A few decades ago, there were fish from the Baltic Sea to eat: cod and herring as well as coastal fish such as pike and perch, etc. Today, it is difficult to find any of these species in the fish counter. The pickled herring we eat at Midsummer is caught in the North Sea and if we want to eat cod, it is probably caught far out in the Atlantic.

Industrial fishing has taken such a toll on herring stocks that the large fish for human consumption are disappearing from our coasts. At the same time, around 90% of the Baltic Sea herring catches are shipped to fishmeal factories in Denmark. Large-scale fishermen’s arguments in favour of continuing to fish for fishmeal are that demand for fish for human consumption is low and that consumers are concerned about environmental toxins, such as dioxins and PCBs, in the fish. These arguments are questionable. When stocks are about to be depleted, a reasonable solution is to leave the fish in the sea – mainly to allow the stocks to recover, but also to maintain small-scale fisheries that can contribute to the food supply in the long term.

At a time when several Baltic Sea stocks are in a state of crisis and the environmental objectives for the sea are not being met, the Swedish food strategy is currently being updated, showing that fisheries and aquaculture can be developed to better meet the growing demand for domestic fish and seafood. Our neighbouring country Finland has a much clearer plan: they have an explicit goal of increasing the consumption of domestic fish.

How can more of the Baltic Sea fish that is actually caught become food for people and contribute to both higher profitability in the sector and promote the country’s coastal fishermen? BalticWaters recently submitted an input to the government, which is currently working on updating the Swedish food strategy. In the input we write as follows:

Today, there is a great demand for fish – both wild-caught Swedish fish and investments in land-based sustainable aquaculture could meet this demand. A larger market for Swedish-produced fish from Swedish raw materials has the potential to fulfil several of the food strategy’s goals, such as:

Lengthy and unclear limits and recommendations from the Swedish National Food Agency have reduced the demand for fish from the Baltic Sea, mainly herring. Supported by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, and the pelagic system’s individual quotas (ITQs), an industrial fishery has developed where the catches are instead exported and become feed for fish and other animals. In order for a larger share of the catches from the Baltic Sea to be used for human consumption, this whole vicious cycle needs to be reversed in a concerted effort.

If we are to secure and expand the production of fish-based foods in Sweden, the following aspects need to be considered:

Restoring the Baltic Sea environment – a prerequisite for sustainable fisheries

The poor status of the Baltic Sea means that the ecosystem is under severe pressure and people around the inland sea are unable to utilise some of the ecosystem services provided by the sea. The economic losses are extensive as commercial fisheries, recreational values, and marine tourism are lost. Fish species have adapted to the unique environment of the Baltic Sea – such as low salinity and turbid water. If these species are eliminated, they cannot be replaced by fish from other areas. The fact that the Baltic Sea has relatively few species, many of which show adaptations to the brackish water, means that the ecosystem is particularly vulnerable. Therefore, it is more important than ever to restore and safeguard ecological structures and functions to improve the resilience of the Baltic Sea under the current climate change – otherwise the risk of irreversible changes to the ecosystem increases.

A healthy Baltic Sea is a prerequisite for sustainable fisheries for human consumption.

Fundamentally change the management model of how fisheries are conducted

Instead of focusing, as today, on maximising the harvest of individual species (MSY), management needs to be based on ecosystem-based management where decisions on quotas for different species take into account the age and size distribution of the stocks. A major problem today is that the Baltic Sea herring stock mainly consists of small individuals – at the same time as the industry demands larger herring in order to be able to use it for the preparation of, for example, surströmming. A healthy size structure of herring is important for the survival of the stocks, but also for the fishery to be able to supply the processing industry with raw material. Strong measures are needed to reverse the negative development. By reducing the catch quotas for the stocks as a whole, the biomass of large individuals can increase – this is the surest way to restore a healthy size structure.

Data on the age and size structure of fish need to be included in the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and there needs to be a general reduction in catch quotas for herring and sprat stocks.

Move the trawl border and ban fishing in spawning areas

Moving the trawl limit along the entire east coast and introducing area protection are important measures to promote viable fish stocks in the Baltic Sea. In addition, no-fishing zones should be established in connection with important spawning areas.

