Necessary changes for the EU to reach its sustainable fishing goals

Swedish fishing is largely governed by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. In a consultation response to the EU, BalticWaters highlights that major changes are needed to achieve sustainable fishing in the Baltic Sea. Current management is characterised by high risk-taking, lack of control and insufficient consideration of stocks.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) aims to ensure that fishing contributes to economic, social and environmental sustainability and is guided by the precautionary principle. Unfortunately, the development of fish species in the Baltic Sea has been negative for a long time. Since the introduction of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY):

Above: Stock development 2014-2021 according to ICES figures.

In many cases, stocks have been historically low even before the declines since 2014. Right now, catastrophic effects are visible in the ecosystem as a result of management, with offshore species declining sharply while spike dominate the coastal zones and many species along the Swedish coast such as pike, perch and local populations of salmon have declined drastically. Management according to MSY in the Baltic Sea is thus clearly associated with high risks, and not in line with the precautionary principle.

MSY is supposed to maximise the harvest of fish without risking future recovery, but it doesn’t work. In the Baltic Sea, it has been shown to lead to excessive fishing pressure, with almost all commercial stocks now under pressure. One problem is that the scientific models have been shown to overestimate both cod and herring stocks in the Baltic Sea, leading to excessive fishing pressure and low stock levels. MSY places high demands on the correctness of the stock data, but it is natural that the scientific models are uncertain as it is difficult to make correct assessments of recruitment, mortality and stock estimates. Although the models are always striving to improve, they will always contain uncertainties. Nevertheless, Member States and the European Commission continue to rely on maximum exploitation of fish stocks, with no safety margins.

Due to the scientific uncertainty, a recommendation from the Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre is that quotas should be set at a maximum of 50% of FMSY.

Pressed stocks – smaller individuals and earlier sexual maturity

A major flaw in the advice is also that the conservation of larger and older individuals is not included, despite the fact that this should be done under the 2008 Marine Strategy Framework Directive and despite the fact that the Common Fisheries Policy should be compatible with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. We are now seeing changes in the stock structure of herring, with individuals becoming smaller and reaching sexual maturity earlier, which also happened to cod before the collapse. The fact that the size and age distribution of fish is not taken into account leads to major environmental, social and economic effects for the Member States, as we have seen in Sweden through an impoverished coastal fishery and a deteriorating environment along the coast.

If the conservation of older and larger individuals had been included in the management, the development of the cod stocks could have been different. Work has been going on for a long time on the development of the advice within ICES, and there are documents from ICES that show how the developed advice can be implemented. We assume that the European Commission and the member states will ask ICES to include size and age distribution in the stock assessment as early as next year. In order to protect locally spawning herring, there has been a major discussion about moving the trawl limit. The issue has highlighted a difficulty for member states to act on declining stocks, with government representatives and the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management arguing that protection of species cannot be introduced without proving a causal link between fishing and the decline of the species. Although neither the EU nor BalticWaters agree with this interpretation, the Authority’s position shows that the possibility and obligation for countries to act on warning signs should be strengthened and clarified in the CFP.

Ineffective control

A further problem in achieving sustainable management objectives is the lack of fisheries control, where illegal discards and misreporting are common. Neither landing obligation nor catch reporting works in Sweden, and the situation is said to be similar in other countries. This has major implications for stocks and also affects the reliability of scientific advice. Yet little or no action has been taken by the EU to address the problems, not even requirements for selective gear or camera surveillance have yet been introduced.

In order for the EU to achieve its goals of economic, social and environmental sustainability, it must: