The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has published its advice for fishing in the Baltic Sea in 2024. Before analysing it, we want to highlight a very worrying trend:

Three years ago, virtually all fishing of Baltic cod was stopped, after stocks had been declining steadily for several years. Now ICES proposes almost halving the quotas for herring in the central Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia, while other leading scientists say that herring fishing should be stopped completely. ICES advice also points out that the last major stock in the Baltic Sea, the sprat, is also showing signs of weakening. ICES writes that the sprat stock shows a sharp decline and that recruitment is the lowest in the ICES time series.

A fisheries policy and fisheries management that leads to the disappearance of large stocks must be fundamentally reassessed, for the sake of the marine environment and if we are to have any Baltic Sea fish left to eat.

ICES recommendations for 2024

Catches 2022Quote
ICES advice 2024Comment
Eastern stock118121950Historical catches 100-150 000
Western stock13648924Historical catches approx. 50 000
Central Baltic sea 83.44197.82241-52.459Five years ago, catches were over 200 000 tonnes
Gulf of Bothnia78.61480.04748-63.049Ten years ago, catches were over 100 000 tonnes
Sprat301.409269.200191-247.000Worst recruitment ever

Table 1: ICES advice for 2024 fishing quotas, all figures in tonnes

The annual quota decisions are basically the only tool politicians have to influence fish stocks in the Baltic Sea in the short term and thus the marine environment. ICES scientific advice is the first step in the process leading to the Council of Ministers’ decision on fishing quotas in October. In August, the European Commission presents its proposal based on the scientific advice and input from various stakeholder groups.

How should we respond to ICES advice?

It is important to read and understand the entire ICES report, not to assume that the proposed quota figure is a sustainable level, says Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre. ICES describes the probability that the spawning biomass of stocks such as herring will not be above the critical level Blim, which is the level at which there is a risk that the stock can no longer recover.

In the debate, not least in Sweden, ICES advice has at times been perceived as both true and compelling to follow, at least when ICES advice allows for continued fishing. What complicates the situation is the process that now follows, where other criteria, mainly economic and social, are taken into account to determine the quotas. Agriculture ministers have a long history of setting higher quotas than ICES recommends.

“Protecting the industry” through higher quotas is a poor argument, especially for the Swedish herring fishery in the Baltic Sea. For the herring and sprat fishery in the Baltic Sea, such prioritisation fails because nine families account for 73% of the catches. At the same time, the number of small-scale fishermen has fallen by 25 per cent this year alone, and small-scale coastal fishing is producing fewer and fewer catches suitable for human consumption.

In the case of Sweden, this is a particularly poor argument, since so few people actually work with the reception or processing of fish today. The major fishmeal factories are located abroad.

Strategy for this year’s quota decision

Already on the same day that ICES released its recommendations, several scientists argued that stopping fishing for herring in the Baltic Sea is the only right decision. Among them are Swedish scientists who participate in the work of ICES.

BalticWater’s proposal for short- and long-term measures to save herring in the Baltic Sea:

Emergency measures

The Commission can decide on an emergency closure of the herring fishery, as was done for Baltic cod, which can be done during the current year, then the emergency closure can be confirmed and extended to a decision on a fishing ban/0-quota at the Council of Ministers meeting in October.

It is possible to introduce measures under the Common Fisheries Policy.

Special Request

The Commission has sent a “special request” to ICES for additional advice that takes into account data on the size and age distribution of fish. Maintaining larger and older individuals in the stocks is crucial for both the environment and coastal fisheries and something that should already be included in ICES’s advice under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Sweden should push for “no decisions on next year’s quotas to be taken before these data are presented and considered by the Baltic Sea agriculture ministers”.

Socio-economic considerations

The time for protecting the profits and balance sheets of industrial fisheries is over. Firstly, these companies have quotas in other seas. Second, herring fishing is a small part of their total allocation.

A smaller quota for inshore small-scale east coast fisheries using passive gear can be set aside.

Both environmental concerns in general and concerns for local inshore fisheries and their communities are discussed in opinion pieces and letters to the editor almost every day along the Baltic Sea coast.

BalticWater’s own opinion polls show a high level of commitment to marine issues and high expectations of politicians in relation to the marine environment.

For decades, S and C countryside ministers have found it difficult to stand up to the fisheries policy system, both in Sweden and in the EU

When an occasional minister has taken the initiative, it has been effectively blocked by actors who are either close to the interests of industrial fisheries or who prefer the status quo because it is more convenient.

The environment and ecology of the Baltic Sea is complex, and so is the understanding of the fish stock crisis. Arguments can therefore always be made for further analyses and studies. The development of fish stocks, and the impact of industrial fishing, is so negative that there have long been reasons to act instead of investigating and analysing.

During the current herring crisis, Rural Affairs Minister Peter Kullgren is in a position to act much more forcefully than any of his predecessors.