(Source: European Commission)
Eastern Baltic cod
Why is the Commission not proposing more catches for Eastern Baltic cod compared to 2021?
Despite measures of recent years, scientists estimate that the condition of the stock has not improved. They therefore advise a continued stop for all catches of Eastern Baltic cod for 2022. The Commission hence proposes to maintain for 2022 the existing rules and the total allowable catch (TAC) level.
When scientists found in 2019 that the stock was in a worse state than previously expected, the Commission adopted emergency measures prohibiting fishing for cod in the most concerned areas for the rest of 2019 (with only very limited derogations).
For 2020, scientists advised to stop catching cod altogether. However, as many fisheries in the Baltic Sea have at least some by-catches of cod, a total fishing ban would have led to “choke” situations, meaning those other fisheries would have to be stopped as well. The Commission therefore proposed, and the Council agreed, to establish very low total allowable catches which can only be used for unintended or unavoidable by-catches of cod. In addition to the very low TAC, the fishing closure was extended from 1 to 4 months to protect the cod during spawning, and to all fisheries having potential by-catches of cod, with an exception for certain small-scale fisheries and purely scientific fishing activities.
For 2021, based on scientific advice, the TAC for unavoidable by-catches was further reduced. An additional exemption from the closure was introduced for pelagic fisheries, which fish for human consumption outside the spawning grounds.
Scientists advise a continued stop for all catches of cod for 2022. The Commission hence proposes to maintain for 2022 the existing rules and the TAC level.
Why is the spawning closure maintained?
Science clearly states that such closures can have benefits for the stock, which cannot be achieved by a TAC alone. Scientists mention as an example for additional benefits that a closure may allow the cod to spawn without being disturbed and that this can lead to producing more young cod. Eastern Baltic cod is in a very poor condition and the Baltic Sea Multiannual Plan provides that when the amount of fish in the sea is below the limit level, further measures have to be taken to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. Against this background, it is appropriate to maintain the closure covering the entire peak spawning time in all potential spawning areas, and to forbid any disturbing fishing activity during that period.
Why is the prohibition of recreational fishing for Eastern Baltic cod maintained?
Science tell us that at the time when commercial catches of Eastern Baltic cod were much higher, the quantities caught by recreational fisheries were negligible. The situation has however changed dramatically. Eastern Baltic cod is now in such a bad condition that scientists advised to stop all catches, including recreational. This is also coherent with the Baltic Sea Multiannual Plan, which provides that when the size of a stock is below safe biological limits, further measures have to be taken to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. We therefore propose to continue this prohibition, already applicable since 2020.
All stringent measures put in place since 2019 seem not work. What does the Commission intend to do?
While it seems that so far the stock has not yet responded to the various measures, two important aspects have to be taken into account in this context. First, conservation measures need some time to show effects, especially when a stock is in such a bad condition as the Eastern Baltic cod stock. Second, there are broader ecosystem-related factors such as rising water temperatures, pollution, diseases and oxygen depletion, which are assumed to affect the cod stock as well. The Commission therefore invited the relevant ministers from the Baltic Sea region to a high-level conference last September, where they signed a joint declaration to take a variety of measures in order to tackle the ecosystem issues of the Baltic Sea comprehensively. Finally, the Commission has asked the Member States to work on other measures such as developing gears for the flatfish fisheries, which substantially reduce by-catches of cod.
Why does the Commission propose to close this fishery?
In 2018, scientists looked at all the available information on western Baltic herring – known as a benchmark exercise. In this benchmark exercise, they found that the stock has been below safe biological limits since 2006. This made scientists to revise data about the stock size, and it is currently about half the minimum size. Like in the previous three years, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) therefore advises to stop all fishing. For such situations, the Baltic Multiannual Plan provides that measures need to be taken to ensure the rapid return of the stock to sustainable levels. Despite that the Council drastically reduced the TAC over the last years, the stock did not yet recover. The Commission therefore proposes to close the directed fishery for western herring and to set a small TAC for unavoidable by-catches so as not to choke other fisheries.
What does the Commission intend to do to help western Baltic herring recovering?
The EU has severely reduced the quotas in the Baltic Sea over the last years. The difficulty however is that western herring is not only present in the Baltic Sea – it migrates also into the Skagerrak and into the Eastern North Sea. Most of the catches are actually taken in those areas now. For 2021 ICES estimates that only 8% will be caught in the Baltic Sea while 64% are caught in the Skagerrak and 27% are by-caught in the North Sea. This means that catches have to significantly decrease in the Skagerrak and in the North Sea in order for the stock to recover. The fisheries in these areas are however managed together with Norway and the UK has a say for the North Sea. Last year it was therefore decided to set-up a joint working group together with Norway to address the issue of the fisheries in the Skagerrak.
Why does the Commission again propose such a drastic reduction for central Baltic herring?
Last year scientists revised data about the stock size down by almost 50%. As a result, the estimated stock size dropped below healthy levels. For such situations, the Baltic Multiannual Plan provides that the TAC must be set below the upper MSY-range (maximum sustainable yield) so as to ensure the rapid return of the stock to sustainable levels. The TAC was therefore considerably lowered. Unlike last year’s prediction however, the stock has not recovered; on the contrary, it has dropped further and is now close to the threshold below which the stock is no longer within safe biological limits and where even more severe measures would have to be taken according to the Plan. Moreover, too few fish survive to the maturity stage of their live. The Commission therefore proposes to be prudent and to set the TAC at the lower end of the range indicated by ICES.
Why does the Commission not propose TAC increases for sprat and plaice?
The scientific advice and the Baltic Multiannual Plan would indeed allow for TAC increases. However, ICES advises to take into account various multi-species interactions. The Commission therefore proposes to take a prudent approach. In particular, cod is an unavoidable by-catch in plaice fisheries. It would be inconsistent to propose to increase the TAC for plaice, especially as long more selective gear is not used, which substantially reduces cod by-catches. A similar logic applies to sprat, which is caught in a mixed fishery with herring. The TAC for central Baltic herring however has to be substantially reduced and it would therefore be inconsistent to increase the TAC for sprat. Moreover, sprat is a prey species for cod.
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