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Fisheries Brief no. 19: Recovery takes time

In mid-October, EU fisheries ministers will make a decision on next year’s cod fishing in the Baltic Sea. Scientific advice published by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) states that the quota will have to be zero for a number of years. The EU Commission has this year already introduced an emergency ban on all cod fishing and has called for next year’s quota to be zero for all targeted cod fishing. A very heavy responsibility now rests on the shoulders of the region’s politicians – they have to resist special interests who want to continue fishing, while at the same time ensuring that the proposal for a fishing ban for 2020 is followed by long-term measures.

The cod stock must be given plenty of time to recover. A new strategy is needed for Baltic fisheries – one that involves a radical new approach where short-term revenues give way to long-term sustainability. Paradigm shifts in other areas have provided us with new approaches to protecting nature and have resulted in an improved environment.

Sustainable fishing is not being achieved – and cannot be measured
The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Baltic Sea Action Plan all have targets for sustainable fishing and achieving a good environmental status by 2020. The indicator for sustainable fishing is referred to as MSY, which stands for maximum sustainable yield, i.e. how much fishing a stock can cope with in the long term.

The problem for Baltic cod is that the experts have been unable to determine MSY fishing pressure levels for several years, yet fishing has still been allowed to continue.

The ICES now notes that MSY is an obsolete concept as far as Baltic cod are concerned because there cannot be said to be ‘a sustainable yield’; there are simply no fish left to take out of the sea.

In recent years research has revealed that the cod are now growing more slowly and reproduce earlier, probably as a result of excessive fishing pressure. The result is a cod stock that comprises mainly small and thin cod. At the same time, current knowledge has deteriorated because it is difficult to determine the age of these small cod, meaning neither growth of the stock nor the growth of individual cod can be estimated. The ICES has therefore been unable to base its advice on reliable data for a number of years.

Red warning signs
Scientific recommendations from the ICES are summarised in a table which presents various reference points for fishing pressure and stock size using the colours green, yellow and red. In the case of the western stock, red is visible right across the board. For the eastern stock, the traffic light system has proved not to be enough; there are instead grey question marks. The red symbols indicate that the stock has limited reproductive capacity.

baltic stock

Multiannual fishing bans and new rules
The ICES writes that the low productivity of the cod stock means that the stock will remain below the reference point for growth in the medium term too (2024), even with a ban on fishing.

In plain language, the researchers say that if we are to save the cod stock in the southern Baltic Sea, we have to stop trawling for years to come. This will require long-term and tough political decisions.

The period during which the ban is in force must be used to develop new rules for future fishing – ones that are adapted to the Baltic Sea and its fish stocks. This inland sea with its brackish water is unique, but it is also species-poor. This makes the Baltic Sea ecosystem particularly sensitive to change. Fish stocks are important for the Baltic Sea environment and ecology, and cod are particularly important, being the main predatory fish that is genetically unique and adapted to its environment. It is not possible to apply the rules used for the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic to the Baltic Sea.

The normal growth, size and age composition of the cod stock must be restored before fishing can resume. A balanced composition of the stock must be a mandatory criterion in any new management plan.

Our proposals for long-term measures for Baltic cod
The Council of Ministers should introduce at least a five-year ban on fishing of the eastern stock. This is the length of time needed to put a new management plan in place. To return a cod stock to good condition, with a balanced population in terms of age and size, will take considerably longer.

A long-term recovery plan that should include:

  • Taking particular account of the importance of cod for the ecology of the Baltic Sea.
  • Giving the stock an opportunity to achieve normal growth, size and age composition before fishing resumes, with these being important criteria in any new management plan.
  • Moving fishing of the cod’s main food source, herring and sprat, away from the cod’s breeding and nursery grounds.
  • Ensuring that when the ban on fishing is lifted, the current bottom trawling method is replaced by other fishing methods that enable more cod to reach a good, large size.
  • Introducing efficient and effective monitoring to ensure compliance with current and future regulations.

Click here to read previous Fisheries Briefs:
Fisheries Brief No. 1: How big is the fishing industry?
Fisheries Brief No. 2: Discards continue despite ban
Fisheries Brief No. 3: The Baltic Sea cod – a unique and isolated species
Fisheries Brief No. 4: The role of cod in the ecosystem
Fisheries Brief No. 5: Historically low catches of Baltic Sea cod
Fisheries Brief No. 6: Baltic Sea cod quotas
Fisheries Brief No. 7: Who is entitled to the fish?
Fisheries Brief No. 8: Is the Minister for Rural Affairs in charge of fishing matters?
Fisheries Brief No. 9: Responsibility rests with the fishery ministers
Fisheries Brief No. 10: EU’s fisheries policy spectacle damages cod
Fisheries Brief No. 11: Crucial year for Baltic cod
Fisheries Brief No. 12: Continued cod fishing is harmful
Fisheries Brief No. 13: List of measures for the Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs
Fisheries Brief no. 14: The system that fools itself
Fisheries Brief no. 15: Good job government! Now the real work begins
Fisheries Brief no. 16: Navigating the hidden perils of the fisheries policy
Fisheries Brief no. 17: Prioritise the environment over a handful of jobs
Fisheries Brief no. 18: The Commission proposes a zero quota