2019 ICES advice for the Baltic Sea

Troubled waters in need of real solutions

Warsaw, 6th of June 2018

Marcin Ruciński


On 31 May, ICES have released their annual catch advice for the main stocks in the Baltic Sea, which will guide decision-makers in negotiations of fishing opportunities for 2019. LIFE takes a first look at ICES recommendations, on the basis of initial views and comments provided by our Members. We will come with more suggestions later, as our internal discussions progress.


Cod: a tale of two crises

The Eastern Baltic cod is now clearly in a state of deep crisis and far-reaching measures are needed. The stock suffers from many difficulties, among which scientists enumerate: illegal and unreported discards, continuing despite a comprehensive ban, mobile gear modifications leading to high levels of undersized fish in catches, food deprivation caused by intensive pelagic effort in the cod distribution area, anoxic areas inhibiting spawning in areas other than Bornholm Deep, lack of large fish in the stock to positively impact spawning success and the impact of an increasing grey seal population. The TAC has not been fully taken since 2010 and has no limiting effect on the fishery. It is clear that managers will need to look for solutions outside the usual toolbox to help cod turn the corner. These should include:

  • dealing with the illegal discards problem and ending the practices that are causing it, once and for all;
  • strong measures, effectively enforced to protect cod spawning, especially in the Bornholm Deep;
  • overcoming the cod food deprivation issue by moving at least a part of the pelagic fishing effort north of Subdivisions 25 and 26.

LIFE is now in the process of elaborating detailed suggestions for this crucial stock in the form of an Action Plan.

The Western Baltic cod stock and allied advice show clear signs of improvement after the 2016 crisis, on the basis of the strong 2016 year-class and high stock productivity assumed by ICES using the relatively high “breadth” of Fmsy ranges. However, the 2016 year-class is surrounded by two years of very low recruitment in 2015 and 2017; the last of them is the lowest on record. Being precautionary when it comes to the level of TAC increase is thus an absolute priority.

Herring: a tragic surprise in the West, declining stock in the East

The Western Baltic herring stock advice is a tragic surprise, especially in view of a good spring fishing season for this stock that has just finished. Livelihoods of many small-scale fishermen who depend on this stock are directly threatened as a result of zero catch advice. We note that as a result of advice benchmarking this year, the key stock reference points (Blim, MSY Btrigger) have been revised upwards. This needs to be properly explained, given that the recruitment and SSB estimates in the advice have been revised downwards.

Further East, the Central Baltic herring stock is also not doing well, as is confirmed by the disappointing results of the herring season, at least in coastal waters. Also here, a dependence on the 2014 year-class is a reason for concern.


ICES advises that a spatial management plan is considered for the fisheries that catch sprat and LIFE strongly agrees with this advice. It is high time that at least a good part of fishing effort on sprat be moved north of the Subdivisions 25-26, which can easily be done by simple quota management solutions. Overcoming the cod food deprivation scenario is a major concern for the Baltic ecosystem as a whole and must be a priority for the managers.

All stocks

When applying the necessary cuts, managers should bear in mind the need to provide sufficient quotas to the small-scale, low impact fishing communities, which depend on their traditional fishing grounds and do not, unlike their larger brethren have the ability to simply steam away to other fishing grounds.

Ecosystem overview: a very useful tool that needs further elaboration

We thank ICES for giving the traditional yearly advice a context going beyond just the mathematical models and MSY- or precautionary approach-based numbers and issues related to these. In addition to placing fisheries within the wider ecosystem, it is also important for decision-makers to locate fisheries as an integral part of a wider maritime sector and Blue Economy development actions. Within this approach, small-scale fisheries and its role in providing livelihoods and contributing to the economy and cultural heritage of local coastal communities across the Baltic Sea needs to be spelled out and understood more clearly.

LIFE is grateful to ICES for reminding everyone that the fishing effort with gillnets may be a problem for certain water bird species, if not properly addressed at a regional or local level, in a correct temporal and spatial context. We are ready to work together with ICES to help to positively deal with the issue by looking for solutions that are best tailored to the needs of local ecosystems and fishing communities they support. Some of our Members can share examples of cooperative approaches successfully used in practice elsewhere, in the Baltic Sea and beyond, which could be a useful inspiration. For example, a new pinger system tested in cooperation with fishers in German waters decreased by-catch of porpoises more than 70 %.

We are also ready to expand our close cooperation with BirdLife International[1] to address the issues mentioned. We would also be grateful for a cooperation with ICES to look at the data on the actual gillnet fishing effort, given its recent and marked decline in many Baltic small-scale fishing communities.

We find it much more worrying though that ICES’s Ecosystem Overview makes no mention whatsoever of the impact of certain predators, in particular grey seal and black cormorant, on fish stocks and particularly small-scale fisheries across the Region. There are a number of initiatives to find constructive solutions to this important issue which weighs heavily on many Baltic small-scale fishing communities[2], This should also have been referenced in the ICES document.

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[1] Our joint letter available here https://lifeplatform.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/JointLetter-BirdLife-LIFE.pdf

[2] Records of the recent discussions on the predators’ impact question can be found here (BSAC) http://www.bsac.dk/getattachment/Meetings/BSAC-meetings/Executive-Committee-and-sub-group-on-ecosystem-bas/BSACreportEBMsubgroup031017EXCEPTSALMONFINAL.pdf.aspx?lang=en-GB , point 2 and here (HELCOM) https://portal.helcom.fi/meetings/FISH%208-2018-509/MeetingDocuments/Outcome%20of%20FISH%208-2018.pdf , points 7.9.-7.12. Furthermore, a transnational cooperation project implemented by FLAGs https://balticfisheries.com is worth noting