important fishing ground in the northeast Atlantic. An ICES assessment for English Channel cuttlefish was carried out for the first time in 2020, but had high levels of uncertainty. MCS therefore continues to assess the stock using data limited (Route 2) methodology. The ICES assessment indicated that the stock was likely to have been overfished and subject to overfishing.

This is supported by decreasing trends in English Channel cuttlefish landings and population indices in recent years; landings in 2018 were below the average (8,900 tonnes versus 10,500 tonnes) and cuttlefish declined by 28.9% in abundance in 2018-2019. While landings in the English Channel show no clear trends over time, French surveys, conducted by IFREMER, suggest a decreasing trend in Catch Per Unit Effort in the eastern part of the English Channel since 2006.

Between 2008 and 2018, weight of common cuttlefish by UK vessels to the UK has increased by 60%. A number of studies are in agreement that the English Channel cuttlefish population is either fully or over exploited. Landings in the northwest English Channel, in 2017, were particularly high – likely owing to overfishing rather than high abundance.

The total UK cuttlefish landings amounted to 7,068 tonnes in 2017 - the largest on known record. In 2018, landings declined by ~44% and increased again, in 2019, to 4,928 tonnes, which is just above average (2012-2019). Cuttlefish value significantly increased between 2015 and 2018, 113%, from an average £1.77/kg to £3.77/kg. In the same period landings displayed large annual fluctuations. Combined, this may indicate high levels of fishing effort on unhealthy populations, to meet rising market demands (Source: MMO data).

Management

Criterion score: 1 info

At present, there is limited management for cuttlefish in the English Channel.

No EU regulations apply to cuttlefish despite its importance in terms of landings volume and value. There is no quota limits or minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) applied to cuttlefish, meaning that fishers can land any amount of cuttlefish at any size.

Cuttlefish in this area benefit from some local management and more general laws that regulate trawling. However, there is still an overall lack of appropriate management. This is particularly problematic as cuttlefish are targeted both in their coastal spawning grounds (inshore) in their pre-adult stage and in deeper offshore waters.

In the English Channel cuttlefish fishery, 94% of the catch is from offshore trawling. Around 75% of individuals landed by trawl gears are immature and haven’t yet had the chance to spawn - making up ~26% of the tonnage landed.

In France, there is a minimum landing weight of 0.1-0.3kg which acts as a proxy MCRS (8-9cm), however, cuttlefish are typically mature when above 16cm mantle length. Consequently, this legal landing weight is not sufficient to protect the spawning stock. French vessels are banned from using mesh size <80mm in otter trawl nets and when operating in the 0-3 nautical mile inshore coastal zone.

In 1993, spatial limits to cuttlefish trawling were introduced to protect nursery areas of a multitude of species, particularly spider crabs. This means that in spring, trawlers are allowed to exploit spawners for 6 weeks, and in summer, trawlers are allowed to exploit hatchlings for 2 weeks. The exact dates are adjusted every year as a function of the probability of the arrival of cuttlefish, indicated by the volumes of landings in the previous autumn or the landings of the trap fishery (a small fishery that supplies the French market).

Only a small proportion of catch is discarded.


Both the EU and UK have fishery management measures in place, which can include catch limits, targets for population sizes and fishing mortality, and controls on what fishing gear can be used and where. In the EU, compliance with regulations has been variable, and there are ongoing challenges with implementing some of them. There was a target for fishing to be at Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2020, but this was not achieved. The Landing Obligation (LO), an EU law that the UK has kept after Brexit, requires all fish and shellfish to be landed, even if they are unwanted (over-quota or below minimum size). It aims to promote more selective fishing methods, reduce bycatch, and improve recording of everything that is caught, not just what is wanted. Compliance with the LO is generally poor and actual levels of discards are difficult to quantify using the current fisheries observer programme.

In the UK, it is too early to tell how effective management is, as the Fisheries Act only came into force in January 2021. The Act requires the development of Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs) (replacing EU Multi-Annual Plans) but there are no details yet on how and when these will be developed. FMPs have the potential to be very important tools for managing UK fisheries, although data limitations may delay them for some stocks. MCS is keen to see FMPs for all commercially exploited stocks, especially where stocks are depleted, that include:
Targets for fishing pressure and biomass, and additional management when those targets are not being met
Timeframes for stock recovery
Technologies such as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) to support data collection and improve transparency and accountability
Consideration of wider environmental impacts of the fishery

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.75 info

Offshore trawling accounts for the majority of cuttlefish caught in the English Channel. Bottom trawling has the potential to cause significant impact to habitat, such as removing or destroying physical features and reducing biota and habitat complexity.

Cuttlefish landings from bottom trawls (beam and otter) represent 87% of total UK cuttlefish landings, with the remainder mainly resulting from trap fishing. Around 65-75% of the cuttlefish catch in UK waters is taken by beam trawlers.

