Fisheries ministers poised to breach EU law and exacerbate Baltic ecosystem crisis, NGOs warn

Published on October 19, 2023

On 23rd October, EU fisheries ministers will set Baltic Sea fishing limits for next year. Their decisions will likely breach EU law and worsen the dire state of the Baltic Sea, as Member States have made clear that they don’t support cuts to Baltic fishing opportunities in order to bring them in line with legal obligations. NGOs are urging fisheries ministers to suspend the fishing of severely depleted stocks, as foreseen by EU law in these circumstances.

To prevent the collapse of fish populations, EU multiannual management plans require that fishing opportunities are set so that fish populations are at the very least kept above a minimum level (1). This year, due to persistent overfishing, scientific data shows that two herring stocks in the central and northern Baltic are now at or below this clear red line. Any targeted fishery on these herring stocks would be in breach of EU law.

Detailed rules for how to set fishing quotas and agree on emergency measures, including the option of complete fisheries closures, are set out under EU multi-annual management plans, in line with the objectives of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Following the rules of the Baltic multi-annual management plan and the status of these herring populations, the European Commission has proposed to close the targeted fishery for herring in these two areas.

To date, however, Baltic Member States have argued that the Commission proposal is going too far, and have questioned the interpretation of the regulations in place. In doing so, the Member States are disregarding the very clear rules and the obvious fact that both these herring populations are below the agreed minimum levels.


Nils Höglund, Senior policy officer at CCB, said: “By aiming to evade the rules in the Baltic management plan and the CFP in relation to avoiding fish stock collapse, and pushing to keep what is largely a fishmeal fishery open, the Council is breaching both EU fisheries and environmental legislation, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The possibility to reach good environmental status is likely made near impossible by the Agrifish Council. This approach must be deemed doubly illegal”.


Sara Söderström, Policy officer at the Fisheries Secretariat, said: “The health of the Baltic Sea ecosystem depends on forage fish such as herring and sprat, which feed other fish, mammals and seabirds. It is clear that when we remove large amounts of biomass it disrupts the food web and negatively affects the age and size distribution of herring, defying the targets in both the CFP and the MSFD. If we are to achieve an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management, a much more precautionary approach must be applied.”


Bruno Nicostrate, Senior Policy Officer at Seas At Risk, said: “If EU Fisheries Ministers fail to comply with EU law not only will they contribute to the disappearance of Baltic herring populations, they will also pave the way for the decimation of other fish species. EU Member States must respect the very laws they have co-designed and signed up to and prevent this impending ecocide by putting a stop to fishing of endangered fish populations.”


Javier Lopez, Campaign Director of sustainable fisheries at Oceana in Europe, said: “It is inconceivable to see EU Member States attempting to set catch limits for Baltic stocks that ignore the very rules they have created themselves. Several populations of iconic species such as eastern Baltic cod and central Baltic herring are in a critical state and targeted fishing of them must stop. Ministers cannot cherry-pick the law for political expediency, but must rather apply it comprehensively for the sake of the health and sustainability of fisheries.”


Arthur Meeus, ClientEarth marine wildlife and habitats lawyer, said: “According to EU law, overfishing should have ended by 2020 for all stocks. Instead, overfishing of already depleted stocks continues not only in the Baltic, but throughout the EU’s seas. It is high time for a clear court decision to put an end to this systemic issue. Multiple court cases are already underway to get this much needed clarity and we are eagerly awaiting the first judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This official ruling from the EU’s top Court will be crucial to finally give EU fisheries rules the teeth needed to ensure Member States can only manage fisheries in line with science and the law going forward.”



Herring and sprat play key roles in the Baltic ecosystem as they are a food source for predators, like cod and salmon and also regulate plankton. Today, this valuable resource is mainly used for fish meal, rather than human consumption.

According to the latest scientific data, herring in the central Baltic Sea is in a critical condition with a disheartening outlook. The Bothnian herring is also in a critical state and experts note that even with a complete fishing closure, the stock will not recover in the short term. Article 4(6) of the Baltic multiannual management plan explicitly requires that “Fishing opportunities shall in any event be fixed in such a way as to ensure that there is less than a 5 % probability of the spawning stock biomass falling below Blim”. The herring stocks in question are already below this biological reference point Blim, below which reproduction is impaired and the risk of stock collapse is very high. Setting fishing limits at levels associated with a higher than 5% risk of the stocks remaining below this level, as seems to be the intention of Baltic Member States, will be in breach of the law.


In 2020, Friends of the Irish Environment and ClientEarth challenged the EU Council’s decision to set limits for several Northeast Atlantic fish stocks above sustainable levels before an Irish Court.


In a legal first, the Irish judge asked the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) to judge on the validity of this European regulation setting fishing limits in the Northeast Atlantic. Following a hearing held in March 2023 in front of the CJEU, Advocate General Ćapeta delivered an Opinion in June 2023 claiming that unsustainable fishing limits in the Northeast Atlantic were illegal and recommended that governments set all fishing limits at sustainable levels from now on. The environmental groups are now waiting for the final ruling from the CJEU.

ClientEarth is also expecting hearings this year for two other cases launched in 2022 against the EU Council for the setting of unsustainable fishing limits for EU-only stocks and stocks shared between the EU and the UK.



(1) Article 4.6 of the multiannual plan for the stocks of cod, herring, and sprat in the Baltic Sea states that: “Fishing opportunities shall in any event be fixed in such a way as to ensure that there is less than a 5 % probability of the spawning stock biomass falling below the limit spawning stock biomass reference point (Blim) set out in particular in Annex II, column B.”






Nils Höglund, Fisheries Policy Officer, Coalition Clean Baltic

Sara Söderström, Policy Officer, FishSec

Helen Willetts, Communications Director, Seas At Risk

Emily Fairless, Communications Officer, Oceana in Europe

Bianca Vergnaud, Communications Manager, ClientEarth