State of the stocks
The Baltic ecosystem is fairly simple when it comes to commercially exploited fish. While flounder, plaice and salmon make up a portion of the commercial annual catch, the most lucrative fisheries have traditionally been for cod, herring and sprat. Today, the Baltic Sea ecosystem is in severe distress and its major commercial fish stocks have never been in a worse condition.
Read more in our latest briefing on the status of Baltic fish stocks and quota recommendations for 2024.
For decades, the large Eastern cod stock in the Baltic Sea has declined dramatically. In addition to historical overfishing, unauthorised discards of unwanted cod have continued, despite the discard ban in place. In addition, parts of the stock has been affected by lack of prey, parasites and oxygen-depleted sea beds. The number of cod in the Western Baltic Sea has also dwindled to the point that the stock is on the brink of collapse. (Read more about the situation for Baltic cod in our Return of the Cod report.)
The fisheries are in danger. At its peak in 1984, fishers landed more than 440,000 tonnes of Eastern Baltic cod. Today, the targeted fishery for cod in the Baltic Sea is closed and three of the four Baltic Sea herring stocks (central Baltic Sea excluding the Gulf of Riga, Bothnian Bay and Western Baltic) are also in poor shape.
Occasional inflows of saline, oxygen rich seawater from the North Sea temporarily boost stock productivity. However, these inflows are not sufficient to replenish the cod stocks. Poor fishing practices coupled with eutrophication, fed by agricultural runoff, as well as pollution and temperature changes, have put the Baltic ecosystem in jeopardy.
As the cod declined, pelagic species (sprat and herring) came to dominate the Baltic fisheries. Harvests of sprat, for example, increased from a low of around 50,000 tonnes in the early 1980s to an average of 290,000 tonnes in 2018–2022. Much of the pelagic catch is processed for industrial uses and animal feed.
The size of the central Baltic herring stock is estimated to have been around or below minimum levels since the early 1990s and the size of the Bothnian herring stock has declined below healthy levels, as stated in the latest proposal for the 2024 fishing opportunities by the European Commission.
For 2023, the fisheries for Baltic cod and western spring spawning herring are closed. In the past, however, the EU Fisheries Council has often agreed catch limits that exceed scientific advice. Properly setting limits for all Baltic stocks is vital to allow populations under pressure to bounce back, helping maintain ecosystem biodiversity, generate employment in coastal communities, and provide local food for human consumption.
Policy and regulations play a key role in protecting Baltic fisheries. FishSec is working with the fishing sector and policy makers to improve long-term sustainability and move towards more ecosystem-based management. We recommend setting fishing limits according to scientific advice and support low-impact fishing methods, another critical step toward sustainability.
Figures: Catch of Eastern Baltic Cod (subdivisions 24-32), Baltic Sea sprat (subdivisions 22-32) and Central Baltic herring (subdivisions 22-32) (ICES Stock Database, 2023. ICES, Copenhagen).
September 15, 2023
June 19, 2023