The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Gustaf Almqvist, Ph D, researcher, fish ecology and fisheries, at Baltic Eye/Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University.

The new multi-annual plan for fisheries in the Baltic Sea, which which on 23 June was formally adopted by the European Parliament, will be able to provide Baltic fishermen with better stability and opportunities for long-term planning.

 

Hopefully, it will also make it more difficult for Member States to do as they have done for the last two years, and set catch quotas far above scientific recommendations.

 

Despite these high expectations, one cannot ignore the fact that the new plan is a fairly rudimentary and limited creation compared with the vision and ambition that existed when the process of developing a new management plan was initiated. Gradually, the initial visions and ambitions have been ground down by various special interests at the negotiating table.

 

Today the plan has only a few measly fish tails from the large and delicious sea buffet of management objectives that actually exists, and from which the new plan could – and should – have taken much more in order to meet the initial intention of ecosystem-based management under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

 

For example, the plan covers how to manage commercial cod, herring and sprat, with only a few references to flatfish – and without regard to how these species biologically interact.

 

Ecosystem-based management is a broad term that encompasses issues of maritime planning in light of specific habitats and conservation value and endangered species. These issues are all missing in the new plan. The same goes for financial considerations of other interests than commercial fishing, which hardly reflects today’s emerging economies in areas such as tourism and recreational fishing.

 

How did this happen?

 

Maybe because the whole dish basically is a sprawling compromise open to various interpretations.

 

To develop regional management plans for commercial fishing is a cornerstone of the EU’s CFP. As the Baltic Sea is considered a well managed and scientifically well researched sea, this is where the work began.

 

One of the most notable mistakes, made early on, was to describe the Baltic plan as a kind of blueprint for all future management plans in EU waters. This created serious concern among several of the Member States representatives, especially those outside of the Baltic region. Would fishing in their waters eventually be dictated by how they fish in the Baltic Sea?

 

The turmoil led to strong disagreements between the EU institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council) and extremely long negotiations. The result is what we see today: a overly diplomatic and watered-down deal, in which only fragments of the initial ambitions remain.

 

Perhaps the most important consequence of the internal quarrel was that the new management plan lost much of its regional adaptation. Evidence suggests that interested parties representing other EU sea basins opposed all proposals that they felt would not suit their own fisheries management in the future.

 

The compromise also watered out one of the plan’s central themes – the application of the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).

 

MSY should be used as a yardstick for how much can be fished and how big the fish stocks should be in order to be called sustainable. But a workable yardstick must have a set scale, which all can relate to.

 

The final management plan, which today was voted through I Parliament, has different scales for fishing at MSY levels, based on the lowest values, point values and maximum values. In practice, the plan might thereby sanction fishing “around” MSY instead of “on” or “under” MSY.

 

There are many good reasons for fishing “under” MSY. Firstly, it creates a buffer against sudden and large environmental variations. Secondly, it reduces the risk of over-fishing, which can bring changes in size distribution of important species and lead to fundamental changes in the marine ecosystem.

 

Last but not least, fishing “under” the MSY-level often provides the most viable long-term option for the fishing industry, since fishing “under” MSY means more fish in the sea and thus less effort and cost to catch them.

 

It is worth noting, however, that the European Parliament realised the importance of this early on, and fought hard to keep fishing pressure “under” MSY. Without their strong negotiating, today’s plan would most likely have allowed even greater fishing pressure.

 

In its current state, the new plan has no instruction on how to prioritize between different stocks and target species in a ecosystem perspective. This opens for a free-for-all between Baltic countries with different priorities. Some countries will benefit from increased cod fishing, for example, while others benefit most from herring or sprat.

 

This is the story of the Baltic Sea plan. And the vision of creating a blueprint for the rest of the EU remains.

 

Now, new management plans are in the making for other areas, including the North Sea. Unfortunately, they seem to follow the basic principles of the Baltic Sea plan.

 

Thereby, the good ideas and aspirations that where lost once, run the risk of being lost again. And again. In one sea basin after the other.

 

To prevent such a development, the new plans should safeguard a more regionalised adaptation – and keep fishing under MSY-level, to protect the weaker stocks. Such measures are particularly important in areas that are characterised by mixed fisheries, such as the North Sea.

 

Our new multiannual plan for the Baltic Sea will undergo a minor revision already in three years. The revision will provide a golden opportunity to fix some of the current errors. By then expanding the revision and making it more extensive, it will be possible to include many of the ecosystem aspects that are now missing.

 

We have a plan. And that is a good thing. The plan is admittedly limited – but may be improving. The large and tasty buffet of key measures for sustainable fisheries management is still open.

 

So why not tuck into it?

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