Get real, fisheries ministers!

Published on October 9, 2019

Editorial from FishSec October 2019 newsletter:

The Baltic Sea, 2019. Emergency measures for eastern Baltic cod. Scientists advice again a zero quota on Western herring. Huge and long term misreporting of catches revealed in the pelagic fisheries for sprat and herring undermining science. Half of the assessed Baltic fish stocks outside safe biological limits*. Continued illegal discarding of unwanted catches. Parasites spread by seals. As a consequence of all this: an unaddressed and growing problem of overcapacity in the fishing fleet. I can make the list longer, but you get the picture.

Sadly, 2019 has provided Baltic Sea states with a rich smorgasbord showcasing the negative effects of short-term fisheries management. The result of a failure to take the timely, longer term, decisions needed to meet both the requirements under the EU Common Fisheries Policy (2013), CFP, and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, MSFD (2008). Obligations that have been restated as part of EU commitments in the Aichi Targets under the Convention on Biologic­­­­­al Diversity, CBD (2010) as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs (2015). The bulk of the fisheries related objectives will not be reached by 2020, the deadline for the CFP, the MSFD and the CBD Aichi Targets.

At the same time scientists are sounding the alarm across the globe. We are facing an escalating climate crisis, accelerating species extinction rates and an unprecedented, dangerous decline of nature. One million species are threatened with extinction. “The current global response is insufficient, transformative change is needed to restore and protect nature, opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good”, as the United Nations highlighted at the release of the Intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem Services, IPBES, report in May 2019. This, while new research suggests that ending overfishing and reducing other negative ecosystem effects of fishing would make fish stocks and marine ecosystems more resilient to climate change.

In this context it is quite remarkable that EU fisheries ministers have not been capable of delivering more towards the relatively modest legal objectives they are to reach. Now, they will also have to handle the socio-economic consequences that follow with a decline of fish and the marine environment on which the fish and fishermen depend.

Article 2.2 of the CFP states: “In order to reach the objective of progressively restoring and maintaining populations of fish stocks above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, the maximum sustainable yield exploitation rate shall be achieved by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks.”

On 14 October the European Council will convene to discuss fishing opportunities for 2020 in the Baltic Sea. This is the final opportunity to fulfil one of the key pillars of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, having sustainable fishing limits and large stock biomass “at the latest by 2020 for all stocks”.

Read the joint NGO recommendations for Baltic Sea Total Allowable Catches (TACs) 2020 here.

Unfortunately, EU fisheries ministers have put themselves in a position where the October Council has to focus on what can be done to prevent the situation going from bad to worse in Baltic fisheries. This is in short what must be done, as a first step, at the meeting on 14th October:

  1. Eastern and western cod stocks – follow the Commission proposal for the spawning closures. This is in line with the latest scientific research prepared by members of the The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES, advice drafting group as well as the UN FAO report on rebuilding fish stocks, that looked specifically at Baltic cod.
  2. Eastern Baltic cod is suffering from steadily increasing natural mortality (ICES 2019, p. 3). A high bycatch quota can be the final nail in the coffin for this iconic stock. Ministers should therefore not go above the 2000 tonnes bycatch quota proposed by the EU Commission. Demersal trawling for flatfish cannot be done without bycatches of cod (ICES Baltic Sea ecoregion fisheries overview, 2019, P. 20). Discarding of unwanted catches continues as before, despite being illegal. When Member States later allocate the fishing opportunities, low impact passive gear fishermen should get preferential access to any bycatch quota that may be allocated, in line with Article 17 of the CFP. Any bycatch quota allocated to demersal trawlers should come with an obligation to fully document all catches, e.g. by cameras on board, remote electronic monitoring. Pelagic fisheries must provide scientific evidence that they do not catch cod as bycatch, since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  3. Set TACs for pelagic stocks at Fmsy-lower, which equals a TAC of 114,081 tonnes for central Baltic herring and 152,833 tonnes for sprat. There is high uncertainty regarding biomass and fishing mortality of these stocks due to misreporting in logbooks. Recruitment is low for both stocks. This will also provide more prey for the starving Eastern cod stock and is in line with ecosystem-based management.
  4. Follow the scientific advice from ICES for western spring spawning herring and set a TAC of 0 tonnes. This is the fastest and most effective way of rebuilding the stock and increasing the biomass.
  5. The scientific advice on main basin Baltic salmon clearly states that commercial landings should be 58,900 individuals. The Commission proposal is not in line with that advice and Ministers should follow the scientific recommendations for this stock.
  6. Remember. Just following ICES advice will not necessarily bring fish stocks and the ecosystem any closer to the objectives set out in EU environmental directives. The Basis for Advice (ICES, 2018, p. 5, 2nd paragraph) clearly states “Limitations on fisheries may be required to achieve environmental objectives, especially regarding biodiversity, habitat integrity, and foodwebs.… the limitations may affect the possibilities for the fisheries to fully utilize the advised fishing possibilities.” ICES do “…not include such considerations in the advice on fishing opportunities.”

Restoring the Eastern Baltic cod stock will require a broader set of measures. For example ICES (p.3) has repeatedly recommended that a spatial management plan is considered for the fisheries that catch sprat, with the aim to improve the condition of cod stocks. Baltic Sea Centre at Stockholm University has developed their advice in more detail. In a new policy brief they present a number of concrete measures to help save the Eastern Baltic cod fishery and achieve the objectives of the MSFD. All ministers should read it ahead of the October council.

On a more positive note ministers should look at the example they have set in the management of Gulf of Riga herring. It is the only Baltic Sea stock for which TACs have been set at or below Fmsy point value every year since the management plan came into force in 2016. The stock biomass has grown. For 2020 it is the only stock for which the Commission have proposed an increase to the TAC. This is the model for managers to follow. Set TACs below Fmsy and the quotas can then be increased in a sustainable manner.

We welcome the EU Commission proposals which are in line with the scientific recommendations and strongly urge the Agriculture and Fisheries Council not to water down these proposals.

Time is up to end overfishing. Now, fisheries ministers must get real to save fish and the marine environment.


Jan Isakson, Director


* Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, STECF, 19-01 AD Hoc. Monitoring the performance of the CFP. (Table 25. p.55) The report lists Western Baltic Cod, Western spring spawning Herring and Sole in management areas 20-24 as outside safe biological limits. Central Herring, Riga Herring, Plaice and Sprat are listed as inside safe biological limits. Eastern Baltic Cod was data poor at the time of the STECF evaluation, but recently ICES concluded it is outside safe biological limits (F>Fpa or B<Bpa). That equals half of the assessed stocks. Salmon, flounder, eel and sand eel, is not listed. Gulf of Botnia Herring is data poor.