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Fisheries Brief no. 25: Baltic herring engages and MSC confuses

Our Fisheries Brief has so far focused on the Baltic cod crisis, but we have repeatedly pointed out the need for ecosystem-based management because fish stocks are dependent on and affect one another. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the fisheries policy has failed not only to conserve cod stocks but several other stocks as well.

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Fierce debate on Baltic herring

In connection with the publication of scientific recommendations for the fishery for 2021 by the ICES, mention was made in Fisheries Brief no. 24 of herring in the central Baltic Sea and Baltic herring in the archipelago. We are seeing a worrying trend emerging for herring in the central Baltic Sea; worrying not least because it bears such a striking similarity to events prior to the cod fishery collapsing, with quotas, and fishing in general, being based on a single year class, that of 2014.

It is a very wise decision. Firstly, BalticSea2020 considers that fisheries management should not be managed based on short-term objectives, as is currently the case within the framework of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Experience from other fish stocks is clear: stocks do not recover in a year, but require long-term efforts and ambitions. Secondly, we believe that management should not be limited to individual species and stocks. The fish live in an ecosystem, where changes in one stock also affect other fish species.

The newspaper Mitti ran a series of articles back in the spring that concluded with the Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs Jennie Nilsson saying that she did not intend to pursue the issue of banning large-scale fishing in the Baltic Sea or extending the trawling limit to 12 nautical miles:

    But the minister responsible, Jennie Nilsson (S) [Swedish Social Democratic Party],
is not going to pursue this issue.
“At the moment there are no scientific grounds for pursuing such a policy,”
she says.


This statement prompted an unusually lively political debate on the Baltic Sea’s fisheries policy. Three Social Democrats wrote in the newspaper Norrtelje Tidning that the demands put forward in connection with the series of articles must be contrasted with the scientific advice which, according to them, lacks evidence of a link between large-scale fishing and declining Baltic herring catches. The same politicians argued that there is no opportunity for Sweden to act alone. Three members of the Centre Party responded that they were surprised at the Social Democrats’ defence of large-scale fishing and the lack of political will. In a closing rejoinder, the Social Democrats explain that we have to work with the management model that so many have worked so hard to put in place. We understand that the intentions behind the current management models have been good. However, the trend observed in several of our commercial fisheries clearly shows that the model is not working, and it is the policy’s responsibility to propose and implement the necessary measures.

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The Minister for Rural Affairs is beginning to see the problem

During the spring, several written questions were put to Jennie Nilsson as Minister for Rural Affairs in the Riksdag about Baltic herring and industrial fishing. The first two, from Nina Lundström of the Liberal Party and Elin Segerlind of the Left Party, were answered before the ICES recommendations for next year’s fishing quotas were published. In her answers, the minister refers to the fact that this year’s quotas are within the framework for sustainable fishing and that the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management allocates quotas and monitors the fishery.

The third question, from Betty Malmberg of the Moderate Party, was asked after the ICES recommendations were published, which showed that the herring stock in the central Baltic Sea is being fished above sustainable levels. The Minister for Rural Affairs’ response is now somewhat more involved. The minister shares the questioner’s concerns about coastal fishing and is prepared to take action, but, according to the minister, scientific data is required to prove the suspicions.

We have seen reactions similar to those of the Minister for Rural Affairs and the social democratic politicians before. There is confidence in Sweden in the fisheries management that gave us many years of inaction on the Baltic cod issue. Jennie Nilsson’s predecessor stated year after year that he was satisfied after the quota negotiations – negotiations that ultimately gave us the cod crisis and today’s total ban on fishing. Nor is it possible to hide behind science by claiming that “we need to know more”. We know enough to be able to act now, as the ICES has been monitoring the herring situation in the central Baltic Sea closely since 1974. In other words, what is happening today is no surprise to someone who has worked closely with fishery issues. 

At the same time, last year’s action by Sweden, Finland and the Commission showed that there is considerable scope for taking drastic fisheries policy decisions, if only the will exists. The assessment of the ICES of the herring stock in the central Baltic Sea speaks volumes. Sweden must be clear in its dealings with the Commission in the run-up to further quota negotiations in the late summer and autumn, while seeking alliances with other Baltic Sea states.

The Minister for Rural Affairs says that this is a priority. There are many of us who follow her work involving fish stocks and the environment in the Baltic Sea.

There is a difference between labelling and ecolabelling

The current situation has been confused by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifying Baltic herring, herring and sprat fishing in the central Baltic Sea as sustainable at the end of June, which involves precisely the type of industrial fishing criticised so fiercely back in the spring. A decision that is very difficult to understand. For herring/Baltic herring, the ICES reports on six criteria using a traffic light system of green, yellow and red; currently four of these criteria are red. Fishing is above the level for maintaining a sustainable yield and beyond the bounds of the management plan, and, most seriously of all, the herring stock is below the reference point for sustainable regeneration.
Difficulties are encountered with ecolabels that have to be adapted to international criteria and organisations’ funding needs. The MSC previously certified cod fishing in the Baltic Sea, but after a few years was forced to withdraw its decision when it became clear that Baltic cod stocks were collapsing. The intentions behind MSC certification are good, but it makes it difficult for retailers and consumers to do the right thing. Just like current fisheries management, the MSC’s criteria may be in dire need of review and change.

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The MSC mentions in its press release 60-metre trawlers from the west coast of Sweden. The large industrial trawlers may have the management system and quotas on their side and can even manage to become MSC-certified, but this illustrates the downsides of the fisheries policy. Public interest in the fate of Baltic herring in the archipelago is growing and there will be demands for the Minister for Rural Affairs to take political action.

Click here to read previous Fisheries Briefs:
Fisheries Brief No. 1: How big is the fishing industry?
Fisheries Brief No. 2: Discards continue despite ban
Fisheries Brief No. 3: The Baltic Sea cod – a unique and isolated species
Fisheries Brief No. 4: The role of cod in the ecosystem
Fisheries Brief No. 5: Historically low catches of Baltic Sea cod
Fisheries Brief No. 6: Baltic Sea cod quotas
Fisheries Brief No. 7: Who is entitled to the fish?
Fisheries Brief No. 8: Is the Minister for Rural Affairs in charge of fishing matters?
Fisheries Brief No. 9: Responsibility rests with the fishery ministers
Fisheries Brief No. 10: EU’s fisheries policy spectacle damages cod
Fisheries Brief No. 11: Crucial year for Baltic cod
Fisheries Brief No. 12: Continued cod fishing is harmful
Fisheries Brief No. 13: List of measures for the Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs
Fisheries Brief no. 14: The system that fools itself
Fisheries Brief no. 15: Good job government! Now the real work begins
Fisheries Brief no. 16: Navigating the hidden perils of the fisheries policy
Fisheries Brief no. 17: Prioritise the environment over a handful of jobs
Fisheries Brief no. 18: The Commission proposes a zero quota
Fisheries Brief no. 19: Recovery takes time
Fisheries Brief no. 20: Crucial decisions in the short and long term 
Fisheries Brief no. 21: Good decisions – but the fish in the Baltic Sea require a long-term solution
Fisheries Brief no. 22: The fight for a sensible fisheries policy continues in 2020
Fisheries Brief no. 23: Prioritise small-scale fishing
Fisheries Brief no. 24: Fishing quotas 2021 - Long-term focus is needed