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“Irresponsible to approve cod fishing in the Baltic”

Debate column, published in Dagens Nyheter 2009.05.11

Experts on the Baltic Sea want to protect cod for a few more years: Reinstating cod fishing too soon will jeopardize the future of the industry and will harm the environment. We are right on the threshold of successfully restoring the cod population in the Baltic and with it a healthier sea. But it is far too early to say the danger is over.

.In the 1990s politicians were too quick to allow increased fishing and this led to yet another collapse, write Björn Carlson, chairman of Baltic Sea 2020, and Professor Sture Hansson, Stockholm University. The greatest problem for the environment and the cod population is the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. For years the Ministers of Fishery of the member states have been setting excessively high quotas. During Sweden’s EU presidency, Minister for Agriculture Eskil Erlandsson must put his foot down and clearly state that cod fishing is an environmental issue.

The reports of the past few weeks that the Baltic cod population is out of danger are wrong.
Cod is an issue that interests the general public, and the media like to report on both positive and negative changes in the population. But the focus is nearly always on consumers and the fishing industry: Can the fishermen earn a living, and can the consumers buy their cod?

We want to point out that most people discussing Baltic cod are disregarding the most important aspect: that cod fishing must be viewed and treated as an environmental issue.
It is in fact one of the most important environmental issues for the Baltic, and its resolution will have major effects in just a few years. It is also an environmental issue with the potential to be a win-win situation: people living around the Baltic can benefit from a cleaner sea, professional fishermen can make a profit and consumers can enjoy locally caught cod again.

As long as cod fishing is regulated by shortsighted economic considerations, the danger will never be over; past experience has shown that.
In the introduction to its bill on the marine environment, the Government writes: “The environ-mental problems in the Baltic are extremely serious – some scientists speak of an ecological collapse.”

Cod is the dominant predatory fish in the Baltic, one of the most important species in this sea. History has shown that when the cod population is depleted, its key prey, the sprat, increases. That in turn leads to a drop in animal plankton and the creation of beneficial conditions for plant plankton, which leads to an explosion of algal bloom.

The biggest, most crucial cod population in the Baltic, which is caught east of Bornholm, consisted of about 160,000 tonnes of mature cod in 2008. This is a historically low level, compared with 700,000 tonnes in 1980 and the ideal for a long-term sustainable population, between 400,000 and 500,000 tonnes.

When the cod population grew in the early 1990s, politicians were quick to permit increased fishing quotas, resulting in yet another collapse. It is crucial not to repeat this mistake.

Most people should agree that cod plays a key role in the food chain, and that recreating a stable cod population would be a concrete measure to benefit the Baltic environment. So why is it so complicated to take the right steps?
In collaboration with researchers at the Swedish Board of Fisheries, Baltic Sea 2020 has conducted simulations of the cod population to determine what will happen if the EU’s plan for managing the cod population in the Baltic is followed in the coming years. The results show that the population will be two to three times the size it is today and that catches could be doubled in a five-year period.

Last year the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) noted some growth in the cod population. Scientists do not know yet if that growth will continue or if it is primarily the result of a few years of favourable circumstances. At the end of May, the ICES will present its official recommendations for cod fishing in 2010 and then we will see what happens with the positive trend.

Even if the growth trend does continue, it is essential that the EU sets quotas that follow the management plan approved in 2007. Each time that positive signs are reported in the media, voices are soon heard intimating “we told you so – there has always been plenty of cod”. Even a year ago, representatives of certain Baltic states hinted that perhaps it was time to raise the 2010 fishing quotas above the levels set in the management plan. In addition to this threat, extensive poaching occurs in various forms.

We are now right on the threshold of successfully restoring a rich cod population that will allow large, sustainable catches, while contributing to a “healthier” Baltic. But it is still far too early to say the danger is over.

The greatest problem for the environment and the cod population is that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) views fishing as an economic issue. Cod fishing is not economically significant in Sweden or any other country on the Baltic, not even in the coastal regions. Professional fishermen number about a thousand, and in countries like Poland and Germany the number of fishermen in relation to the population is even smaller.

For years the Ministers of Fishery of the member states have been setting quotas that greatly exceed the scientific recommendations, for the very reason that short-term economic policy has been favoured over the environment. If we treat fishing in the Baltic as the environmental issue it truly is, and thereby take into consideration the 85 million people who live in the region and their right to a good sea environment, this will have the positive effect that we can also create profitable, sustainable fishing.
In preparation for the Swedish EU presidency, the Swedish Government has made environmental issues a priority. It has also placed great emphasis on the “Strategy for the Baltic Region”, which will be adopted this autumn. Environmental issues are one of four pillars in this strategy.

There are three concrete measures that the Swedish government can undertake to create a better environment in the Baltic within a few short years, through sustainable fishing:

1. Do not accept any deviations from or changes to the EU management plan for cod fishing in the Baltic. This means not tolerating any political pressure on the scientific investigation that is under way.
When Eskil Erlandsson meets with his colleagues on the Council of Ministers this autumn, the decision on the 2010 fishing quotas should be based on the scientific recommendations and remain within the existing management plan. The decision that the EU Ministers of Fishery face is really quite easy: to stick to the management plan they themselves adopted just two years ago.

As the chairman of the council meeting, the Swedish Minister for Agriculture must lead the way to a clear indication that cod fishing in the Baltic is an environmental issue.

2. Ensure that the Baltic strategy includes strong environmental measures, which also cover the fishing industry. Environmental considerations were at the core of the initiative to develop a Baltic strategy. The intent is to present concrete proposals for dealing with the lack of action so far.

The drafts that Baltic Sea 2020 has reviewed this winter and spring seem to indicate that environmental issues in general and fishing in particular have increasingly become marginalised and that concrete measures have been eliminated. If the Government accepts this development, it will have fallen back into the perception of fishing as a economic matter and will be ignoring its importance for the environment.

3. Give the Commission strong support to reform EU fishing policy. A few weeks ago the EU Commission presented its Green Book for reforming fishing policies. It contains a good analysis of the situation and many good suggestions. Starting with the Swedish presidency, the Government must strongly assert that fishing is an environmental issue and that ecological considerations must determine fishing policies.

The Government has high aims for the presidency, particularly in the environmental area. A restored cod population can give significant effects within a period of five to ten years. Nearly all other measures may take 30 years or more before we see any clear effects on the hard-hit sea environment.

Politicians, scientists, environmentalists and professional fishermen must take joint responsibility, both in the short and the long term. Cod fishing is an issue that stirs many emotions, but now is a time to let science lead the way.

Björn Carlson och Sture Hansson