Western Baltic cod is on the brink of collapse while politicians shirk responsibility, writes Lasse Gustavsson.
Lasse Gustavsson is the Executive Director of Oceana in Europe, the world’s largest international advocacy organisation focused solely on marine conservation.
If you had power, knew that an important renewable natural resource was at great risk and the only way to save it was to temporarily halt its exploitation, what would you do? The answer seems obvious: a temporary sacrifice can save us from a far more drastic future. A state of denial only postpones and perpetuates the inevitable catastrophe.
The power to save Baltic cod lies with politicians but Esben Lunde Larsen, the Danish Minister for the Environment and Food (from the ruling Venstre liberal party) is abdicating this duty. Instead of taking responsibility for jobs and food for the current and future generations by promoting sustainable fisheries, Larsen caters for the short term interests of unsustainable fisheries groups. Denmark, together with Germany, bears the largest responsibility as the two EU countries with the biggest share of the overexploited western Baltic cod stock yet they stubbornly oppose the necessary reductions of fishing limits advised by scientists.
Other nations, such as Sweden and Poland, recognise the urgent need for decisive actions and back scientific recommendations. Last year, Larsen’s predecessor Eva Kjer Hansen allowed substantial overfishing in Denmark and overshot scientific advice by 23%. This mismanagement of cod is not just economically unwise, it is bordering on illegal. EU countries have a binding legal obligation to recover fish stocks above sustainable levels by 2020 at the latest. However, European fisheries ministers notoriously continue to promote overfishing by deciding on fishing quotas that ignore science. This has to stop.
Cod is important commercially and environmentally crucial for the Baltic Sea but has been overfished for many years. Scientists are ringing the alarm: the state of the western stock is below the biological safe-limit that guarantees its reproduction, mortality is high and the population is shrinking. Strict and immediate measures are desperately needed to avoid a total collapse of the stock. There is simply no place for business as usual.
Moreover, commercially more important cod in the Skagerrak and Kattegat are also at risk because half of this stock is recruited from the western Baltic cod. The situation is so severe that the Oceana now calls for a temporary total closure of western cod-targeted fisheries. Only this will ensure the stock is able to rebuild and produce a better yield in the future. This is not a measure invented by Oceana, but one of the emergency options of the recently approved long-term Baltic management plan. Fishermen’s temporary losses can be mitigated by existing European funds such as the EMFF.
The German and Danish ministers cannot pretend to be saving the fishing sector whilst continuing to elect for quotas that contradict scientific advice. There will be no fishing in an empty sea and it’s just a matter of time until the western cod stock collapses if overfishing is allowed to continue. However, if managed correctly the cod will come back.
More cod in the sea means more jobs in the fishing industry and more healthy cod for dinner in both Denmark and Germany. It is not too late, but the short-term thinking, symptomatic for politicians whose only timeframe is the next elections, can be detrimental for a sustainable resource, like fish. We’ve seen it happen before – the cod fishery collapse in New Foundland, Canada in the 90s is a textbook example of fisheries mismanagement. It took over 25 years before the first small signs of a fragile recovery appeared. We don’t need such a gamble in the Baltic Sea. Let us instead follow the good example from the North Sea, where after years of overexploitation, the North Sea cod is now on a good path to recovery thanks to better management.
The fate of Baltic cod will be decided by European ministers during the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg on 10-11 October. Oceana urges ministers to decide on a total closure of targeted fishing for western Baltic cod for 2017.