Large-sized, high-quality cod should provide increased earnings for fisheries”


Small-sized cod weaken economy for fisheries

The cod stocks in the Baltic Sea currently comprise only small fish, all approximately the same size. Cecilia Hammarlund writes that the imbalance in size composition results in lower earnings for fisheries.

Text: Cecilia Hammarlund

Editor’s note: This text is a column. All opinions and other standpoints are the author's. 

A Swedish study recently revealed that the cod stocks in the Baltic Sea are suffering from a much more compressed size structure. In the eastern parts of the Baltic, the cod stocks currently comprise only small fish all approximately the same size. According to the study authors, this may be a sign of a genetic change, which in the long term may have a dramatic impact on both the fish stocks and fisheries.

Income from cod fishing in the Baltic Sea is already low. Professional fishermen have not been able to catch their permitted quota of cod in the eastern parts of the Baltic Sea for several years now, and many have completely stopped fishing for cod.

There were indications as far back as the early 2000s that the cod caught by Swedish fisheries was smaller in size than before. Our estimates show that the majority of the cod caught weighed more than one kilogram at the end of the 1990s. However, during the subsequent decade, the majority of cod caught weighed less than one kilogram.

At the same time, there were also indications of a reduction in the quality of the cod. The cod formerly classified as having an extremely high quality according to the EU quality standards became increasingly rare.

The development of cod fishing in the Baltic Sea has therefore been marked by smaller cod and lower quality. Both the size and the quality of the fish impact prices and earnings – and by extension profitability for cod fishing.

In our study, we calculate the prices per kilogram for cod of different sizes caught on the east coast of Sweden in 2011. For the smaller cod (weighing between 0.3 and 1 kg), the professional fishermen received approximately SEK 12 per kg, while the price paid for cod weighing more than 1 kg was almost SEK 16 per kg. If the cod was assessed as being of extra high quality, the price increased by SEK 2 per kg on average.

One of the consequences of the increasingly compressed size structure for the cod stocks was that fisheries were forced to catch a larger volume of cod than before in order to sustain normal earnings.

Large-sized and high-quality cod, from a sustainable stock, should in the long term have generated higher income for fisheries than is the case today.

There is certainly a risk that an increased supply of large, high-quality cod could result in a reduction in the high price difference currently prevalent between small and large cod. On most markets, increased supply leads to lower prices.

However, with the Baltic Sea, this risk is assessed to be very low. As part of our study, we investigate price sensitivity to the different qualities of cod – and can confirm that the price for large-sized cod and high-quality cod is not particularly affected by changes in supply. This is due to the fact that the cod caught by Swedish fishermen only represent a minor share of the total supply of white fish on the global market.

If the volumes of large-sized cod caught saw an increase on the Swedish market, the prices would not be significantly impacted. However, such an increase would imply increased earnings and yield for fisheries in the long term, as they would receive more for each kilogram of fish they sell.

Management of the cod stocks and cod fisheries that would result in an improvement in the size structure of the stock and an increase in the quality of cod caught would not only benefit fisheries economically but also the marine ecosystem.

The situation for cod fisheries in the Baltic Sea is by no means unique. The World Bank’s study conducted last year estimated that more than SEK 700 million is lost each year for global fisheries due to unsustainable fisheries. One third of this figure is thought to be attributable to the catches of small-sized and low-quality fish.

Economically sustainable fisheries require catches of species that have high prices per kilogram. The fishermen should also attempt to catch large-sized fish and use more gentle tools to achieve higher quality fish.

Biologically and economically sustainable cod fishing requires fishermen to catch large-sized and high-quality fish generating high prices per kilogram. This would provide profitable fisheries and a reduction in the negative impact on the ecosystem in the Baltic Sea.

Even though the size structure of the Baltic Sea cod is partly something we humans cannot control, there are still both environmental and economic methods of working to ensure management of cod fish stocks that result in larger cod. 

Cecilia Hammarlund

economist and researcher at AgriFood Economics Centre

Cecilia Hammarlund is an economist and researcher at AgriFood Economics Centre, a collaborative unit between the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and the School of Economics and Management at Lund University. Her research concerns fishery economics and she works on the analysis of fishermen behaviour, fish prices and the effects of fishery reforms.