The difficult situation in the Baltic Sea

Several Baltic Sea species are facing an acute threat. In just four years, the herring stock in the central Baltic Sea has declined by 40 per cent, and the western herring stock is close to collapse. Cod stocks have collapsed, eels are endangered and several other important species are showing dramatic declines.

The decline of fish stocks not only affects ecosystems, but also has economic, social and cultural impacts on communities that depend on fishing or fishing tourism. It is possible to reverse this trend, but policymakers must act quickly before more stocks collapse.

Five fisheries policy measures

Here BalticWaters presents necessary actions and information on fisheries policy.

During the mandate, we want to

Short facts

– In 2021, the twenty largest boats fished 95 per cent of Sweden’s total catch. *
– A total of 452 boats under the Swedish flag fished in the Baltic Sea in 2021.*.
– 413 of the Swedish boats fish on a small scale and are less than 12 metres in length. *
– The 413 boats under 12 metres accounted for only 4 percent of the total catch in 2021.*.
– The largest fish are sprat and herring. Other fish caught include vendace, sprat, cod (by-catch), salmon and perch.
– The majority of the catch is not eaten by humans. More than 90 per cent of all Swedish-caught fish in the Baltic Sea is used as feed in, for example, salmon farms and mink farms.*.
– The financial contribution to the treasury from large-scale trawlers is about 60 million a year, while the cost to taxpayers is hundreds of millions annually in the form of subsidies and grants.

*Source: Data requested by BalticWaters from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM)

The Swedish fisheries policy

Although many of the commercial fish species have declined sharply in recent decades, Sweden has not succeeded in reversing this trend. Instead of protecting species, politics and management have passively accepted high fishing quotas and actively opposed other restrictions on fishing.

The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SwAM), which is responsible for regulating fishing and preserving marine species, has taken great account of short-term profit interests. Fishing is often portrayed as a basic industry, even though the economic footprint on the Swedish balance sheet is currently negative. According to economist Stefan Fölster, large-scale fishing generates net costs of SEK 626 million per year.

Although environmental factors in the Baltic Sea can also have a negative impact on species, there is no doubt about the crucial importance of fishing to the current situation. It is not unusual for fishing to consume around half of a stock in a year, according to figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). This leaves little room for stocks to withstand other pressures, such as predation, disease and the environmental effects of climate change and eutrophication.

The lack of action is often defended on the grounds that there are “many interests” to consider, or that the knowledge base is incomplete. When the former Minister for Agriculture, Jennie Nilsson, was asked about measures for the declining size of herring stocks, she said that fishing could not be restricted until a link between fishing and the shrinking stocks could be demonstrated on a scientific basis. This despite the fact that the scientific models showed, and show, that industrial fishing has taken almost every second mature herring in the central Baltic Sea every year, several years in a row. In the western Baltic Sea, the impact of fishing has been even higher.

The countries around the Baltic Sea have much to gain from lower fishing pressure. This would favor the small shellfish that now lack herring in the nets, which is also established in the basis for the parliamentary report “Measures to save fish stocks in the Baltic Sea”. The report was published at the end of 2021 after a broad consensus in the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment and Agriculture drew attention to the situation for fish species in the Baltic Sea. The announcement came after many voices were raised in favor of moving the trawl limit, which, according to researchers, could make a difference to the ability of herring to reproduce and grow, and protect some overwintering herring. Another important measure highlighted is a reduction in fishing pressure.

Action: Prohibition of industrial feed trawling
Nationally, the Swedish parliament has called on the government to move the trawl limit “as a matter of urgency”. It is important that the relocation is carried out along the entire east coast, not only to protect individual areas, while other parts of the coast can continue to be trawled by forage fisheries. You can read more about how this can be done here. Within the EU, Sweden should work towards banning all forms of forage fishing in the Baltic Sea.

Action: National marine environment work is strengthened
The government should place responsibility for fisheries under the Ministry of the Environment instead of the The Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation and evaluate SwAM’s fisheries management work. If necessary, the agency’s instructions should be changed so that an ecosystem approach is applied, and sustainable management of fish resources is integrated into the marine environment work.

