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Fisheries Brief no. 15: Good job government! Now the real work begins

The situation facing the Baltic cod is so severe that this could be our last chance to ensure that the stock recovers; otherwise it will be destroyed (see Fisheries Brief no. 12).On 29 May, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) presented its recommendation for next year’s fishing quotas for Baltic cod. The proposed quota for the eastern stock is zero (0), while for the western stock a range between 5305 and 7245 tonnes, including recreational fishing, has been proposed. On 3 June, the Swedish government announced that it will work to introduce an emergency ban from 1 July this year. The government also supports ICES’s recommendation of a ban on cod fishing in 2020.

Failed management
Catches of cod in the Baltic Sea have been 150,000-200,000 tonnes for many years, but dropped to just one-tenth of that in 2018. A ban on fishing is now being proposed because the biological reference points indicate that continued fishing is harmful and that it will take a long time for the fish to recover, at least five to six years.

Baltic cod stocks have been in decline for a considerable period. Previous scientific advice has been based on incomplete data, but the Commission and the Council of Ministers have continued to allocate fishing quotas to the shrinking stock.

Whatever the reasons, fisheries management has failed, partly due to constant overestimation of the stock (read more in Fisheries Brief nos. 14 and 13). The horse trading on fishing quotes can therefore not continue when the Commission and EU fisheries ministers make their decision later this year. Instead, they should devote their energies to long-term measures that can help restore a sustainable cod stock.

Refute the arguments for continued fishing
Now that ICES has presented its recommendations for a zero quota, many parties are attempting to shift the focus from fishing on to other causes of the cod crisis:

The Swedish Fishermen’s Producer Organisation (SFPO) argues in an opinion editorial (only in Swedish) that it is the growing seal population and seal worms that threaten cod stocks.
Three researchers from Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre respond: “Cod stock growth began to decline back in the mid-1990s, while seal parasites only became a problem at the start of the current decade. That is not to say that this problem is unimportant. It is quite possible that it is now being exacerbated by the already poor condition of the cod. However, seals and the parasites they spread cannot be regarded as either the chief problem or the main cause of the cod crisis.” Read the full response here (only in Swedish).

Another problem that is often mentioned is the lack of oxygen in bottom waters in the Baltic Sea. The researchers write in the aforementioned response to the opinion editorial that the lack of oxygen is a major issue, especially in the northern Baltic Sea, but that oxygen conditions in the southern Baltic Sea, where the cod spawn, are relatively good.

A number of municipalities and trade associations in the fishing and fish processing industry write in an open letter (only in Swedish) to the government that local fisheries must be protected. Their letter reveals that large-scale fishing has squeezed out small-scale coastal fisheries and how important it is that future fisheries management prioritise small-scale sustainable fisheries. Fisheries whose catches are used for food instead of fishmeal and which create local employment in coastal communities (read more in Fisheries Brief no. 7).

The recommendations of the ICES will now be discussed by civil servants, stakeholder organisations, parliamentarians and governments around the Baltic Sea. In this situation, it is important to maintain focus:

  • Eutrophication, seals and the parasites they spread cannot be regarded as either the chief problem or the main cause of the cod crisis. Of course, we need to work on these issues – seals need to be managed and the nutrient load from land-based sources must be reduced, but the impact of these measures will not be felt for some considerable time. Overfishing is a major cause of the crisis in the cod stock.
  • To enable recovery, purposeful work and long-term decisions are required. The government’s announcement is a good start, but it will face stiff resistance. From the outset we need long-term decisions such as those described in Fisheries Brief no. 13.
  • The socioeconomic considerations of the fisheries policy have contributed to the crisis. The situation is now so pressing that short-term account can no longer be taken of the employment of individual fishermen. In order to achieve a sustainable stock in the long term, future quota decisions must be taken based exclusively on ecological grounds.
  • The process that has now started places great demands on Sweden and other Member States that prioritise the Baltic Sea environment. It is crucial that the scientific advice be adhered to if the cod stock is to have any chance of recovery.

The government’s announcement is a positive development. But it is only the beginning of work that will continue right up until the Council of Ministers’ meeting in October. And until the issue has been conclusively dealt with!

Facts about the ICES recommendations:
The eastern stock: zero quota proposed for 2020. The spawning stock biomass has declined since 2015 and has been below the BLim for the last two years. Recruitment in 2017 is the lowest in the time series.
The western stock: between 5205 and 7245 tonnes is proposed. The spawning stock biomass is hovering around the BLim. Recruitment has been very weak in all years except one. About 70 per cent of catches in 2020 will come from one year class.
BLim = biological reference point at which continued fishing is harmful to the stock.
Recruitment = fish that survive to the age of 2 years.

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
Fisheries Brief No. 12: Continued cod fishing is harmful
Fisheries Brief No. 13: List of measures for the Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs
Fisheries Brief no. 14: The system that fools itself