Fisheries and agriculture ministers around the Baltic Sea may have made an important decision at the Council meeting this week. As Commissioner Karmenu Vella pointed out they took a step towards looking at fish like the cod in a broader perspective. They have recognized the importance of environmental interactions. Specifically, they committed to urgently and effectively address the impact on fish stocks of activities such as agriculture and industry, through pollution, eutrophication and habitat degradation.
But their perspective needs to take more consideration that size and age structure of fish stocks are not just related to natural and fishing mortality but also to individual growth. The cod will continue be in a very poor and unproductive state as long as fishing is too intensive and growth meagre, leading to an unprecedented truncated size distribution. The small and uniform sizes of cod means that this former predatory fish will not fulfil its former ecosystem function.
The Ministers, therefore, need to take more account of the basic interactions between different stocks, such as cod and its forage fish herring and sprat. Continued failure to do so will not only delay recovery of the eastern Baltic cod, it increases the risk of a long-term collapse. It also conflicts with the requirement in the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, to use an ecosystem approach to management.
For some stocks such as cod, sprat and western Baltic herring, ministers have agreed on fishing quotas higher than the Commission had proposed. Some seem to misinterpret the scientific recommendations, focusing too much on numbers and missing important qualifications. Once again, the Ministers have put short-term socio-economic considerations first, and, thereby, jeopardizing a commonly owned natural resource. This year the environment, fishers and local communities will suffer again because of previous short-term thinking.
After the Council meeting, the Baltic region Fisheries Ministers can and should decide on a number of measures to improve the situation of the cod. These should include restrictions on fishing food of the starving cod, in particular sprat, in the regions where the cod congregates.
In a self-critical reflection, scientists should perhaps be clearer in their advice about aspects of fishing management such as when flexibility in the system can be used without being abused (such as exploitation rates).