Action: Evaluate the introduction of tradable and transferable fishing quotas (ITQs) in Sweden
In 2007, ITQs were introduced on a trial basis in Swedish pelagic fisheries. The trial was never evaluated, but the quotas were rolled over for 10 more years, even though there has been a ruthless consolidation of the quota that rewarded forage fishing and crowded out Sweden’s medium and small boats that fish for food. Now there are ongoing discussions about selling off demersal fishing rights. Following the introduction of ITQs in the pelagic system in Denmark, 38 Danish ports lost all their commercial fishing vessels, and a further 33 ports lost half or more of theirs between 2005 and 2012. Quotas were concentrated in a few ports, and fishing activity was focused in fewer areas. A similar situation has been seen in Sweden, where most Swedish pelagic fishing is now carried out by large boats based in Gothenburg. Sweden should request a thorough evaluation that considers environmental as well as economic and socio-economic aspects of how the fishery has developed in the wake of the sale of the pelagic quotas.

Regional co-operation

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) allows for regional decisions on so-called technical measures, i.e., how fishing is conducted. Here there are an important opportunity for the government to instruct its officials to actively pursue concrete measures to protect fish stocks. In the announcement that the Swedish Parliament decided on 2021, it was established that Sweden should actively participate in the regional co-operation bodies EU, Baltfish and Helcom. It is important that Sweden acts on this. Officials must be given clear political directives to change the previous industry-centred approach.

Since large-scale fishing in the Baltic Sea has virtually no economic value as an industry, regional efforts should focus on protecting fish stocks for their environmental values, for future food security, for small-scale coastal fishing and for recreational fishing.


Sweden, Finland, and Poland fish the most in the Baltic Sea and are thus influential in regional decisions on fishing. Finland is also the country that we need to come to an agreement with regarding both fishing in the Gulf of Bothnia and moving the trawl limit, and the co-operation between Finland and Sweden should therefore be active and environmentally focused.

Finland sees the same problems for Baltic Sea fish species as we do in Sweden, with declining stocks and threatened coastal fishing. Yet the Finnish government, like Sweden’s, has been slow to act. Recently, the Finnish government launched a programme to promote domestic fish and get Finns to eat an average of 2.5 fish portions per week by 2035, as opposed to the current 1.7 portions. Most of the fish is currently imported, so the programme focuses on increasing the consumption of domestically produced fish.

Increased consumption of domestic fish requires concrete changes in primary production and industry, which Finland is now looking at. The situation for deeper cooperation between the countries on the Baltic Sea environment is therefore optimal.

Action: Promoting small-scale and recreational fishing
Management must put the environment first and the fish should be primarily eaten by humans, rather than going to the sea. to industry. Sweden and Finland are key players in this and need to work together to achieve goals for the environment, living coastal fisheries and food production.

Fisheries policy in the EU

European fisheries ministers decide how much of the commercial species can be fished each year, including cod, herring, and sprat. The decision is based on a proposal submitted by the European Commission, based on information from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

The basis for quota decisions and scientific advice is the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) target, which means that each year fishing is based on what scientists believe a stock can sustain without risking collapse. This has proved devastating for commercial fish species in the Baltic Sea. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is largely designed for large-scale fisheries in the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but such management has proved to function poorly in the species-poor inland waters of the Baltic Sea.

In practice, MSY means that stocks are kept at a low level and balanced at a critical limit. This is risky and places high demands on stock estimates and scientific data, which unfortunately are not always accurate. For example, ICES estimated in 2017 that the spawning biomass of herring in the central Baltic Sea was 1.3 million tonnes, while later models showed that the stock was actually less than 0.6 million tonnes. This miscalculation resulted in overfishing, causing the herring stock to decline in just four years by To promote biodiversity and maintain the resilience of species, we therefore need to start fishing with a margin of safety to the stock estimates.

There are also several shortcomings in what is required of the scientific advice. The data currently lacks knowledge about how fishing for one species affects other species, even though there is no doubt that the sharp decline of herring affects salmon, cod, etc. and seals. Fishing for sprat can also jeopardize herring stocks and fishing for flatfish can have unintended consequences for cod stocks. Scientific advice also does not consider the age and size of the fish, although this should be included in the advice.

In an announcement to the government, the parliament has taken a position in favor of Sweden working through the EU to expand the order to ICES to include ecosystem effects of fishing. The government should request this in 2022, and work to ensure that advice is given with the aim of preserving different sizes and ages of stocks.

Action: Sweden seeks support among other Baltic Sea countries for a sustainable quota setting Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre proposes that the quotas be set at a maximum of half the MSY instead of the full MSY as is the case today, which the government, with the support of the EU Council, can promote in the quota negotiations and the regional body BALTFISH.

Action: Sweden requests increased scientific advice
The EU decides which data are requested by ICES. Regional marine conventions, regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) and individual Member States – such as Sweden – can also put questions to ICES. The government should work for an urgent reform of the scientific advice and the EU’s fisheries policy, which would also mean that the EU takes a major step towards complying with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.