What went wrong during the qouta process 2023?

Each year, next year’s fishing quotas are decided in a so-called ‘quota process’. It involves the publication of scientific advice, the collection of stakeholder views, the drafting of proposals by the European Commission and finally a decision on fishing quotas by EU fisheries and agriculture ministers. Last year, everything was going well until the Council of Ministers met. They did not go along with the Commission’s proposal to stop targeted herring fishing, ignoring the core of the scientific evidence and attempting to bypass democratic processes.

Since then, the European Commission seems to have turned its coat to the wind, first looking to science and proposing a halt to herring fishing in the Baltic Sea, and then proposing a legislative amendment that instead weakens fisheries management. Curiously, the Commission’s proposal for a legislative amendment came after the Council of Ministers’ decision to continue fishing, where the quotas were set much higher than the Commission had initially recommended. In addition, the Council of Ministers pushed for a ‘fast track’ of the legislative change, which would have meant that the matter would not have had to be dealt with by the EU Fisheries Committee. Fortunately, the fast track proposal was voted down by the EU Parliament and will instead be dealt with under the normal procedure. In this year’s edition of The Way Forward, you can find out more about some of the missteps.

The final quota decision will affect the entire Baltic Sea – all fish stocks, ecosystems, small-scale coastal fishermen, and ultimately you and me. But there is still a chance to reverse the negative trend – the 2024 fishing year could be crucial after a dismal 2023.

Swedish fisheries in 2023 – what was fished?

In total, the 412 Swedish vessels caught around 75 195 tonnes of fish, a slight decrease of 12 305 tonnes from the previous year. Of all 412 vessels, 20 vessels caught 94% of all fish. Herring and sprat accounted for the majority of the catches or 73,120 tonnes, which corresponds to 97% of the total catch from the Swedish trawl fishery.1

Of the total catch (75,195 tonnes) taken by Swedish vessels, 89% was sold to feed factories, while 11% was used for human consumption.2 It is mainly herring and sprat that are used for feed, but also sprat. Since 2009, when transferable fishing rights were introduced, the share of fish for human consumption has decreased drastically in favour of large-scale industrial trawlers fishing for feed.

Four fisheries policy measures to watch in 2024

After the dismal performance of fish stocks, the environment and politics, the 2024 quota process is crucial. It is time for it to be done in a legal, transparent, and democratic way. Below we present measures that need to be implemented to reverse the negative trend in the Baltic Sea environment and fish stoc

Action: Move the trawl limit along the entire east coast

The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management’s (SwAM) mission to move the trawl limit as a scientific experiment is a step in the right direction, but the design and implementation of
 the mission is flawed. The assignment needs to be renewed, again. Overall, it is entirely reasonable to carry out a permanent relocation of the trawl limit along the entire east coast and see it as a management measure. A strong argument in favour of converting the “experiment” into a management measure is that there is no time for scientific experiments when the stock development is as it is.

It is also important to consider what SLU writes in its submission to SwAM: “the safest measure to increase the biomass of herring is to reduce fishing mortality, i.e. to reduce the catch quotas as a whole.” According to SLU, reduced fishing and an extended trawl limit can provide opportunities for protection in the areas where herring accumulate before spawning. Today there is extensive fishing in these areas, which results in the herring having time to be fished out before they swim to the coast to spawn.

Action: Crackdown on fraud in fisheries

The shortcomings in fisheries control have been highlighted over and over again for decades, but despite the fact that both authorities and politicians recognise the shortcomings, nothing has been done to change the situation. BalticWater’s investigative report Improper and fraudulent fishery – a threat to the Baltic Sea provides an in-depth picture of the problem, showing how authorities make judgements according to different standards and that the fines handed out hardly deter further violations.

At the end of 2023, it emerged that DG-MARE has been reviewing Europe’s fisheries control and has systematically analysed fisheries fraud and serious control deficiencies. The review, which is scheduled for release in 2024, strongly criticises Sweden and the major shortcomings in Swedish controls. Fisheries controls must be tightened considerably and there are ways forward.

Action: National quota allocation to support small-scale fisheries

Coastal quotas are set high to allow “free fishing” for small-scale fishermen, but at the same time, coastal fishermen report that they do not find enough herring or that the fish are small and thin. Planned temporary fishing closures for 2024 are not sufficient solutions as the proposed time periods do not have a major impact on industrial trawling. The majority of industrial fishing takes place in winter, when herring accumulate in the sea before migrating to the coast for spawning. The majority of the sprat quota is also fished out at sea during the winter, which has a negative impact on spawning stocks. This year, 80% of the sprat quota was already fished in March. The aforementioned fishing ban in late spring is therefore a shot in the dark and does not help small-scale coastal fishing for human consumption.

 If coastal fishermen do not take up their quota, or if there is a coastal quota left at the end of the calendar year, the quota can be reallocated to “another category of fishing licence holders during the management period”, according to FIFS 2004:25 in Chapter 14. 9 §. A coastal quota can therefore be transferred “if necessary” from a small-scale coastal fisherman to an industrial trawler with individual fishing rights and regional quota. In addition, that quota can be exchanged between Member States, according to Article 16(8) of the Common Fisheries Policy. The rules on how quotas can be transferred should be reviewed so that this does not lead to a further increase in fishing opportunities for industrial trawlers. This requires clearer political signals to SwAM.

Action: Sweden promotes the expansion of scientific advice

Today, there are shortcomings in the scientific advice. The data does not show how fishing for one species affects other species, even though there is no doubt that the sharp decline of herring affects salmon, cod and seals, for example. Fishing for sprat may also jeopardise herring stocks and fishing for flatfish may have unintended consequences for cod stocks.

Nor does the scientific advice take into account the age and size of the fish. Consideration for the preservation of larger and older individuals in the stocks is crucial for both the environment and coastal fisheries and something that should be included in ICES’s advice for all species under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The shortcomings in the advice are usually not borne by the scientists; they work on the basis of the assignments given to them by the politicians and answer the questions asked. Sweden has previously put the question of extended advice to the Commission, which in turn passes the question on to ICES, but what happened then? We are not at the finish line until the scientific advice actually includes all relevant data!

Replace empty words with courage and action

If developments in the Baltic Sea are to be reversed, empty words and paralysis must be replaced by courage and action – quotas should be zero if continued fishing risks the survival of fish populations. The day there are conditions for fishing, it should be done for human consumption and with gentle fishing methods, while effective monitoring ensures that everything is done correctly.

How to keep the sea alive must be solved today; Peter Kullgren cannot leave the issue to the next Council of Ministers or political majority. Following scientific advice and the laws we ourselves have enacted is a matter of course – whether there is drive and courage remains to be seen.

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Read previous Baltic Sea Briefs here.