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Give the Baltic cod space to breed

A month after deciding to allow fishing on the western Baltic’s incredibly vulnerable population of cod, both Germany and Denmark announced that, actually, they would instruct their vessels to respect the previously agreed closure.  Although this was welcome, it shouldn’t have been necessary.

This cod population has been in a worrying state since 2008. Fishing levels have been higher than were sustainable, and the stock has declined as a result. In 2016, scientists estimated that the stock was producing fewer new fish than ever before.

To try to reverse this trend, the EU Council of Ministers agreed in December that the stock needed protection during its spawning season.

The ministers agreed a two month closure for cod fishing in the western Baltic (which is surrounded by Denmark, Germany and Sweden) in February and March 2017.

A dangerous amendment to the law was made at the last minute allowing smaller vessels to continue catching cod. But they weren’t allowed to fish below 20m – the depth at which cod gather to spawn – and would have to use a vessel monitoring system.

This turned into a big problem when Germany, and then Denmark, decided to allow fishing for other species (plaice and sole) to continue during the closure, even though these vessels would unavoidably catch cod as well. The decision to allow vessels to catch cod while they are spawning seems to have been a particularly short-sighted decision given that last year spawning was the worst on record.

Fisheries decisions need to follow science, and law – and quickly

The decision was not in line with the laws that govern fishing in Europe. A group of NGOs concerned about this issue, including ClientEarth, wrote to the European Commission to highlight how this activity should not be permitted under both the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the multiannual management plan for Baltic Sea fisheries. The NGOs called on the Commission to adhere to its responsibilities under the CFP and the EU fisheries Control Regulation to take action and close the fishery. The NGOs also sent letters to the German and Danish administrations, highlighting how their decisions were not in line with the law.

These complaints, combined with questions from fisheries control agencies about whether the depth limit could be enforced, led to the reversal of the German and Danish decisions. This was a good result, but the month of fishing that was permitted during the closure will have delayed  recovery of this stock. And that, we don’t have time for.

The EU and its Member States have only three more years until fishing on all stocks must be sustainable. Multiannual management plans are meant to protect stocks against short-sighted decision-making and ensure long-term sustainability of fishing – for the good of the marine ecosystem but also the industry that relies on it.

We’re approaching the 2020 deadline for sustainable fishing limits. We need to see Member States making consistent and responsible decisions that respect the law.

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