Where now for Baltic Sea stocks?

With many fish stocks declining, ICES plans to gain further insight into the dynamics of this ecoregion.
Published: 1 June 2023

​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. 

Cod conservation 

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. 

Baltic Sea conditions 

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. 

How to move forward? 

​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.  

The decrease of cod and salmon stocks is challenging, and not only for the professional fishery as tourism is impacted as well. Short-term financial help might be needed to conserve fishery and its related cultural heritage, while catch options are missing. However, full stock recovery, even under no-catch advice, is not granted, as cod and herring suffer from temperature increases due to climate change. Therefore, all available knowledge should be included in future ecosystem-based advice to re-rebuild and safeguard stocks as far as possible. Consequently, stock conservation is the highest priority, but must be accompanied by a longer-run adaptation plan for the fishery”. 

ICES recognizes the seriousness of t​he current situation: we are in discussions with the European Commission DG MARE on approaches for pelagic stocks in the region. In addition, on 12 June we have invited all Baltic Science Committee (SCICOM) and Advisory Committee (ACOM) members, along with members of the Baltic Sea Advisory Council (BSAC) and interested Baltic Sea scientists for a consultation to establish an approach to build on previous efforts. Jörn Schmidt, ICES SCICOM Chair, has said that all countries need to be on board so that their input feeds into a reasonable and productive process. Mark Dickey-Collas, ICES ACOM Chair, says that ICES can see the signals, and this will be an attempt to bring all the efforts together, bridging ecosystem and stock assessments within the community. 

Advice on fishing opportunities for Baltic Sea fish stocks can be found in ICES library​​.​

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Where now for Baltic Sea stocks?

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