NGOs have written to the Commission requesting they make use of “emergency measures” legislation and close the eastern Baltic cod fishery for six months, with immediate effect, due to the “serious threat to marine biological resources”. In addition, they recommend “to move at least a portion of the sprat fishery…to maximise the availability of prey for the cod”.
This request comes after the latest data from the Baltic International Trawl surveys was presented at the Baltic Sea Advisory Council (BSAC) on 29 January 2019. From the latest survey data there were a record number of empty trawls, containing no cod. Moreover, it was reported that the survey trawls were found to have caught more garbage than cod.
The final results from the ICES cod benchmark process, to determine if an analytical assessment of the stock can now be made, will be published in mid-March, after the benchmark meeting was held for the stock from 4-8 February. However, the ICES advisory process will not be concluded until the end of May and next year’s quota will then be decided in October. Given the imperative for action now the NGOs “urge you [Commissioner Vella] in the strongest terms to take immediate emergency measures…to prevent further catastrophic damage to the eastern Baltic cod stock”.
This stock has long been riddled with problems for several years. Catches and landings have dwindled as the biomass and individual size of the fish has drastically reduced. For several years the stock was managed according to the precautionary approach due to the fact that scientists were not able to accurately gauge the age of the surveyed cod. However, despite being a data poor stock and with the commercial fishing sector unable to land anything close to the annual quota Ministers have persisted in setting TACs higher than scientific recommendations.
Of particular concern has been the lack of additional management measures that would help to revive the cod, which is a keystone species in the Baltic ecosystem where it is the top predator. Scientists have consistently recommended for several years to redirect the sprat fishery away from the main cod area in order to ensure they have sufficient prey to grow. Member States have declined to follow this advice. Instead fishing for sprat has increased in this area in recent years at the same time as the condition of the cod has collapsed to perilous levels.
Given the importance of the stock and its critical condition it is imperative that all stakeholders work together in order to facilitate a recovery. At the BSAC meeting on 29 January, Chair Esben Sverdrup-Jensen noted “The eastern Baltic cod is in a critical state. There is clearly a major crisis affecting it and the problem is widely recognised.” In conclusion to the meeting it was agreed that “All possible measures must be explored in establishing an emergency plan for eastern Baltic cod.”
To achieve this, the NGOs said collectively: “we implore the Commission to act now before further unsustainable fishing takes place on what very little remains of the eastern Baltic cod.”
Excerpt from report of BSAC meeting on 29 January:
The latest Baltic International Trawl Survey confirmed reduced catches by size and area, as well as reduced oxygen levels. The cod is experiencing reduced growth and reduced biomass. There is continued discarding, in particular of cod below minimum conservation reference size, despite the introduction in 2015 of the landing obligation, and there is a need for an improved management of the cod fisheries. Changes in hydrology were noted as having an increased negative affect. Seal worm are affecting the liver of the cod, and seals are causing damage to and predating on the cod. Thiamine deficiency was highlighted as another potential stress factor.
The meeting reinforced the accumulated knowledge that the eastern Baltic cod is in an acute critical state.
The BSAC supports the scientists in their work to improve our understanding of the factors at play. The ICES stock assessment has developed since 2014 and the BSAC anticipates the results from the ICES benchmarking meeting 4th to 8th February 2019 to go through all the available data towards developing a quantitative assessment of the stock.
The BSAC supports all research projects which can bring together the necessary knowledge and data in order to make the necessary management decisions. The BSAC will play an active part in coming up with suggestions.
The BSAC calls on BALTFISH Member States and the Commission to take the matter seriously, to make it the primary priority, to make available the necessary resources for further research and react to the situation. All possible measures must be explored in establishing an emergency plan for eastern Baltic cod.