Commission accused over Baltic cod fishing limits

The European Commission yesterday (29 August) proposed fishing limits in the Baltic Sea for 2017. [European Parliament / Flickr]

Conservationists have blamed the European Commission for being “picky” regarding the scientific advice it used to propose fishing limits in the Baltic Sea.

The European Commission yesterday (29 August) proposed fishing limits in the Baltic Sea for 2017. A final decision on the issue will be made at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 10-11 October.

Each October, EU ministers propose fishing limits, the so-called Total Allowable Catch (TACs), based on scientific data gathered by several organisations and put together by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Referring to the 2016 scientific advice, the executive suggested the increase of catch limits for six out of ten fish stocks (Western, Bothnian and Central herring, sprat, plaice and main basin salmon) and the decrease catch limits for 2 stocks (Gulf of Riga herring and Gulf of Finland salmon).

Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner Karmenu Vella said that the proposed limits were “good news” for fishermen and helped make EU’s fisheries sustainable.

“In socio-economic terms the Commission proposal should improve overall economic performance in the Baltic Sea as a whole, in spite of significant differences across fleets segments and fisheries. This proposal could increase both profits by €13 million and employment at sea basin level,” the executive said.

Baltic cods

However, the case of the Baltic cod raises questions over the Commission’s handling of the situation

Cod is the most valuable fish in the Baltic Sea and, according to studies, it has a key role to play in the region’s ecosystem. That role is mainly related to algae blooms.

According to  “Save our Baltic Sea”, a media project about the Baltic Sea environment, the decreasing numbers of cod led to an increase of the sprat stock and this resulted in a decrease of zooplankton, the main source of food for the sprat.

“As a result, the population of phytoplankton, has increased, which can lead to algae blooms. High levels of phytoplankton can in turn lead to oxygen-poor, or dead sea beds, as the algae uses a lot of oxygen when they break down.”

In its statement, the European Commission referred to ICES studies and admitted that the state of the Baltic cod had not improved this year as fishing pressure from commercial and recreational fisheries “remains high”.

But it decided to propose catch limits on Baltic cod (Western and Eastern) only after its own expert group, the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), provides further evidence for the case.

Sources told that in previous years the Commission had used the same excuse and wondered why it awaited additional data “while all the data needed is already out there”.

Commenting on the Commission’s decision not to impose fishing quotas for the Baltic cod, Oceana, an international ocean conservation and advocacy organisation, noted that the executive only followed scientific advice “when economically convenient” whilst “ignoring environmental sustainability priorities when it implies short-term sacrifices”.

“European fisheries ministers have been blatantly ignoring the state of the cod stocks by taking short-sighted decisions for years. It is shocking to see that the European Commission, which should be the guardian of the Common Fisheries Policy, now washes their hands of it,” Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, said.

He added that the situation of the Baltic cod was getting worse each year and underlined that one could not talk about the socio-economic sustainability of the fishing industry “if we mismanage its foundation – the natural resource itself […] there will be no fishing in an empty sea”.

Oceana believes that the European Commission should propose catch limits for both stocks of the Baltic cod (eastern and western) and blames the executive for ignoring existing scientific advice from ICES.

It stated that last year the Commission again ignored the problem by not presenting a TAC proposal and once again “despite heavy criticism has opted to leave the responsibility to EU Member States, who have allowed continuous overfishing for many years”.

In response to this article, an EU Spokesperson told EURACTIV:

“The European Commission asked for additional scientific advice on cod stocks to be sure to be on safe grounds when making its proposals. The scientific assessment of the cod stock would need to take into account recreational fishing, mixing between eastern and western stocks, and changes in biology.”

“In the Commission's assessment, this complexity requires additional scientific information in particular because the advised changes in cod figures are significant and would carry relevant socio-economic impacts […] It is, therefore, essential to ensure that the Commission proposals are credible and sound in order to ensure the sustainability of the stock and the full compliance with the objectives of Common Fisheries Policy,” the EU official added.

  • 10-11 October: The Agriculture and Fisheries Council will make a final decision over the proposed fishing limits proposed by the Commission.

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