If it were solely up to Denmark's food and environment minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, we would fish the Baltic stocks of cod into oblivion. In fact, Larsen just this weekend posted on his Facebook page that Denmark is “strongly opposed to the proposed quota for Baltic sea cod”.
Denmark and Germany's positions in the EU negotiations leading up to a decision on Baltic Sea fishing quotas next week are not based on science or history. For the long term survival of Baltic fishing communities, here is a little of both.
“Are they still fishing this?” replied Dr. George Rose in an email earlier this year. I had written to Rose asking about cod length at first spawning, or the typical size of cod when they are sexually mature.
Growth of this species, Gadus morhua, is regulated within a general range by where the fish lives. As a senior cod biologist in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada, Rose is well aware of cod growth differences. He balked at the most recent assessment data on eastern Baltic cod which indicates that 50 percent of the cod are sexually mature enough to spawn when they are at 20 centimetres in length.
“Twenty centimetre maturity is way less than anything ever observed over this way. Although I do not know all the details, the [eastern Baltic] stock appears to be in hard shape. Are they still fishing this?”
Yes they are, and the Danish ministry continues to push for quotas wildly over scientific advice for the eastern and western Baltic cod stock. But wait, there's more.
In 2015, Jean-Jacques Maguire chaired the scientific benchmark assessment for the eastern and western Baltic cod stocks in Rostock, Germany. Maguire, like Rose, knows cod well. He was chair of the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee and later chaired the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management.
While the Baltic hosts a different ecosystem than in the Northwest Atlantic, the story that Maguire saw in the data was one he had seen before. Combined issues with declining cod condition, decreases in size at maturity, reduced overall growth, high mortality rates for older cod, parasite infestations, or other indices led Maguire to warn “now is a time for caution.” The signs all point to a highly stressed stock.
And if that isn't enough to be concerned for the future of Baltic fishing communities dependent on cod, the ICES advice for the Baltic cod stocks is quite clear, and reflective of the concerns of Rose, Maguire, and dozens of other scientists. The advice tells us that the eastern Baltic stock remains in a special “precautionary” category exhibiting a number of deeply troubling characteristics, and the western Baltic stock is in worse shape having crossed a very, very serious line.
The amount of spawning cod in the western stock has been critically low since 2008. Offshore fishermen, especially in Denmark, have been allowed catches well above sustainable levels from both stocks. The amount of juvenile cod that survive and add to the stock – the recruitment – for the western Baltic stock has been low since 1999. ICES estimates that the recruitment in 2016 is the lowest ever measured from this stock.
Danish critics, apparently even Minister Larsen, dismiss scientific observation from the likes of Rose, Maguire, and ICES, claiming that that they don't know what's going on in the sea, that they're only seeing data instead of real fish. Some Danish and German fishing industry advocates even claim that the science is politically motivated and completely false, that there's nothing at all wrong with the fish stocks.
This is why I'm writing today, because these advocates claim that supporters of strong conservation measures don't understand fisheries and what is at stake for fishing communities. In opposition to this claim, I submit that I understand fisheries better than many and what is at stake better than most.
Before finding my way to Europe, I was a salmon and crab fisherman in both Alaska and Newfoundland. In Alaska I learned that fisheries could work, sustainably, for generations. I saw fishermen as environmentalists, community members as policy makers, and people dedicated to protecting this precious food resource for long-term community well-being. Inspired by the experience and eager to engage more deeply, I moved to Newfoundland to study the tragic case of the northern cod collapse.
So when Rose asked me “Are they still fishing this?” and Maguire said “Now is a time for caution” and ICES advice reads as plain as day, and when I've seen the aftermath of devastated fishing communities myself 20 years after perhaps the most dramatic fishery collapse in western history, I listen.
Western Baltic cod has fallen so far below all precautionary limits, theoretical and legislated, that recovery may not happen for years, even decades, the same time-frame it took the northern cod off Newfoundland to begin rebuilding under moratorium. The eastern Baltic stock is a mystery regarding specific biomass targets, but there is more than enough data to know that things are not at all well.
Of all human endeavors, fishing represents one of our most intimate, ancient relationships with the sea and with our planet. What activity better represents the interconnectedness of our lives and the life and health of the ocean than fishing? The survival of a fishing family is based on what they capture from the sea. Simple logic from this relationship dictates that if you catch it all, then there will be nothing left to catch tomorrow.
Sadly, because fisheries ministers like Larsen did not make risk-averse choices in the past, the choices facing them this year are simply different degrees of tragic. The best option for the Baltic cod stocks are to:
- Reduce quotas in line with scientific advice
- Prioritize access for those fishers using low impact fishing methods and who are most vulnerable to losing their livelihoods forever
- Provide temporary emergency economic compensation under the EU Maritime and Fisheries Fund
- Institute programmes to maintain the knowledge base required to revive fishing in the future
We either dramatically reduce the fishing exploitation rate now, or we don't. And what happens if we don't is pretty clear if one looks west across the Atlantic, just beyond the horizon.
So will the Danish and German governments learn from history, will they listen and leave some fish in the sea for tomorrow?
Edward Stern is currently the fisheries policy advisor at The Fisheries Secretariat in Stockholm, an independent think tank advocating for sustainable fisheries management, and vice chair of the Baltic Sea Advisory Council for fisheries.