Short-sightedness and weak measures impairs fisheries and the sea’s ability to deliver food


Fish stocks and profitability are favored by quotas below the maximum level of sustainable outtake

EU fisheries ministers will soon decide next year's fishing in the Baltic Sea. The EU Commission's proposal suggests that measures may be too little - and too late - for some of the most threatened stocks, writes Henrik Hamrén.

Text: Henrik Hamrén

The European Commission is worried about the future.

Increasing population, poverty reduction, and already heavily exploited land resources means that the levels at which we currently extract protein from the sea to satisfy our need for food will not last much longer. In addition, the oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, making it increasingly difficult to deliver food.

So, the Commission posed a question:

How do we extract more food from the ocean without affecting future generations?

The question was sent to one of their own advisory bodies, SAM (Scientific Advice Mechanism).

The answer came last year, in the Food from the Oceans report.

Enhancement of management and more aquaculture needed

Yes, it is possible to increase the catch of seafood from European marine waters, SAM concludes; but, more aquaculture will be needed, as well as increased fishing for species further down in the food web, such as plankton and krill.

Current fisheries management must also undergo major changes. If today's fishery is to generate more fish - which, according to SAM, it actually can - the landing obligation must be implemented and more of the bycatch must be used efficiently, for instance, as food for humans instead of for farmed fish.

Furthermore, the most strained fish stocks must be better protected. So far, efforts to reduce fishing pressure have been characterized by "too little, too late", the SAM-report states. When the status of a fish stock is deteriorating, fishing must be reduced promptly and severely. And the measures must be long-term.

Implementing major changes from year to year, back and forth, is ineffective, and weakens both the fishing and the sea's ability to deliver food.

Or as SAM writes: "Rebuilding overfished stocks requires reduced fishing landings for several years".

The Commission has had the SAM report on its table for almost a year. But have the conclusions been heard?

When it comes to aquaculture, for example, the EU has clearly increased its ambitions under the Blue Growth strategy. But when it comes fisheries management, SAM's conclusions are not as obvious.

the rate of fish killed by fishing has been far too high over the past 19 years

"We propose a balanced package that ensures sustainable fishing in the Baltic Sea", said Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, when he in August presented the Commission's proposal for catch quotas for next year.

He was particularly pleased that the catch levels for the western cod stock could be raised again "after several years of difficulties for the fishermen".

The poor cod fishery in the western stock is a consequence of the fact that the stock has long been in an alarmingly poor condition. The research community and many environmental organizations have warned of historically low recruitment and a spawning biomass that is well below the scientifically set minimum levels. According to ICES, the fishing mortality rate (i e fish killed by fishing) has been far too high over the past 19 years.

Fisheries bans the stalemate in negotiation of quotas

But these warnings have not led to the long-term measures that SAM calls for. In 2015 and 2016, the catch quota for the western cod stock was twice as high as the scientific recommendations. Even in 2017, the catch level was higher than the ICES recommendation, in line with the Commission’s proposal.

This year, the Commission again proposes an increase in the quota, now by 30 percent. And this time the proposal is actually in line with the scientific recommendations. ICES also believe that the stock has recovered enough since last year and can handle increased fishing pressure.

Strengthened by the positive forecast, the Commission also proposes removing the temporary fishing ban during the spatial closure period, between February 1 and March 31, which was introduced last year. This despite the fact that the Commission's Advisory Committee on Fisheries, STECF, states that this specific protection measure “appears greatly beneficial to the western Baltic cod stock."

The spatial closure was one of the major stumbling blocks during last year's quota negotiations in the Council of Ministers. Despite hard opposition from Denmark, the ministers eventually decided on a two-month fishing ban during the spawning period.

However, the Danish and German fishing fleets circumvented the ban by continuing to trawl flatfish in the area, with large numbers of cod in by-catch. Strong reactions from environmental organizations and several EU countries prompted the EU Commission to act and halfway into the spawning period fishing was interrupted. In this way, the western cod received at least a few weeks of “free play” this year. That will probably not happen next year.

Catch levels are significantly higher than recommended despite severe quota cuts

For the Baltic's largest cod stock, the eastern, the Commission proposes to reduce catch levels by 15% compared to last year. That still means significantly higher catch levels than those that ICES recommend.

In recent years, catch quotas for the eastern stock have been gradually reduced - but apparently too little and too late. Despite the reductions, fisheries have not managed to capture their quotas in the eastern stock for almost a decade.

However, the most noticeable in the Commission's proposal for next year's fishing regards the Western Baltic herring, for which the Commission proposes a catch level of 6,404 tonnes, a decrease of 63% compared last year.

Last year, quotas decreased by 39% to 17 309 tonnes. Now, the Commission hopes that further reductions will help the stock - although the reduction is considerably less than what ICES recommends.

Earlier this year, ICES recommended zero (!) catches


Earlier this year, ICES recommended zero (!) catches, because the stock is no longer considered to be within safe biological limits. According to ICES, the Western herring stocks have been outside these safe biological limits since 2008. The weak recruitment reached record low levels in 2016 and 2017, and now ICES believes that further growth is needed to avoid stock collapse.

Lower fishing pressure gives greater profitability

European fisheries policy is a complex balance between environmental considerations and socio-economics. Perhaps that is why the SAM report from last year is permeated by economic considerations to such a large extent. For the fisheries, this is perhaps most evident in the section on how to manage sustainable stocks that are in good shape and able to deliver according to the principle of maximum sustainable yield (MSY): "once MSY capacity of a stock has been reached, precautionary fishing below MSY levels could increase yields by more than 50 percent.”

If the catch levels set below the maximum level, stock growth will be secured over time - and profitability in fisheries can increase.

On 15-16 October, EU Fisheries Ministers will meet to decide next year's catch levels for the Baltic Sea. The Commission's proposal will be indicative in those negotiations.

It is unusual for ministers to agree on lower catch levels than the Commission proposes. On the contrary, too many stocks tend to be set higher.

How things will be this year remains to be seen. But much suggests that the management of Baltic fisheries will be "too late, too late" also this time around.