The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Edward Stern.

‘Are they still fishing this?’ replied Dr. George Rose in an email earlier this year. I had written to Rose asking about cod length at first spawning, or the typical size of cod when they are sexually mature. Growth of this species, Gadus morhua, is regulated within a general range by where the fish lives. For a number or reasons, cod around Newfoundland are typically larger than cod in the Baltic. Rose is well aware of these differences. Despite the understood differences in cod growth, Rose balked at the most recent assessment data on eastern Baltic cod which indicates that 50% of the cod are sexually mature enough to spawn at 20-centimetres in length. ‘20 cm maturity is way less than anything ever observed over this way. Although I do not know all the details the [eastern Baltic] stock appears to be in hard shape. Are they still fishing this?

Rose, a senior cod scientist in Newfoundland, Canada, has personally observed the decline of the fabled northern cod and dependent fisheries, including the last few decades post-collapse to the recent beginning of stock rebuilding. Growing up in Newfoundland, Rose knows the fishery well, and has literally written the book on Cod. No, not the one by Mark Kurlansky, but the book “Cod: The ecological history of the North Atlantic fisheries.” In fact, Kurlansky interviewed Rose at length and quoted him several times in his own book on cod. I had the good fortune of meeting Rose while studying the Newfoundland fisheries myself, subsequently working for him for a number of years at the Marine Institute in St. John’s, Canada including a number of months on the Grand Banks looking for whatever cod were left.

In 2015, Jean-Jacques Maguire chaired the scientific benchmark assessment for the eastern and western Baltic cod stocks in Rostock, Germany. Maguire, like Rose, knows cod well. Maguire was chair of the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Scientific Advisory Committee advising the Canadian Minister of fisheries at the time and later on he chaired the ICES Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management (1996-1999) and the Advisory Committee (2011-2013). Near the close of the weeklong debate among scientists from all Baltic Member States, struggling with unresolvable and crippling issues in the assessment, Maguire had one confident summary to offer. While the Baltic hosts a different ecosystem than in the Northwest Atlantic, the story that Maguire saw in the data was one he had seen before. Combined issues with declining cod condition, decreases in size at maturity, reduced overall growth, high mortality rates for older cod, parasite infestations, or other indices, Maguire said ‘Now is a time for caution.’ The signs all point to a highly stressed stock.

Fast forward to just a few months ago when the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) released their formal advice for the Baltic cod stocks in 2017. The advice represents consensus from at least a dozen different scientists across Europe, consensus built through an arduously detailed vetting process. This process tells us that the eastern Baltic stock remains in a special “precautionary” category of advice exhibiting a number of deeply troubling characteristics and the western Baltic stock may have crossed a very, very serious line. The amount of spawning cod in the western stock has been critically low since 2008. Fishermen have been allowed catches well above sustainable levels. The amount of juvenile cod that survive and add to the stock – the recruitment – has been low since 1999. ICES estimates that the recruitment in 2016 is the lowest ever measured from the stock.

Critics may dismiss scientific observation from the likes of Rose, Maguire, and ICES, claiming that that they don’t know what’s going on in the sea like fishermen know, that they’re only seeing data instead of real fish, that they don’t listen. In this Baltic situation, some industry advocates claim that the science is politically motivated and completely false, that there’s nothing at all wrong with the fish stocks, that even these advocates themselves could do a better assessment, etc, etc, ad nauseum. This is why I’m writing today, because these advocates claim supporters of strong conservation measures don’t understand fisheries and what is at stake for fishing communities. In opposition to this claim, I submit that I understand fisheries better than many and what is at stake better than most.

Before finding my way to Sweden, I was a fisherman both in Alaska and Newfoundland, fishing for salmon and crab. In Alaska I learned that fisheries could work, sustainably, for generations. I saw fishermen as environmentalists, community members as policy makers, and people dedicated to protecting this precious food resource for long-term community well-being. Inspired by the experience and eager to engage more deeply, I moved to Newfoundland to study the tragic case of the northern cod collapse.

Following the 1992 moratorium on the cod fishery, crab and shrimp stocks on the Grand Banks acted as a stop-gap to keep some fishing activity alive. However the related allocation programs frequently rewarded the most aggressive, destructive fishers. I experienced the obscene restructuring of community power in Newfoundland to the “haves” and “have-nots” as a marine surveyor, researcher, and deckhand in the crab fishery myself. For eight years I explored the province, the history, and listened to stories upon stories of how life had changed for so many Newfoundlanders dependent on the once-plentiful resource. Those excluded from accessing the crab fishery via prohibitively expensive million-dollar enterprise allocations are at the whim of a new class of robber-baron fishing captains, or lacking other opportunities many leave home, travelling as far away as Alberta, to work in the oil sands or other service industries.

So when Rose asked me ‘are they still fishing this?’ and Maguire said ‘Now is a time for caution’ and ICES advice reads as plain as day, and when I’ve seen the aftermath of devastated fishing communities myself twenty years after perhaps the most dramatic fishery collapse in western history, I listen. Western Baltic cod has fallen so far below all precautionary limits, theoretical and legislated, that recovery may not happen for years, even decades, the same time-frame it took the northern cod off Newfoundland to begin rebuilding under moratorium. The eastern Baltic stock is a mystery regarding specific biomass targets, but there is more than enough data to know that things are not at all well.

Because fisheries ministers did not make risk-averse choices in the past, failing to act when the need for action was clear, the choices facing them this year are simply different degrees of tragic. The best option for the fishery is to:

  • Reduce quotas in line with scientific advice
  • Prioritize access for those fishers using low impact fishing methods, as supported by the EU Common Fisheries Policy, and who are most vulnerable to losing their livelihoods forever
  • Provide temporary emergency economic compensation under the EU Maritime and Fisheries Fund
  • Institute programs to maintain the knowledge base required to reintroduce fishing in the future

We either dramatically reduce the fishing exploitation rate now, or we don’t. And what happens if we don’t is pretty clear if one looks to the west across the Atlantic, just beyond the horizon.


Edward Stern is currently the fisheries policy advisor at The Fisheries Secretariat in Stockholm, an independent think tank advocating for sustainable fisheries management, and vice chair of the Baltic Sea Advisory Council for fisheries.

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