Fish stocks have made surprising comebacks in the North and Baltic seas. But much remains to be done. Beginning in January, new EU laws will impose more sustainable practices with stricter quotas and by-catch rules.
By Philip Bethge
When the men open the net on the ship’s deck, fat codfish slap into plastic fish baskets. Slippery plaice and flounder, rough as sandpaper, gasp for air. Turbot the size of two strong fisherman’s hands slither between silvery herring and flat dabs.
A particularly large cod with its mouth wide open lies on top of the pile. “It has to weigh more than six kilos (13 lbs.),” estimates Martina Bleil as she looks down at the fish. “It’s in great shape.” The female is about 8 years old, says Bleil, a fish biologist. “It would have been spawning again soon.”
Bleil works for the Thünen Institute for Baltic Sea Fisheries (Thünen OF) in the northern German port city of Rostock, an agency that is part of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture. The scientist and her colleagues have made a big haul on this clear November day in the Bay of Mecklenburg. “We are headed in a very good direction with fish stocks in the Baltic Sea,” says Bleil. “Anyone who eats plaice or herring doesn’t have to feel guilty about it anymore.”
Something amazing is happening in the seas off Germany’s coasts, where most species were long considered overfished. But now some stocks are recovering at an astonishing rate. Experts are seeing a significant upward trend in the North Sea, and even more so in the Baltic Sea.
“We assume that the Baltic Sea will be the first European body of water that can be sustainably fished once again,” says Christopher Zimmermann, director of the Thünen OF. “That would be a huge success.”
Ending ‘Horse-Trading” with Reform
This year, the European Union has also launched a reform of its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that Zimmermann believes “will accelerate the positive trend even further.” In fact, the new rules could ring in a historic turning point.
“In the past, the group of ministers was setting fishing quotas in cloak-and-dagger meetings,” says Ulrike Rodust, a member of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a lawmaker in the European Parliament from the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Rodust played a key role in pushing through the reforms in Brussels. But now, she says, the system of “horse-trading” among members that inadequately protects fish stocks has come to an end.
Rodust expects that stricter maximum catch restrictions will lead to a trend reversal throughout Europe. The regulation, which comes into effect in January, stipulates that:
In the future, fishing quotas will be established exclusively on the basis of scientific criteria. The goal is to ensure that all stocks are fished only to the “maximum sustainable yield” by 2020.
Unwanted by-catch is to be brought to shore and included in the total subject to quotas. The more by-catch fisherman have in their nets, the less marketable fish they can catch. The rule creates an incentive to use more selective fishing methods.
Subsidies for building new trawlers are being eliminated. Instead, more money will be available to monitor fishermen and conduct scientific studies of fish stocks.
The new rules will also apply to EU fishermen operating outside Europe. This means that European trawlers will no longer have the option of simply shifting to fishing grounds off the coasts of Africa.
The details of the fishing regulations are being negotiated regionally. Soon the same rules could apply in both the Irish Sea and off the Spanish coast.
Stocks in ‘Excellent Shape’
In the Baltic Sea, fishing reform has almost reached the goals that lawmakers hope to achieve in other European maritime regions in the future. This success story was made possible by the agreement among countries bordering the Baltic Sea to exclusively employ sustainable fishing practices, says Zimmermann.
This hasn’t always been the case. Until 2007, for example, Polish fishermen were pulling about twice as much cod out of the water as EU rules permitted. It was only the new government under Prime Minister Donald Tusk that began “reining in the trawlers,” says Zimmermann. “But now the Poles are also abiding by the rules.”
Baltic Sea fishing policy has been an immense success. Cod in the eastern Baltic, for example, which was still heavily overfished in 2005, is now doing “very well,” Zimmermann reports, while plaice stocks are in “excellent shape.” And herring in the eastern Baltic are now producing young at a healthy rate once again.
Some fish species are also doing better in the North Sea. Researchers at the Thünen Institute for Sea Fisheries in Hamburg recently studied 43 fish stocks and concluded that 27 of them are in “good ecological condition.” According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, “more than half of the fish stocks in the North Sea and northeast Atlantic” are already “being managed sustainably” today.
Herring and plaice, in particular, are developing well in the North Sea, says Zimmermann. Even North Sea cod, long a subject of concern for biologists, is finally showing initial signs of recovery, he adds.
The Benefits of Stricter Quotas
Zimmermann is one of the architects of this fishing miracle. He represents Germany on the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which develops recommendations for EU catch quotas. The data used to analyze fish stocks in the Baltic Sea are obtained with research ships like the Clupea.
Fish biologist Martina Bleil makes regular trips out to sea, where she and her assistants use a standardized TV3/520 research net. In the water, the net opens to a width of 20 meters (66 feet) and a height of two meters. With a mesh size of only 22 millimeters, hardly any swimming marine animal can escape the research net.
On this November day, Clupea Captain Rolf Singer heads for two catch sites. Once the catch is on board, Bleil grabs one cod after another and hoists them onto a nearby table, where she measures them. “84 centimeters long,” she calls out to her assistants. With a practiced hand, she uses a pair of scissors to slice open the animals’ bellies. Bleil’s plastic gloves are stained red. Fish blood drips onto the green working deck. “Female,” she calls out. “Stomach: 65 grams; liver: 170 grams.”
Data collection is the basis of the ICES recommendations. Experts have reduced the maximum allowable catches for many fish stocks in recent years. While stocks have often been radically overfished, the strict sustainability principle will apply as of January.
The objective is to regulate fishing in such a way that fish stocks can stabilize or even grow in the long term, as well as to enable fishermen to continually harvest “the maximum yield with minimum effort,” as Zimmermann puts it.
If stocks are doing well, there are more fish to catch, which enables fishermen to benefit from the reform. The overfished cod stock in the North Sea, for example, has provided an annual yield of no more than 40,000 metric tons for the last decade. If the stock were in good shape, Zimmermann explains, fishermen could easily catch more than three times as many fish.
This explains why there are good reasons to reform EU fishing policy, especially as catches in many places have well exceeded scientific recommendations in the past. In addition, about a quarter of the fish caught by EU fleets are by-catch and directly returned to the water. But extremely few of these fish survive.
“Overfishing must come to an end,” says Rodust, and she is confident that his goal can be achieved. All EU fish stocks are to be fished using the new, more sustainable methods by 2015, if possible, and by no later than 2020. The EU could serve as a role model worldwide, says Rodust, adding: “We have received a great deal of praise internationally for our reforms.”
Fears of Fishing Lobby Manipulation
But not all fishing experts see this in quite as positive a light. “The reform is supposed to be implemented by precisely the same people who were responsible for massive overfishing in the last few decades,” says Rainer Froese of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in the northern German port city of Kiel.
Since scientific recommendations are to become binding in the future, Froese fears that the fishing lobby could try to put pressure on scientists. This, in turn, could lead to the ICES quota recommendations being too high.
According to Froese, sustainable management should only be considered once stocks have recovered. He points out that the situation is not improving for all fish stocks.
“Eel and pollock are still being heavily overfished in the Baltic Sea,” says the biologist. While cod is in better shape in the eastern Baltic, the species remains under strong pressure west of the Danish island of Bornholm. In the North Sea, says Froese, stocks of cod and pollock are still a long way from recovering, while eel and spiny dogfish are even “acutely threatened.”
Froese is also opposed to the subsidies. “Although they have been restructured, they haven’t been reduced,” he says. Subsidies for ship fuel, for example, continue to allow for the use of massive, heavy ground tackle that tears up the ocean floor, destroying important habitats for young fish.
“We are currently still in hell and are marching toward the gates of paradise,” Froese concludes. “The question is whether we will halt at the threshold or walk through.”
Zimmermann, on the other hand, prefers to convey a sense of optimism. “As a rule, the only thing grumbling achieves,” the Thünen OF director explains, “is that people say: ‘Oh God, the best thing is stop eating fish altogether,’ and to eat turkey from factory farms instead.” Many types of saltwater fish can be “enjoyed with a good conscience” once again, he adds.
The biologist even believes that some stocks in the Baltic Sea are being “under-utilized.” Cod stocks in the eastern Baltic, for example, have grown to such an extent that the animals are “starting to eat each other and compete for food,” he says.
According to Zimmermann, one in five cod in the Bornholm Basin is so thin that it can no longer be cut into fillets. Fishermen refer to these fish as “triangular rasps” because they are so bony. The animals can no longer be sold, says Zimmermann, “so they end up in fishmeal production.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan