EU’s Baltic fishing plan is a first step, but with serious flaws

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Fishing boats in Sweden. [Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre]

The EU’s new multi-year plan for managing Baltic commercial fish stocks is an important step towards more sustainable fisheries, but with flaws that need urgent attention, write researchers at the Baltic Eye think tank, at Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre.

Tina Elfwing is the Director of Stockholm University Baltic Centre, and Gustaf Almqvist and Maciej Tomzcak are fishery scientists at the Baltic Eye think tank.

Despite its good intentions, the proposed plan has major flaws that need to be promptly addressed during the current decision process, or at least be reflected in an early revision.

During the record year of 1984 some 400,000 tons of cod were landed from the eastern Baltic stock. Three years later, catches were halved – and have continued to decline.

Over the past five years the amount of cod landed from the Bornholm Basin ranged from 30 to 50,000 tons per year. The fishermen now have difficulties filling their quotas because individuals of the eastern Baltic cod stock are currently unusually small and thin. Large cod are very rare.

Why is the eastern Baltic cod in such poor condition?

Historic overfishing, growing anoxic seabeds and the lack of bottom fauna probably have something to do with it. Other plausible causes could be climate change, parasites and variations in salinity and temperature.

At present, scientists have no clear answers. The only thing they can say with certainty is that fisheries management in the Baltic Sea must be better adapted to marine ecosystem conditions. Otherwise, the ecosystem-bearing capacity of the sea basin will be further weakened and cod stocks will have great difficulty in recovering to sustainable levels.

Currently, the EU is in the final stages of deciding on a new multiyear management plan for the Baltic Sea, which will include cod, herring and sprat – a so-called multi-species plan. The new plan has great potential to actually change the Baltic fisheries for the better.

This plan is a big step in the right direction. Scientists, environmentalists, and parts of the fishing industry have long been critical of the one-sided focus on stock size for single species, mainly because of the fundamental importance of ecological interactions between cod, herring, and sprat in the Baltic Sea. As commonly known, large cods feed on both sprat and herring; but in certain life stages these species compete for the same food resources. Thus, the management of one species affects the quantity and quality of other species.

To conduct large-scale fishing without such an integrated approach increases the risk of unpredictable changes in the entire marine ecosystem. In turn, this has negative consequences for fishermen in terms of increased instability of catch sizes and a risk of sudden and substantially changed economic conditions.

The Parliament is expected to adopt the multiyear plan in April. Then the Council of Ministers will have their say. This means that the Baltic may very well have a new management plan in place this summer.

We believe that the plan should only be regarded as a first step towards a sustainable ecosystem-based management, because the current proposal still is very rudimentary and has several serious flaws:

  • The goal of “maximum sustainable yield” (MSY) for cod, herring, and sprat does not specify what it is to be prioritized. Weight or value? For instance, a ton of cod has a higher economic value than a ton of sprat. As countries around the Baltic concentrate their fishing on different species, such considerations have large effects on both the ecosystem and economy.
  • Cod recovery is not a priority. This is particularly unfortunate for the Baltic Sea, where cod plays a key role. Historical data clearly show that large variations in cod stock sizes have dramatic ecological effects throughout the Baltic Sea environment. Therefore, the cod recovery must be prioritized in the new plan. In practice this would mean that levels of fishing mortality should be set for cod first and then for other species.
  • The ecosystem approach in the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is not met. The plan must take much greater account of how the different species interact in the ecosystem, and have a clear objective that focus on protecting the entire marine ecosystem.
  • Lack of reference to individual sizes. In agreement with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), natural size- and age distributions of commercial fish stocks are important indicators to achieve good ecological status of the marine environment. Unfortunately these aspects are missing in the plan.
  • Insufficient considerations of environmental changes. In the Baltic Sea, salinity, temperature and oxygen availability vary naturally – and often more strongly than in other marine environments. These variations affect the productivity of fish stocks and make stock development especially unpredictable. The new plan should include a mechanism to adjust for major changes in the environment and the catch quotas should be set at levels that take into account any variations in recruitment and growth.
  • Uncertain scientific basis. The new plan proposes an increase of the fishing mortality on eastern Baltic cod, despite the extraordinary uncertainty in the assessment of the stock. In early March, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) will present updated estimates of fishing mortality ranges for the Baltic cod stock. These estimates should be included before adopting the plan.

In our opinion, these points are most critical to include in a Baltic multiyear management plan. In addition, there are a number of other aspects that should be highlighted.

For example, there is no clear description of how the decision process for setting quotas will be conducted. In a multi-species context, scientific advice and recommendations from ICES, in particular, becomes even more important. The current plan does not describe the role of science in management and would benefit from being more adaptable when scientific recommendations are sharply revised (as, for example, occurred last year when ICES recommended significantly reduced cod quotas for 2015).

We welcome the new management plan, but urge the Parliament and the Council to address its shortcomings. The time factor is crucial. Vague and inadequate structures have a tendency to become quickly cemented and increasingly difficult to correct.

Therefore, the discussion on what to include in a revised plan must be initiated immediately. Leaving the multiyear plan in its present state, with all its flaws, would be a shame when it is based on such good intentions, and a major setback for the future of the Baltic Sea.