There is no doubt that commercial fishers in the Baltic Sea will face major challenges again next year.
Total allowable catches (TACs) will be cut for several of the Baltic’s commercially most import stocks under the European Commission’s recent proposal for 2021.
– Things are getting worse for the important stocks of herring and cod in both the western and eastern Baltic, says Henrik Svedäng, fisheries scientist at the Baltic Sea Centre.
– This is ominous for both fishing and the marine environment, he says.
Major cuts for herring in the central Baltic
The Commission proposes a 36 percent cut in the TAC for the central Baltic herring, following the scientific recommendation from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).
During the past five years, fishing pressure has been above the levels that would give maximum sustainable yield (FMSY), and the biomass has now fallen so low that specific management actions are triggered. Further, a single year class, fish spawned 2014, is expected to be the main contributor to the yields.
There is a lot of hope pinned on a new year class (2019). But it is still too early to say how that class will develop, according to Henrik Svedäng.
– The estimates from the past few years show major increases in fishing mortality and decreasing spawning stock biomass compared to previous years. This suggests that the estimates are uncertain and the situation can get even worse in coming years, he says.
– And in combination with incorrect landing reports of herring and sprat, the uncertainty increases further.
Lack of herring gives a wave of sticklebacks in the archipelago?
The TACs for herring in the central Baltic sea have been cut in steps the past few years: 26 per cent in 2019, 10 per cent in 2020 – and now there could be a cut of another 36 per cent next year.
The levels of herring in the central Baltic are far below the levels in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
– We also have a problem with a decline of herring along the Swedish east coast. That is either because there is generally substantially less herring in the Baltic than the current estimates suggest, or because the coastal herring is comprised of local populations that have been decimated, says Henrik Svedäng.
He feels that the decline has already led to major changes in the Baltic ecosystem, with drastic changes in its structure and function.
– Among other effects, the so-called ‘wave of sticklebacks’ in the outer Stockholm archipelago can be due to the uniquely low levels of herring in along the coastline. In the inner archipelago, where there is still herring, there is no sign of this wave of sticklebacks, he says.
Cod Management Has Floundered
Scientists at ICES recommend that the TAC for the western cod is set somewhere between 4,635 and 2,960 tonnes.
The Commission proposes a cut to 3,395 tonnes, which is 11 percent less than last year.
– When it comes to the western Baltic cod, it is clear that management has floundered in the past years, says Charles Berkow, fisheries policy expert at the Baltic Sea Centre.
– In 2018, ICES warned that the 2016 year class would account for over 80 per cent of the predicted catches in 2019. The year classes before and after were at an historical low, he says.
But instead of letting the strong year class grow, the EU’s fisheries minister increased the TACs by 70 percent to 2019. The negative consequences quickly became apparent, and the following year the TAC was cut by 60 percent, which was less than ICES had recommended.
– Two years ago, when the Commission proposed an increase, the ministers added even more to their decision. Last year, when the Commission proposed a decrease, the ministers did not want to go that far. The question is if they will do it this year instead, says Charles Berkow.
Continued Ban for the Eastern Cod Stock
Last year, the EU’s ministers decided to stop all targeted commercial cod fishing on the eastern stock, but they allowed a by-catch of 2,000 tonnes. The Commission proposed a continuation of the ban on targeted fishing for 2021 and wants to cut the by-catch TAC to 595 tonnes.
Scientists have different views as to why the eastern cod is in so bad shape. A new study indicates that poor nutritional quality of the cod’s food can be an important factor. Further, the stocks of herring, an important prey fish for the cod, are not particularly strong in the southern Baltic where most of the cod congregate. But it is still unclear just how much of the cod’s problems are due to previous overfishing of the cod, current high fishing pressure on the herring, or various environmental factors such as eutrophication and increasing water temperatures.
No ban on fishing for western Baltic spring spawning herring
For the third year in a row, ICES recommends a TAC of 0 tonnes for the western Baltic spring spawning herring. In 2019, the TAC was cut by 48 percent, and this year it was slashed another 60 percent. The Commission now proposes a further cut of 50 percent.
– My personal feeling is that it is time to admit the mismanagement and introduce a temporary ban on fishing herring in the western Baltic, says Henrik Svedäng, and continues:
– Fishing has depleted the stock for a good number of years, and it is now at historically low levels. This also means that the eastern cod stock, which now suffers from poor health and condition, cannot find enough herring, and instead has to get by on sprat, which has lower nutritional value for the cod, he says.
Unchanged TACs for Sprat and Plaice
The Commission proposes that the sprat and plaice TACs for 2020 are rolled over for 2021: 210,147 tonnes for sprat and 6,894 tonnes for plaice. The Commission notes that the sprat relies on one strong year class, and wants to let it grow. Also, a lot of the sprat is caught in a mixed fishery with herring stocks which are not in very good shape.
Scientists’ Warnings Should Have Been Taken Seriously
If the European Commission’s latest TAC proposals are taken as a description of the state of the Baltic, prospects are in general gloomy for the commercially fished stocks in the Baltic. The Commission proposes increases only for one of the salmon stocks and for herring in the Gulf of Riga.
– Altogether, the proposed cuts are rather substantial. In all probability, we wouldn’t have ended up in this difficult situation – at least for many of the stocks – if scientists' warnings and recommendations had been taken more seriously earlier, says Charles Berkow.
The EU’s fisheries ministers will gather together on the 19th – 20th of October to decide the final TACs for 2021. The Commission’s proposals will be the starting point for those negotiations.
– It will be interesting to see how the ministers handle the proposals for major cuts for the herring, which is the fishery that generates most income for the fishing sector. It will also be interesting to see how the minister handle the consequences for our coastal and archipelago areas, and those who fish there, says Charles Berkow.