This year’s quota setting for Baltic cod raises serious questions as to whether data poor fish stocks receive necessary protection and the precautionary approach is being applied, which according to experts is a legal obligation.
Once again both cod stocks in the Baltic will be overfished next year, with quotas set above Fmsy, after the Council of Ministers set fishing opportunities in excess of scientific recommendations.
What is paradoxical is that eastern cod, because it is a data poor stock, can be fished harder than its western neighbour. The Baltic management plan, BMAP, allows for this loophole by not including reference points for fish stocks which lack adequate scientific data.
Where does the precautionary approach fit into this? It is enshrined in the Common Fisheries Policy basic regulation and Recital 17 of the BMAP states that “for stocks for which the reference points are not available, the precautionary approach should apply”. Still politicians use the loophole to set quotas much larger than scientific advice.
The FAO provides guidelines for applying the precautionary approach, saying “targets may need to be adjusted to be precautionary, for example, by setting the target fishing mortality lower than Fmsy.”
Yet for the past five years while eastern cod has been classified as data poor, quotas have been set in excess of Fmsy. Consequently, every year has seen further quota cuts and the stock has not been given sufficient breathing space to recover.
Eastern cod faces a complex cocktail of overfishing, heavy discarding, a lack of spawning sites, eutrophication, a widespread anoxic seafloor and insufficient prey where it is most dense. Taking into account these ecosystem considerations, how can the quota comply with the precautionary approach?
Fishing pressure on the stock is the first and most straightforward step to manage. If a stock is data poor, that should mean that overfishing cannot take place. At present the lack of data provides a shadow where Ministers can allow for overfishing to take place in the darkness.
While Maria Damanaki was leading DG Mare it was proposed that for all data poor stocks the Commission would by default advise a cut of 20%. This level of ambition is necessary again to improve our knowledge of fish stocks and ensure that populations are restored.