Western Baltic Cod is suffering from high overfishing and the stock currently exhibits dangerously low biomass levels. Cod is an iconic species and plays a key role in the Baltic Sea, both environmentally and commercially, thus Oceana believes that its recovery should be a top priority. Oceana calls for a temporary but total closure of fisheries of the heavily overexploited western stock in order to allow it to rebuild and yield far more productivity in the long term.
Baltic western cod catches in subdivisions 22-24 are mainly taken by trawlers and gillnetters. A major proportion of the landings are taken in subdivision 22. The western stock is mostly exploited by Danish and German (comprising about two thirds of total landings) fleets followed by Sweden and Poland with other member states having considerably lower interest in it. The eastern stock is also is a bad situation which resulted in it losing its MSC label in 2015.
The western cod stock is in a very poor condition. It has been suffering from a fishing mortality well above sustainable levels and the biomass has been below the Blim reference point (which means that the stock is at a high risk of suffering from reduced recruitment, a state that should be avoided at all cost) since 2008. Recruitment has been low since 1999 and is currently estimated to be the lowest in recorded history.
The cod stock in the western Baltic has historically been much smaller than the neighbouring eastern Baltic stock, from which it is biologically distinct. It appears to be a highly productive stock, which has sustained a very high level of fishing mortality for many years. Recreational fishery is for this stock a rather large proportion of the total catch and amounted for close to 25% in 2015. Recruitment is rather variable and the stock is highly dependent upon the strength of incoming year-classes, the last two year classes are estimated to be very low.
Baltic cod stocks exploitation and economic relevance
For several years the Western stock observed a continuous decline in annual TACs (by -40% overall since 2012), followed by inevitable decline in annual catches. The fragile Eastern cod stock with its own set of problems has also recently been targeted by TAC reductions. Altogether the two Baltic cod stocks landings decreased in both weight and value (9% and 15%, respectively) between 2013 and 2014.
The decreased landings and poor physical condition (skinny fish) negatively influencing the market value has led to once prominent and most commercially important species in the Baltic Sea plummeting. In 2012 Baltic cod fishery generated the highest value of landings (€77 million), followed by herring (€64 million), and then sprat (€45 million). Just two years later, in 2014 herring generated the highest value (€71 million, representing 36% of the landed value), followed by European sprat (€52 million, 26% of the landed value) and then cod (€35 million, 16% of landed value).
What is the future for western Baltic cod?
Opinions on how to manage the western Baltic cod stock vary between member states. Denmark and Germany, the two largest contributors to its overfishing, want to keep quotas high whereas others, such as Sweden and Poland, want to follow scientific advice and considerably lower landings to allow the stock to recover and produce higher future yields. EU member states have a legal and binding obligation to fish at sustainable levels (MSY) before 2020. In addition, the long term Baltic management plan (BMAP) entered into force in July 2016. However, some ministers want to continue business as unusual - overshooting scientific advice and thus legalising overfishing.
Due to the extreme circumstances of the stock Oceana advocates for:
- A temporary total closure of the western Baltic cod fisheries
- Following scientific advice when setting fishing opportunities
- Prioritising stock recovery and ending overfishing
A final decision on the catch quota for the western Baltic cod stock will be decided under the Baltic TACs for 2017 on October 10th-11th by the Agriculture and Fisheries Council composed by 28 EU ministers responsible for fisheries.
What Oceana Does
Campaigning for the full closure of western Baltic cod
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 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.
Campaigning for the future security of an important fishing industry
More cod in the sea means more jobs in the fishing industry and more healthy cod for dinner. It is not too late, but the short-term thinking, symptomatic for politicians whose only time-frame 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.