All fishing vessels over 12 metres shall not fish within 12 nautical miles of the coast. The area within 12 nautical miles shall be reserved for small-scale fishing with passive gear.

Most of the fish harvested should go to food – not feed

Of all fish and seafood consumed in Sweden, 74% is imported – and most of what we eat is farmed salmon, wild-caught cod, herring and shrimp. At the same time, the majority, or nearly 90%, of Swedish landed herring from the Baltic Sea is used to feed fish and other animals. In 2021, 130,000 tonnes of fish raw material was lost from the Swedish food chain – this represents Sweden’s largest unused food raw material. If the fish went directly to human consumption instead of to animal feed, the raw material could cover 9.2% and 5.8% of the daily national energy needs for protein and fat respectively. By using a greater proportion of landed fish for human consumption, it is therefore possible to improve Sweden’s self-sufficiency and reduce the vulnerability of the food system.

Establish a target to increase the share of fish sold for human consumption by at least 20% within 3 years.

Create a demand for Swedish fish

From a climate and environmental point of view, fish is an excellent food – if caught from sustainable stocks. It is a healthy food containing fats, vitamins and minerals – substances that are important for humans throughout their lives. However, herring from the Baltic Sea contains unwanted substances such as dioxins and PCBs. The disadvantages or risks associated with the consumption of herring need to be weighed against the health benefits the fish provides to humans. A scientific study shows that for people over 45 years of age, the health benefits clearly outweigh the health risks of consuming herring. There are also clear differences between concentrations of environmental toxins in different stocks. In general, the slower growing herring in the north contains more toxins than in the south.

Given that fish is a healthy food, that dioxin levels differ between stocks, and that it is desirable to increase our self-sufficiency, the Swedish National Food Agency is tasked with revising the dietary guidelines to take into account different herring populations in the Baltic Sea and to clarify that it is children, young people and women of childbearing age who should limit their consumption, not the whole population.

Stimulate innovation and technology development

By creating new types of fish products based on fish raw material from the Baltic Sea, new markets and jobs can be created. There are technologies to clean fish from environmental toxins which can make fish with higher levels of environmental toxins in the fish raw material suitable for food production.

A more diversified market for Swedish fish raw material could mean that fish that are currently considered too small or otherwise unattractive for food production could go directly to food production instead of feed.

Adapting the pelagic fishing fleet to the needs of processors

Since 2009, when transferable fishing rights were introduced, the proportion of fish used for human consumption has decreased. Industrial trawlers, which catch the largest share of fish in the Baltic Sea, take up so much fish in their tanks that it is crushed and of too poor quality to be used directly for human consumption. The number of boats in the ‘middle segment’, i.e. boats between 12 and 45 metres in length, has decreased since 2009, while the number of boats over 45 metres has increased. The middle segment is important for the processing industry that exists today because the boats work well in existing harbours and their capacity matches the processing companies that process herring and sprat for food production. Transferable fishing rights have obviously driven the development towards large industrial trawlers fishing for feed.

The design of the pelagic system needs to be changed to better link to the raw material needs of fish processing companies if Swedish-caught fish is to be processed for food in Sweden to a greater extent.

When allocating fishing quotas, the objectives of the food strategy must have an impact – the view of fish as an important part of the food supply would mean that the allocation would have to be done in a different way. Different types of policy instruments, both legislative changes and economic incentives, could be used to achieve a fishing fleet that fishes for human consumption and lands the fish in Sweden. This would contribute to a higher degree of self-sufficiency and increase jobs in Sweden.

An independent enquiry is set up to review the impact of the allocation of fishing quotas (ITQs) and what other forms of management could be applied that better suit current stock trends.

Creating conditions for expanding land-based aquaculture

Aquaculture has great potential to contribute to the food strategy and Sweden’s food security. Today’s Swedish aquaculture has a relatively narrow focus as most of the fish farmed are salmon and trout or fresh and warm water fish such as perch or pike-perch. There is currently no knowledge and experience of land-based farming of Swedish cold-water species such as cod, flatfish or herring. Farming these species has the potential to contribute to several goals.

It is high time for an increased focus on the potential of Swedish fisheries. Sweden should be able to follow Finland’s example – focus on ensuring that the fish we catch become food for humans, not pellets for mink and chickens.