ICES advice for fishing opportunities in the Baltic Sea in 2024 has been published.
For a number of large commercial stocks, the advice does not make for positive reading. Many of the herring stocks are in trouble. Western Baltic herring has zero-catch advice. The advice for Central Baltic herring recommends a 50% cut in catch as the stock is below Blim (the biological reference point below which risks reduced recruitment). Herring stock sizes in the Gulf of Bothnia are also moving towards Blim. While eelgrass beds – a valuable nursery habitat for cod - have been reported to have large numbers of juvenile cod, these fish are not progressing to the adult stage and the advice for both the eastern and western cod stocks is zero or close to zero catch. Salmon numbers are also declining, with the advice recommending no catches of salmon at sea.
Habitat degradation, pollution, and climate change are contributing to deteriorated conditions for cod, leading to the inclusion of conservation advice for the first time for these stocks which recommends “Habitat restoration efforts, with a focus on reducing eutrophication to improve bottom oxygen content". In 2013, cod was categorized as Vulnerable on the HELCOM Red List for the Baltic Sea and Kattegat.
The Baltic Sea faces many challenges, and conditions here have been deteriorating over the past decade. Overfishing and habitat destruction have impacted the biodiversity and ecological balance of the sea. The Baltic Sea marine ecosystem is known for its brackish water, a mixture of freshwater and saltwater, resulting from the inflow of many rivers and limited exchange with the North Sea. The rivers, along with agricultural runoff, also contributed historically to the high nutrient content. These nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, promote eutrophication, leading to the growth of algae and other primary producers. The formation of harmful algae blooms can deplete oxygen levels in the water, resulting in hypoxic or anoxic zones where marine life struggles to survive. Pollution from industrial activities, including shipping, exacerbates environmental degradation.
With the advice for many stocks set to zero catch or close to zero catch, ICES recognizes the need for meaningful action. There have been a number of initiatives in the past, leading to recommendations that could address the numerous challenges for the ecoregion – including our Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group, the Working Group on Integrated Assessments of the Baltic Sea, the Workshop towards an operational Ecosystem Based Fisheries Advice for the Baltic stocks, and the Workshop on the Ecosystem-Based Management of the Baltic Sea, however, motivation and initiatives to implement these recommendations has been lacking.
Everyone agrees that the Baltic environment has degraded, but the question remains: what can be done to further promote sustainable fishing?
Speaking on the socioeconomic consequences, Rudi Voss, co-chair of the Workshop on the Ecosystem-Based Management of the Baltic Sea says, “The economic pressure is further increasing for all fisheries who rely at least partly on salmon, herring and/or cod as a resource. For many fishers, the economic situation is so detrimental that they are giving up, and fishing capacity is decreasing. Furthermore, the age structure of fishers is becoming more and more unbalanced as young fishers are missing due to bad prospects. The rather good state of some flatfish stocks in the Baltic cannot make up for the economic losses experienced, as demand and prices for flatfish are rather low.