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Fisheries Brief No. 6: Baltic Sea cod quotas

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) proposes limiting the cod quota for the eastern stock to just over 16,700 tonnes, a reduction of nearly 40 per cent from last year’s recommendation. For the western stock ICES proposes a very wide-ranging quota and is leaving decisions to the politicians.

Next year’s Baltic cod fishing is regulated by a multi-stage process culminating with a decision this autumn by EU fishery ministers on fishing quotas for 2019. ICES submitted its recommendations yesterday.

ICES recommendations are distributed to a range of stakeholders – including Baltfish, in which all Baltic states participate. Baltfish passes its comments along to the EU Commission, which then submits a proposal to the fishery ministers, who decided on the quotas. ICES’s recommendations are also reviewed by the EU Commission’s internal expert bodies.

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This extensive administrative apparatus, with scientific expertise at its disposal, has unfortunately been unable for many years to maintain a sustainable stock of eastern Baltic cod. Catches have varied over the years, but have been steadily declining since the mid-1990s and corresponded to only 10-15 per cent of former catch levels. One of the main reasons for this is that, for 27 of the past 30 years, fishery ministers have set quotas higher than those recommended by ICES – while the cod stock has been gradually depleted (see Fisheries Brief No. 5).

Fishery ministers have ignored ICES recommendations and have set quotas higher than the cod stocks can tolerate. ICES’s assessments are also focused primarily on the stock’s development in numerical terms, with less consideration given to the size, condition and growth of the fish. The expansive administrative system has failed to make fishing for Baltic cod environmentally, economically or socially sustainable.

Both the Swedish government and the opposition have said they are aware of how vulnerable the Baltic Sea cod is, while indicating in parliamentary debates, etc. that they follow ICES’s recommendations and quota-setting process. Politicians are hiding behind the ICES recommendations, despite the fact that these are usually not followed.

The scientific guidance that forms the basis for quota decisions is based on a number of criteria aimed at determining the fish stock’s status. The age of the cod needs to be verified in order to do this. The age-reading methods that were previously applied cannot be used for today’s small and slow-growing cod. ICES has said that it is not possible to conduct a traditional analysis. But it is no secret that the fish are in poor condition and that the stock is mostly comprised of small fish.

Cod catches have plummeted catastrophically. With so many small, slow-growing cod, there is a danger that the Baltic Sea food web will be altered and that genetic changes will perpetuate the situation. It is sad and unfortunate that such an extensive and costly system of scientific recommendations, EU officials and lengthy meetings of fishery ministers has only produced quotas that allow people to fish too much and in the wrong way.

The management model that is used has not worked for the Baltic Sea cod. Drastic measures are needed. BalticSea2020 believes that a ban on bottom trawling would give the cod a chance to recover, providing the larger fish that have endured against all odds, a greater chance to survive and reproduce.

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