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Fisheries Brief no. 12: Continued cod fishing is harmful

The catastrophic development of the Baltic cod continues with no sign of intervention on the part of authorities or politicians.

Stocks have been in decline for 20 years, but the situation has clearly reached crisis point in recent years, which was confirmed when the Vetenskapsradion programme interviewed Joakim Hjelm, a Swedish researcher with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Baltic cod numbers are “too small for us to know in the long run that it can survive,” said Joakim Hjelm, who continued by saying that “[stocks are] very likely below the minimum level”.

There are biological reference points that indicate when continued fishing is harmful. Today, the issue is no longer how much can be fished, but what can be done to save cod stocks in general. It is to this level that Joakim Hjelm thinks cod stocks in the Baltic Sea have fallen.

According to Joakim, the scientific advice on Baltic cod has for five years only been able to interpret a small portion of the available data for assessing the stock. Now that there is access to new data, however, it will be possible to submit a recommendation for 2020’s cod quota later in the spring.

In principle, no fish older than 6 years were found during exploratory fishing in 2018, despite the fact that cod can live for up to 15 years. The cod have also stopped growing. Normally, over a two-year period a cod should grow several decimetres. However, researchers found that individuals have in fact grown just a few centimetres. Low growth makes the stock unproductive and more susceptible to overfishing.

fiskebrief12Text in illustration: Cod has been overfished for many years using a method (bottom trawling) that removes all large individuals.
Today, only small and slow-growing cod remain.

The information provided by ICES and Joakim Hjelm has brought the issue of measures concerning the Baltic cod to a head. There is quite simply no longer a fishable stock of cod in the Baltic Sea. If we want to preserve and bring back a viable stock, it will require fundamentally different measures and decisions from those taken in previous years.

The information from ICES has also prompted a discussion on the cause of the disastrous decline in the Baltic cod population and what measures should be taken. Our analysis is quite simple: cod has been overfished for many years using a method (bottom trawling) that removes all large individuals. Today, only small and slow-growing cod remain, which are less resilient to challenges and fluctuations in their habitat, be it oxygen content, water temperature, parasites or other predators. We cannot influence the weather or in the short term climate change. Fishing is the only thing we can do something about right now.

At the same time, cod is a tough fish species that has adapted to the specific conditions that exist in the Baltic Sea. If the habitat changes due to climate change, cod is a species that would perhaps be better able to cope than most. Its role as the predominant predatory fish is therefore even more important for the Baltic Sea ecosystem.

If the Commission and the Council of Ministers are to take extraordinary decisions this autumn, the political signals to the officials preparing those decisions must be clear. As we wrote in Fisheries Brief no. 11, political commitment is needed now.

A long-term plan is needed for the recovery of cod stocks. An end to cod fishing in the Baltic Sea is one obvious solution, but politicians must task experts and researchers with putting an action plan in place sooner rather than later.

It is clear that it is no longer possible to save the Baltic cod within the framework of existing fisheries management. Politicians, authorities and experts must prepare for drastic measures and decisions.

Many readers of the Fisheries Brief ask what they can do to help, so here are some suggestions:
• Contact your local politicians and explain the situation facing the Baltic cod and that they must encourage action by their parties.
• There will be an EU election in a couple of months’ time. Ask the candidates what they plan to do. We will be inviting all parties to set out their policies at www.räddaöstersjö (only in Swedish).
• Write to or e-mail the members of the Riksdag’s Environment and Agriculture Committee.
• Contact other environmental organisations, fishing associations and local cultural societies and environmental groups.

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