"Short-sighted ministers ignore clear warning signals from scientists"


When Will They Ever Learn?

The poor state of the Baltic Sea cod shows that the EU fisheries management system is dysfunctional. The destruction of the stocks could and should have been avoided, writes Charles Berkow, fisheries policy expert at Baltic Sea Centre.

Text: Charles Berkow Foto: Oceana

This time it is the western Baltic cod that is in crisis. 

That is the inescapable conclusion of the advice scientists at the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES), released last week. They recommended a reduction of the total allowable catch (TAC) by more than 80 per cent.

But this tragedy was not unavoidable. 

On the contrary, there were warnings. The cod collapsed off the east coast of North America in the early 1990’s. It more or less collapsed along the Swedish Skagerrak coast and in the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark a few years later. The crisis of the eastern Baltic cod has been accepted now for some years. And this time, it is the western Baltic cod. 

This latest cod catastrophe shows that the EU’s fisheries management system is still dysfunctional. Uncertainties in scientific advice are not clearly communicated. And short-sighted ministers ignore clear warning signals from scientists even when they are there. In this case, it was particularly the German and Danish governments that were responsible. 

The CFP-ICES-TAC-MAP machine

To recap: since the reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2013, the primary goal is to fish at maximum sustainable yield (MSY). In practice that means that TACs are based on taking up the maximum amount that was estimated the year before. That is, as long as that amount was estimated as being compatible with the highest possible long-term yield. 

There is a lot of guess-work involved. So inevitably, the catches will sometimes be too high. When that happens, it can lead to lower catches in following years.

The prognoses are provided by scientists working with ICES. These predictions completely ignore the complicated population structure of the western Baltic cod, which actually consists of a number of different stock components that can develop at different rates. Rather, the predictions follow a combination of tradition and a rather rigid request from the European Commission. That request is in turn based on a multiannual plan for Baltic cod, herring and sprat (MAP) adopted in a compromise between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in 2016. 

At first, 2016 looked like a good year for the western Baltic cod. The class that hatched that year and reached maturity in 2017 (called recruitment) was the biggest in a long time. And that was important, because the years before and after were the worst on record. 

Gross mismanagement 

When ICES plugged the figures into the formula 2018, the result was that under the management plan, the commercial catch (total allowable catch, TAC) 2019 should be somewhere between 5 867 tonnes and 22 238 tonnes. That was a big range, especially compared with the commercial catch for 2018 which was about 6 thousand tonnes. 

But the scientists attached a very unusual warning. With wording reinforced by diagrams, they wrote: 

“The positive perspective of the stock development in the forecast is mainly due to one strong year class (the 2016 year class). [The stock is at such a low level that recruitment may be impaired, and fishing pressure is too high.] The 2016 year class is the only strong year class in more than ten years and the present advice is highly dependent on predicted development of this year class /…/ The 2016 year class will account for the majority of the predicted catches in 2019 (83%) and SSB [mature fish] in 2020 (81%) /…/ Additionally, the 2015 and 2017 year classes are at historical low. There is a risk of growth overfishing because the 2016 year class fish have not yet reached their full growth potential. Therefore, to make use of the full growth potential of the 2016 year class, ICES suggests to use the FMSY lower value in the MAP when setting the TAC.”

This FMSY lower value is part of the management plan. For the western Baltic cod fishery ICES estimated it as 5 867 tonnes for 2019.

The European Commission, presumably after obtaining a sense of what the Baltic Sea fisheries ministers might agree to, proposed an increase to 7 340 tonnes for 2019. 

But in the negotiations between the governments, the Commission proposal was vigorously opposed by Denmark and, in particular, Germany. For them, a 31% increase was not enough. Denmark asked “for a substantially higher TAC, as justified by ICES”. Germany was more specific, claiming “31% is not enough for fishermen, stock is in a good state, still sustainable with 100% increase”. Perhaps the ministers, and fishermen, were recalling better times a few years earlier, when TACs were between 15 and 20 thousand tonnes – before a sequence of years when overfishing depleted the stock. 

In any case, the result was that the ministers approved a whopping increase from under 6 thousand tonnes in 2018 to over 9 thousand tonnes in 2019 – an increase of 70 per cent (see table below). The Austrian president of the Fisheries Council at the time, federal minister for sustainability and tourism Elisabeth Köstinger, was up-beat about the decision.

"The 2020 deadline we set ourselves for achieving the sustainability of our fisheries resources is getting closer. Today's decision is another important step towards meeting this goal, whilst at the same time respecting the socioeconomic viability of our coastal communities“ she said in a press release.

From there, things went downhill. It turned out that ICES had grossly overestimated the crucial class of 2017, the class that was estimated to be over 80% of the mature fish 2019 (see table below). Also, the 2018 and 2019 classes were the lowest on record. ICES therefore predicted a rapid decline of the stock unless stronger classes occurred in the following years. Based on new information on the productivity of the stock when it is low, ICES revised its assessment of how bad shape the western Baltic cod stock was in.

And so, in 2019 ministers agreed on a reduction of the TAC from over 9 thousand tonnes in 2019 to less than 4 thousand tonnes in 2020. But the ministers turned down a number of Commission proposals to improve controls so as to ensure that the catch limits were actually respected. There are reports of substantial amounts of cod caught as “by-catch” in flatfish fisheries.

When will they ever learn?

And so here we are. ICES now recommends a total catch for 2022 of at the most 698 tonnes. This is less than 10 per cent of the TAC in 2019 when Germany and Denmark succeeded in pumping up the quotas, ostensibly for the benefit of their fishers. 

This catastrophe for the cod, the fishers and the Baltic could and should have been avoided. The current management system does not work. 

It remains to be seen if Baltic fisheries ministers have learned any lessons from this disaster (nota bene, an exact repetition of the destruction of the Kattegat cod, which, has remained in this perilous state over the last 15 years). One sign may be what they do with the Commission proposal to cut the central Baltic herring TAC next year. And the western Baltic cod. 

ICES estimates of Recruitment for western Baltic cod in 2017

Year of estimate Millions of fish in 2017
2018 85.99
2019 39.32
2020 35.59
2021 56.86

Total Allowable Catches for western Baltic cod, decided by EU fisheries ministers

Fishing year TAC (tonnes)
2013 20 000
2014 17 000
2015 15 900
2016 12 720
2017 5 597
2018 5 597
2019 9 515
2020 3 806
2021 4 000
2022 698 as recommended by ICES?


Charles Berkow