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Fisheries Brief No. 10: EU’s fisheries policy spectacle damages cod

Baltic cod is in trouble. Scientists, bureaucrats and politicians have spent virtually all year analysing, providing evidence and deciding how much cod can be fished. Nevertheless, it is proving impossible to reverse the trend.

What looks like extraordinarily careful fisheries management, where scientific facts and many stakeholders create a basis for decision-making for the fisheries ministers, is actually more like a spectacle. There are far more people involved in the fisheries management process than there are cod fishermen in the Baltic Sea. The cost of fisheries bureaucracy is probably higher than the value of the cod landed.

How could this have happened? It is true that lobbyists representing commercial fishing are powerful within the EU, but a make-believe world has been created that lulls people into the bureaucracy’s false sense of security. In the debate, Swedish politicians from most of the political parties have argued that if we simply followed the management process, the cod stocks would recover. All the data, statistics and research reports show that they are being misled.


The goal is for all stocks in the EU to be fished sustainably by 2020. The yardstick for sustainable fishing is called MSY (maximum sustainable yield). But that is not a clear concept. The decision documents are filled with definitions that highlight the problems. For the Baltic cod, there is currently almost no agreed basis for calculating MSY. For anyone interested in trying to understand what politicians need to take a position on:

The mere fact that the fisheries policy has an unmeasurable objective should sound warning bells for our politicians. The fisheries ministers’ negotiations on quotas is a mere exercise in numbers without support from reality.

There are numerous signals that should have caused politicians to pull the emergency brake:

  • In the past ten years, commercial fishing has not managed to catch enough cod to fill its quota. Stocks have been consistently overestimated.
  • For a long time now, researchers have been pointing out the shortcomings in the scientific advice on which the decisions are based. But despite the fact that the scientific documents clearly say “we lack data”, nobody is pulling the emergency brake.
  • At the advisory bodies, the representatives of commercial fishing are in the majority. This means that short-term economic interests are advocated over environmental considerations and the survival of the species, but it should at least look like there has been consultation.
  • With an extremely complicated fisheries management system, there are also opportunities to debate and change reference points, what is known as “shifting baselines”.
  • The Commission and the fisheries ministers are putting forward proposals and making decisions on quotas that significantly exceed the advice they receive.

The impenetrable management of Baltic cod has become something of a sect. Anyone asking questions or criticising from the outside is met with knowing looks: “This is too complicated for you to understand.”

In the midst of the spectacle and the numbers exercise, one thing is clear: All trends are pointing downwards for the Baltic cod, without anyone in a position of authority reacting.

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 ministersResponsibility rests with the fishery ministers