The 20 year Baltic Sea scandal

Published on November 5, 2019

False reporting of pelagic catches in the Baltic for herring and sprat by the industrial trawl segment and their falsification of logbook entries have been going on for over 20 years, according to research.

The pattern of misreporting Baltic pelagic catches was explored in an article by Bengt Sjöstrand from the Swedish Board of Fisheries, Fiskeriverket, in 2000. Even then it was identified that since the early 1990s reported landings differed significantly from the data received from acoustical surveys. These surveys revealed a decrease in the size of the herring population but “the decreasing proportion of herring is not reflected in either TACs or in reported landings”.

The article concludes with the warning, “substantial misreporting of species would compromise the stock assessments done by ICES and thereby undermine the basis for proper fisheries management”.

In the recent documentary, Kaliber, on Swedish radio, this issue was investigated. It was found that these false catch reports were ongoing. “In more than half of the catches investigated on the boats – on 15 of 29 occasions – the inspectors find differences, sometimes large differences, between their findings and what the fishermen themselves report.” These falsified logbook entries have had the subsequent effect of scientists having inaccurate data with which to provide recommendations.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, provide recommendations to the EU with regard to sustainable fishing TACs and in response to requests from the EU. Catch data is a key component in fishing models. With significant inaccuracies in the data, the margin of uncertainty grows.

In ICES recommendations for both central Baltic herring and sprat they have highlighted misreporting as an issue relevant for the advice. This caveat means there is less certainty for their estimates of the stock biomass, and what level of fishing is sustainable.

In their advice for central Baltic herring this year, ICES states “Species misreporting of herring has occurred in the past (Hentati-Sundberg et al., 2014) and there are again indications of sprat being misreported as herring. This has not been quantified but may affect the quality of the assessment”. In the advice for sprat they state “The accuracy of the catch data and the quality of the assessment may be affected by species misreporting.”

In the article by Hentati-Sundberg et al., 2014, the researchers highlight that “lack of data or misreporting may be reasons for unreliable stock assessment, which, in turn, may result in advice that does not reflect the availability of fisheries resources.”

The researchers investigated the Swedish pelagic trawl fishery between 1996-2009 and conclude that “total catches have been underestimated during part of our study period and that systematic misreporting of species composition has taken place over the whole study period. The analysis also suggests that there is overcapacity in the fishery and that such economic incentive could explain the general patterns of misreporting.”

Given that both total catch quantities and species composition have been subject to “substantial misreporting” there are serious concerns for how this has affected the status of these stocks, the scientific advice and recommendations provided to the EU as the basis for quota decisions, and importantly to the rest of the Baltic ecosystem.

The eastern Baltic cod stock is the top ecosystem predator and has relied particularly on sprat as prey but has now commercially collapsed and is subject to Emergency Measures and a closure of the directed fishery. Lack of available prey has been highlighted by ICES as one of the key reasons behind the stock’s decline. The researchers, Hentati-Sundberg et al., highlight that “Fisheries for small pelagics are increasing globally, with unknown consequences for marine ecosystems. Small pelagic fish form an important component in marine foodwebs and ensuring compliance with regulations in this rapidly developing fishery is thus critical”.

Regrettably, as the Kaliber documentary revealed, misreporting is still a problem today. It appears that significant misreporting has now continued for over 20 years..

Despite the latest misreporting scandal, the related uncertainty of the data and the need for food for eastern Baltic cod, at the recent October Council EU fisheries ministers set the sprat TAC for 2020 higher than recommended by the European Commission. That decision was widely criticised by environmental and oceans NGOs.

A significant increase in control, enforcement, onboard monitoring and sampling of landings is required to ensure that the misreporting does not continue.