According to data collected by the ICES Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group over 10 million Eastern Baltic cod were thrown away last year. The EU landing obligation has however made it illegal to discard Baltic cod since 2015.
Discarding is the practice of throwing caught fish back into the sea. The EU fisheries regulation states that all catches of cod must be landed and any individuals below 35cm in length cannot be sold for human consumption.
In 2018 ICES estimated discards of Eastern Baltic cod amounted to 3,403 tonnes (Table 7). In contrast 123 tonnes of undersized cod below 35cm were recorded as landed correctly in line with the landing obligation (Table 8).
Table 2.1.5 on page 68 of the ICES WGBFAS 2019 report shows Eastern cod catches in terms of individuals and estimate that just over 36 million cod were caught last year in subdivisions 25-32.
“Unwanted catch” of Eastern Baltic cod amounted to over 11 million fish in the same area and this includes legal undersized landings. More than 2 million undersized cod are also classified as “wanted catch”. In addition, over 1 million Eastern cod were discarded in subdivision 24.
ICES states in their advice sheet for eastern cod “the estimated discard amount in 2018 (approximately 16% of the total catch) was based on observer data, but this is considered to be an underestimate. The available information from the fisheries and observers suggests that modifications to the selectivity properties of the gear takes place, leading to a higher proportion of smaller fish being caught” (emphasis added).
The working group report, page 53, states that this level of discarding is “the highest discard rate since the introduction of the landing obligation. 91% of the estimated discards in weight was caught by active gears”, i.e. mainly by demersal trawlers.
According to ICES “Workshop to evaluate the effect of Conservation measures in Eastern Baltic cod (Gadus morhua)” WKCONGA 2018, “Closing of the BACOMA window results in increased catch per haul, allowing the crew to select more market-sized cod from any given haul; this, however, also produces much higher discards (up to 50-70% according to information from the fishing industry instead of the 10-20% estimated by ICES.) Thus, the available discard estimates are associated with uncertainties.” See page 36.
In response to the crisis facing Baltic cod ICES have recommended zero catches in 2020. NGOs have called on Member States and the Commission to implement emergency measures and close the fishery with immediate effect.
However, even with the cod fishery closed catches and discards will continue as the demersal trawl segment, i.e. bottom trawlers, will instead target plaice and the unmanaged flounder stock for which there is no quota or effort regulation, thus allowing for unlimited and unregulated fishing.