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Fisheries Brief No. 5: Historically low catches of Baltic Sea cod

The cod is the most important predatory fish in the Baltic Sea. A viable cod stock is therefore crucial to the Baltic’s ecology and environment. The Baltic Sea cod is genetically unique and cannot be replaced by cod from other areas. The Baltic cod should also be a sustainable resource as a good food fish, and should provide employment for professional fishermen, fishmongers and restaurants in coastal communities.

Catches of Baltic cod have varied over the years, but have been steadily declining since the mid-1990s. In 2017 cod catches corresponded to only 10-15 per cent of annual catches during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Data has been kept on the eastern, most important Baltic Sea cod stock since 1967. Catches through 1978 were 100,000–200,000 tonnes annually. Catches then increased to 350,000 tonnes in 1980 and stabilised at over 300,000 tonnes before peaking at 400,000 tonnes in 1984. There was then a dramatic decline, and in 1993 and 1994 only 50,000 tonnes were caught – a decrease of nearly 90 per cent from the record levels of the 1980s. Catches of 100,000 tonnes were taken in the late 1990s, which then declined to 50,000 tonnes. The decline has continued in recent years, down to 30,000 tonnes. Catches are expected to continue declining this year to all-time lows.

The enormous catches in the mid-80s should not be regarded as normal. A series of coinciding factors created unusually favourable spawning and living conditions for the cod during that period.

Codcatches balticseaText in illustration:
Catches of cod in the Baltic Sea, presented in thousand tonnes.

Cod fishing is regulated by EU quotas. The year’s catch must correspond to the specified quota amount. If the quota is exceeded, there has been overfishing. If the quota is not met, fishermen were not able to catch the amount of cod allowed by the quota, indicating an overestimation of fishable cod. Following the record catch years in the mid-1980s, catches fell nearly 30 per cent below the quotas for several years. With the exception of a few years in the early 2000s, catches have fallen below quotas every year since 1995, and 30-50 per cent below quotas during the past five years.

These figures show that quotas are consistently set higher than the cod stock can tolerate.

The dramatic variations and gradual decline appear to have hampered the management of the cod stock as well as discussions on the subject. Every quota reduction is presented as a threat to the fisheries´ survival, even though large quotas are worse for the fish in the long term. Alarm signals are therefore ignored despite the decline of catches to historically low levels – catches that are now almost exclusively comprised of skinny young cod of little economic value.

BalticSea2020 is convinced that overfishing is the dominant factor behind the diminished Baltic Sea cod stock, and that trawling as a fishing method is of crucial significance. Other factors behind the depleted cod stock are also being discussed, including reduced saltwater flows to the Baltic Sea, eutrophication, an increased number of grey seals, etc. But regardless of the impact of other factors, focus should be aimed at the effect of the fisheries. The Baltic Sea cod stock has dropped to such a low level that drastic measures are needed.

A ban on trawling for cod is one such measure, one that would give more cod the opportunity to grow large and allow the stock to recover and, hopefully, begin to spread throughout the Baltic Sea – to the benefit of coastal and recreational fishing.


Details on quotas and catches are presented in table format on pages 17-19 of this article: (Only in Swedish).

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