Common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) is a neritic, nektobenthic, or demersal species found on the continental shelf and is particularly common on sandy and muddy substrata. Its depth distribution extends from subtidal waters to 200 m. Individuals are most abundant in the upper 100 m, with large animals found at greater depths.

Beam-trawl fisheries generally operate in shallow regions, with particularly intense activity off the southeast coast of England. Beam trawling, especially using chain-mat gear is damaging to the seabed and known to have a significant impact on the benthic communities, although less so on soft substrates. Heavy gear tends to have a higher seabed impact than otter trawling. Seabed penetration depends on the sediments, and varies between 1cm and 8cm. Pressures include abrasion (this pressure principally affects the seabed habitats and it is associated with bottom-contacting mobile fishing gear) and smothering, which can be caused by bottom trawling in soft sediment areas. The recovery time of the seabed after trailing varies greatly and depends on the fishing gear, the substrate, intensity of the trawl and how accustomed the seabed is to natural disturbance.

Beam trawling is not a well-targeted fishing activity, with poor selectivity and the potential to catch a wide variety of non-target and unwanted species. Previous studies have shown that typical catches when targeting cuttlefish include monkfish, flatfish species (e.g. soles, plaice, brill, turbot), gurnards, invertebrates (such as urchins and starfishes), catsharks and crabs. Bycatch may also include endangered threatened and protected species including demersal elasmobranchs.

Juvenile and adult cuttlefish are preyed upon by a wide range of fish species, notably Pollack (Pollachius pollachius), and adults are taken by several species of marine mammal. Two pinnipeds (Atlantic grey and monk seals) and three dolphin species (bottlenose, Risso’s, and oceanic striped) are known to feed on common cuttlefish.

References

Davies, D. and Nelson, K. (2018). Supporting Sustainable Sepia Stocks. Report 1: The biology and ecology of the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). Sussex IFCA. Available at https://secure.toolkitfiles.co.uk/clients/34087/sitedata/files/Research/1-Cuttlefish-biology-and-ecology.pdf [Accessed 25.11.2020]

Davies, D. and Nelson, K. (2018). Supporting Sustainable Sepia Stocks. Report 2: The English Channel fishery for common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). Sussex IFCA. Available at https://secure.toolkitfiles.co.uk/clients/34087/sitedata/files/Research/2-English-Channel-fishery-for-cuttlefish.pdf [Accessed on 25.11.2020]

Davies, D. and Nelson, K. (2018). Supporting Sustainable Sepia Stocks. Report 3: Assessing the efficacy of egg receptors within fishing traps used to target common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). Sussex IFCA. Available at https://secure.toolkitfiles.co.uk/clients/34087/sitedata/files/Research/3-Efficacy-of-egg-receptors.pdf [Accessed 25.11.2020]

Gafeira, J., Green S., Dove, D., Morando, A., Cooper, R., Long, D. and Gatliff R. W. (2010). Developing the necessary data layers for Marine Conservation Zone selection - Distribution of rock/hard substrate on the UK Continental Shelf, MB0103 Final Report. British Geological Survey, UK.

Gras, M., Roel, B.A., Coppin, F., Foucher, E. and Robin, J-P. (2014). A two-stage biomass model to assess the English Channel cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis L.) stock. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 71(9), pp.2457-2468. Available at https://academic.oup.com/icesjms/article/71/9/2457/594946 [Accessed 25.11.2020]

ICES (2016). Report of the Working Group on Cephalopod Fisheries and Life History (WGCEPH),14-17 June 2016, ICES Headquarters, Copenhagen, Denmark. ICES CM 2016/SSGEPD:03. Available at https://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00377/48775/49173.pdf [Accessed 25.11.2020]

ICES (2019). Interim Report of the Working Group on Cephalopod Fisheries and Life History (WGCEPH), 5-8 June 2018, Pasaia, San Sebastian, Spain. ICES CM 2018/EPDSG:12. 194 pp. Available at https://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/EPDSG/2018/WGCEPH%20-%20Report%20of%20the%20Working%20Group%20on%20Cephalopod%20Fisheries%20and%20Life%20History.pdf [Accessed 25.11.2020]

ICES (2020). Working Group on Cephalopod Fisheries and Life History (WGCEPH; outputs from 2019 meeting). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:46. 121pp. http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.6032 [Accessed 25.11.2020]

Jereb, P., Allcock, A., Lefkaditou, E., Piatkowski, U., Hastie, L. and Pierce, G. (2015). Cephalopod biology and fisheries in Europe: II. Species Accounts. ICES: Denmark. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Cooperative%20Research%20Report%20(CRR)/CRR325.pdf [Accessed 25.11.2020]

Stott, S. and Reeve, C. (2020). Report: Western Channel Cuttlefish: Sepia officinal is Biological Sampling at Plymouth and Brixham Fish Markets December 2018– June 2019. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923552/Western_Channel_Cuttlefish_Report_2018_19.pdf [Accessed 27.11.2020]