On 29 May 2020, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) published its annual scientific advice for next year’s fishing opportunities for the Baltic Sea. The advice will be taken into consideration by the European Commission when drafting its quotas proposal for 2021, expected to be published later this summer. The Council will take its final decision, on the basis of the Commission's proposal, in October. An overview of the advice is provided below.
Eastern Baltic cod
In a similar fashion as in 2019, the ICES advises that “there should be zero catch in 2021” of cod in the eastern Baltic sea as the stock remains in a dire state. The ICES continues to observe a reduced reproduction capacity, despite the Council's 2019 decision to authorise 2,000 tonnes of by-catches, thus reducing by more than 92% the number of total allowable catches (TACs) compared to the previous year.
Would the ICES advice strictly be followed, it is estimated that the spawning stock biomass (meaning the total weight of all fish in the population which contribute to reproduction) would raise from 61,169 tonnes in 2021 to 67,233 tonnes in 2022, although this would be still largely insufficient to consider the stock as sustainable.
Western Baltic cod
The ICES notes that the Western Baltic cod remains below the critical reference point for conservation, as in previous years. A quota in the range of 2,960 to 4,635 tonnes of commercial catches is applicable under the EU management plan for Baltic fish stocks, while recreational catches are assumed to be 1,315 tonnes. The ICES also advises for zero fishing in the Baltic Sea west of Bornholm in order to comply with the zero catch advised for eastern Baltic cod. This subdivision encompasses indeed a mix of eastern and western Baltic cod.
For 2020, the Council agreed on total allowable catches of 3,806 tonnes (–60% compared to 2019).
Western Spring Spawning Herring (Skagerrak, Kattegat, and western Baltic)
Consistent with the previous years, the ICES advises that “there should be zero catch in 2021” of herring in Skagerrak and Kattegat, as well as in the western Baltic. The situation is catastrophic and will only slightly improve under the ICES precautionary advice. Under all scenarios considered by the ICES, the stock will not go back to sustainable levels in 2022 – even in the case of ‘zero catch’.
For 2020, the Council chose not to follow neither the ICES advice, nor the Commission's proposal, by allowing 3,150 tonnes of TACs, which was still a reduction by 65% of the TACs agreed for 2019.
The Riga Herring is a textbook case for respecting the recommendations of the ICES. This case is often pointed out by NGOs as an example of success for the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The TAC has consistently been set in accordance with the previous ICES advice, allowing for a sustainable fishing pressure and a healthy population. It is the only species to receive an increase in its TAC: while the Council agreed on 34,445 tonnes of TACs last year, the ICES advises now for an increase up to 35,771 tonnes.
Central Baltic Sea Herring (excluding the Gulf of Riga)
The Central Baltic Sea Herring is at an increased risk in terms of fishing pressure and stock size. The EU appears to seemingly respect the past advice of the ICES for this type of herring, but failed to take into account Russian autonomous quotas, leading to an estimated over-fishing in 2020. As such, the ICES advises to further decrease the TAC down to 111,852 tonnes, in 2021, leading to a potential increase in spawning stock biomass by 14.2%.
This stock is shared between the EU and Russia, making its preservation more delicate, given the lack of a management plan from the Russian side.
Noting that catches have generally declined since 1990, the ICES advises that total commercial sea catch in 2021 should be no more than 116,000 salmons (divided as follows: 9% of unwanted, 83% of wanted and reported, 7% of wanted and unreported, and 1% of wanted and misreported) in the Baltic Sea, excluding the Gulf of Finland. This follows the advice given for 2020. It does not foresee any change in the recreational effort, which is set at 26,700 salmons. This is considered as precautionary advice, as it represents a low harvest rate and would allow the weakest stocks to improve.
The ICES however notes that the stocks are weak in many rivers, and fishing should thus stay as close to zero as possible for those stocks. The Swedish Anglers Association, (Sportfiskarna) believes that “salmon should be managed per river” and that “most of the commercial catch should be on the surplus that compensation offers”, meaning that the catches should be concentrated to rivers where hydropower exploitation causes compensatory stocking of salmon.
Concerning the salmon in the Gulf of Finland, the ICES advises that catches in 2021 should be no more than 11,800 salmons, as advised for 2020.
Considering the overall poor condition of the Baltic sea, a coalition of NGOs, including Coalition Clean Baltic, Oceana, Our Fish, Seas At Risk and WWF, calls on the European Commission and on the Council to respect the advice set out last week by the ICES when adopting the final TACs for 2021, notably by adhering to the recommendations of zero fishing for the eastern Baltic cod and the western Baltic herring.
Ottilia Thoreson, Director of the WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme, said: “EU ministers must intensify the implementation and enforcement of the Common Fisheries Policy in the Baltic region, by setting sustainable fishing limits, securing appropriate implementation and tightening control of the landing obligation. All of these measures are necessary to allow for the recovery of fish stocks and ensure food security well into the future.”