”The stock has been overexploited for many years”


Continued high fishing pressure on herring in the Gulf of Bothnia next year

Herring catches in the central and western Baltic Sea will be halved next year, following the recent decision by EU’s farming and fisheries ministers. As compensation, sprat catches will increase. And in the Gulf of Bothnia, the sharp increase from earlier this year will be maintained also during 2022.

Text: Henrik Hamrén Foto: Oceana

The now widespread concern about several of the Baltic Sea's herring stocks seems to have been heard by most of the EU’s farming and fisheries ministers. At least in part.

When the ministers on Tuesday presented next year's total allowable catches (TACs) for fish stocks in the Baltic Sea, the TACs for central and western herring stocks were reduced by 45% and 50% respectively. The main reason is that the spawning stock biomasses (the amount of spawning fish) of both stocks are clearly below sustainable levels.

– After several years of incorrect scientific assessments, when the stock has been overestimated by up to 100%, it can be seen today that the central Baltic herring is in a much worse condition than previously thought, says Henrik Svedäng, researcher at Stockholm University's Baltic Sea Centre.

Challenging not to stop fishing earlier

Regarding the smaller western Baltic herring stock, the situation has been alarmingly poor since 2019. For the fourth year in a row, researchers at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) earlier this year once again proposed zero catch on the stock. And this time, the ministers followed the advice and stopped all targeted fishing for the western herring stock next year. In practice, this means that the catch quota is halved, and that the remaining quota of 788 tonnes only covers by-catches in other fisheries.

– The fact that they have waited so long to stop fishing on the western Baltic herring stock must be described as challenging, in light of the political commitments that have been made about sustainable use of the Baltic fish stocks. The western herring has been overexploited for many years, and now the stock has a very low productivity, says Henrik Svedäng.

Recovery of the central Baltic herring is endangered

For many decades, the central Baltic herring stock was by far the largest herring stock in the entire Baltic Sea, both in terms of tonnes and distribution area. In the mid-1970s, the spawning stock biomass was estimated to be around two million tonnes. Since then, the stock has fallen by almost 80 percent, and today stands at around 400,000 tonnes.

– In the light of that poor development, it may seem good that the quota now will be reduced. But the risks are now significant that the stock has already been damaged, for example by the subpopulations being wiped out. By allowing continued fishing at a fairly high level relative to the estimated size of the stock, the recovery of the stock can be jeopardized, says Henrik Svedäng.

Last year, new stock assessments revealed major shortcomings in ICES previous stock estimates. For many years, the spawning stock biomass for the central Baltic herring stock had been grossly overestimated, while fishing pressure had been underestimated.

– The value of fish lies primarily in its role in the Baltic Sea ecosystem. Herring transfer energy and nutrients between trophic levels. Now, when important herring stocks decrease, many species are at risk. Reduced biodiversity also means poorer functioning ecosystems with a poorer ability to mitigate the effects of eutrophication and greenhouse gas emissions, says Henrik Svedäng.

From uncertainty to certainty – in one year

Nowadays, the herring stock in the Gulf of Bothnia is considered to be the largest in the Baltic Sea. But even this stock has been characterized by scientific uncertainty. Until last year, ICES lacked enough data to make a proper stock analysis. Therefore, the adviced catch quota was set relatively low, from a precautionary perspective.

Earlier this year, ICES presented new calculations, using a new model, which estimated that the stock was significantly larger than previously thought. ICES therefore recommended a sharp increase in the catch quota as early as 2021. As a result, the EU fisheries ministers increased the TAC for the Bothnian herring by more than 80% in the middle of the year.

This TAC was slightly reduced during Tuesday's negotiations in Luxembourg, to a total of 111,345 tonnes for 2022, which is an increase of 71% compared to the original TAC for 2021.

– It may be considered unusual to go from very great uncertainty to high scientific certainty just because of one untested model change, and at the same time let this lead to a very large increase in the fishing quota. In any case, this decision will probably please the large-scale pelagic trawl fisheries from Sweden and Finland for a time. They are the only two countries that fish for herring in this area. But the risk is great that we will soon have the same poor situation for herring in the Gulf of Bothnia as further south in the Baltic Sea, says Henrik Svedäng.

Runs counter to the alarm of coastal fishermen

In recent years, there have been disturbing reports from local fishermen and others along the entire east coast. In the Gulf of Bothnia, they have long been warning about an acute lack of spring-spawning herring that enters shallower waters during spring.

– This drastic increase in industrial fishing in the Gulf of Bothnia runs counter to the coastal fishermen's alarms about declining catches, says Henrik Svedäng.

Lack of larger herring on the coast

Henrik Svedäng is also critical of the fact that ICES' estimate of the Gulf of Bothnia herring does not take special account of the latest scientific findings on the genetics of the Baltic herring and its division into local sub-populations. According to him, the findings show that the stock is divided into several sub-populations, also between the Bothnian Sea and the Bothnian Bay.

– Since the herring in the Gulf of Bothnia consists of several sub-populations, there is a risk that smaller stock components, that are important for coastal fisheries, will be depleted. This year, the coastal fishermens’ demand for slightly larger herring could not be met, he says.

Sprat as prey fish for cod should be taken into account

As the sprat stock in the Baltic Sea is still considered to be in good condition, the TAC will be increased by 13% next year, landing at 251,943 tonnes. Thus, the EU ministers chose to go slightly higher than the Commission's previous proposal.

Alongside herring, sprat is one of the cod's most important prey fish. Therefore, more geographically “nuanced” management has long been discussed, which could ensure that less sprat is caught in the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, where most cod are found.

– If you only look at the researchers' figures, fishing for sprat, on paper, could increase even more. But ICES' recommendation for next year is a reduction to 214,000 tonnes. And the researchers at ICES emphasize that sprat is an important prey fish for cod, something that should be taken into account when setting quotas. In addition, there are major uncertainties, partly as a result of incorrect reporting from the fishery. But maybe, the ministers did not want to reduce even more quotas this year, says Charles Berkow, policy expert at Stockholm University's Baltic Sea Centre.

The crisis of the western cod could have been avoided

The situation for Baltic cod remains very bad. As in previous years, all targeted trawling for cod in the central Baltic Sea will be banned next year, and a maximum of 595 tonnes may be taken as by-catch in other fisheries.

What is new is that trawling on the western Baltic cod stock will also be stopped completely next year, with a by-catch of a maximum of 489 tonnes. The TAC for the current year is 4,000 tonnes, which means that next year's TAC represents a reduction of 8%. Last year's TAC meant a reduction of 92%.

  – The negative effects on the western cod stock in the Arkona Basin, the Danish Strait and the Sound, could easily have been avoided. The risk is that a number of important sub-populations of cod in this area have now disappeared as a result of overfishing, and we get the same situation as in the Kattegat, where the cod disappeared as a locally producing stock in the late 2000s, says Henrik Svedäng.

For cod in the eastern and western stocks, by-catches of 595 tonnes and 489 tonnes respectively will be allowed next year, which are expected to be taken from fishing for other species. The fishing for flatfish is the single Baltic fishery that gives the largest by-catches of cod, especially in the south and western Baltic Sea.

– There, the ministers have taken note of a recent agreement on more selective gear and increased catch quotas for plaice, thereby increasing the risk of bycatch of cod. Given that one does not yet know what the new tools provide in practice, and the lack of control, it is a gamble. Once again, ministers may have thought too much about the short-term economic effects for some fishermen. The experience is that it, in time, can backfire on commercial fishing – and also have consequences for the ecosystems where the fish are included, says Charles Berkow.

Council’s decided TACs for 2022

(TACs 2021) 

  • Bothnian herring: 111 345 tonnes (65 018 tonnes, according to ICES first advice, later increased to117 485 tonnes)
  • Central herring: 53 653 (97 551)
  • Western herring: 788, only by-catch (1 575)
  • Riga herring: 47 697 (39 446)
  • Eastern cod: 595, only by-catch  (595, only by-catch)
  • Western cod: 489, only by-catch (4 000)
  • Sprat: 251 943 (222 958)
  • Plaice: 9 050 (6 894)
  • Main basin salmon: 63 811 fish*, recreational fishing not included (94 496 fish)
  • Gulf of Finland salmon: 9 455 fish (8 883 fish)

* Refers in practice only to fishing in subdivisions 29N-31, ie. in the Åland Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia.

The Russian quota shares of TAC (about 10%) are excluded. In the ICES advice, presented earlier this year, the Russian shares are included.

ICES advice for 2022

(ICES advice 2021)

  • Bothnian herring: 86 729 – 111 714 tonnes (≤ 65 018 tonnes, in May, the advice was increase to 91 494 – 117 875 tonnes).
  • Central herring: 52 443 – 87 581 (83 971 – 138 183). According to the MAP, catches higher than 71 939 tonnes can only be taken under conditions specified in the plan.
  • Western herring: 0 (0)
  • Riga herring: 34 797 – 52 132 (27 702 – 41 423 ). According to the MAP, catches higher than 44 945 tonnes can only be taken under conditions specified in the plan.
  • Eastern cod: 0 (0)
  • Western cod: 698 (2 960 – 7 724 )
  • Sprat: 214 000 – 373 210, (181 567 – 316 833). According to the MAP, catches higher than 291 745 tonnes can only be taken under conditions specified in the plan.
  • Plaice: 11 082 (7 754)
  • Main basin salmon: 75 000 fish*, including recreational fishing (116 000 fish)
  • Gulf of Finland salmon: 11 800 fish (11 800 fish)

* Refers in practice only to fishing in subdivisions 29N-31, ie. in the Åland Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia.

 In the ICES advice the Russian shares are included.

Commission’s proposal for 2022

  • Bothnian herring: 111 345 tonnes
  • Central herring: 44 709
  • Western herring: 
  • Riga herring: 47 697 
  • Eastern cod: 595, only by-catch
  • Western cod: 324
  • Sprat: 222 958 
  • Plaice: 7 240 

Henrik Svedäng


Charles Berkow