North Sea Cod - Disappointment

1st July 2019 in Fisheries Science

Disappointment is almost inadequate as a term to describe the news that once again the iconic North Sea cod stock is in trouble. After a decade and a half in which the stock has been slowly but steadily increasing, the biomass is again in steep decline.

North Sea Cod - Disappointment

After weeks of rumours, the publication of annual scientific advice by ICES, at the end of last week, confirmed that on the main indicators, the stock is going in the wrong direction and that a 33% cut in the total allowable catch in 2019 has been insufficient as a corrective. In the scientific jargon:

Fishing mortality (F) has increased since 2016, and is above Flim in 2018. Spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has decreased since 2015 and is now below Blim. Recruitment since 1998 remains poor.

To bring the biomass to maximum sustainable yield in one year, ICES recommends a further drastic 63% cut.

What went wrong?

As usual, there is a mix of environmental and fisheries effects at work. ICES points to low recruitment but also suggests that unidentified changes in fishing patterns are implicated. The suspicion must be that the destabilising effect of the EU landing obligation is one of the factors at work. North Sea cod was brought under the landing obligation in 2018. Climate change and some kind of environmental regime shift is identified as a possible factor behind poor recruitment.

Mixed Fisheries/Chokes

Cod in the North Sea is not a targeted species but is caught as a valuable bycatch along with other species in a mixed demersal fishery. This makes managing a reduction in fishing pressure on cod a difficult and challenging prospect, particularly in the context of the landing obligation and the potential for cod to choke other demersal fisheries. As vessels are no longer permitted to discard, chokes occur when the exhaustion of quota for one species precludes the vessel, group, or member state, from catching the quotas of its main economic species. The concern now is that cod quota will be out of alignment with the TACs for haddock, whiting, saithe, and plaice, increasing the risk of chokes dramatically in 2020. Because of its body size and shape, cod is not an easy species to separate out without losing other valuable species in the catch. So more selective fishing gear is hard to achieve for both technical and economic reasons.

What to do?

Because there is a strong element of déjà vu, to again finding ourselves in trouble with North Sea cod, it will be important to learn the lessons of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the biomass of cod was last in decline.

Those lessons were:

  • The fundamental driver of the crisis was fleet overcapacity: it will be important to identify if this has re-emerged as a problem in parts of the fleet
  • Drastic cuts in the TAC for cod within the context of a mixed fishery, only gave rise to large-scale discarding. In today’s context that means illicit discarding, or chokes. Both carry serious consequences
  • Input controls in the form of days-at-sea restrictions do not work. There is no linear relationship between a reduction in permitted time at sea and fishing mortality on cod. Effort control has a tendency to generate perverse outcomes
  • Displacement effects mean that knock-on effects in adjacent fisheries can be expected
  • A step-wise approach rather than big bang measures often delivers better results in the longer term
  • More intelligent ways of avoiding concentrations of cod are likely to have more effect than drastic TAC cuts and effort control

There will be intense efforts this autumn to design and agree effective measures, fleet by fleet, to minimise catches of cod and to reverse the observed decline.


North Sea cod is currently a jointly managed stock between EU and Norway. If the UK leaves the EU at the end of October under no-deal conditions, the UK will immediately become an independent coastal state and will enter the year -end negotiations for a fisheries agreement in 2020 as an independent party. If there is a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU, and the fisheries component remains as the current draft agreement, the UK will for 2020 remain subject to the CFP rules but will not take its seat during meetings when the EU coordinates its own positions. Instead, it will be “consulted” during the negotiations, although it is not clear what form those consultations will take. The UK under these circumstances would become an independent coastal state in January 2021.

Under all scenarios, the UK will be a major player on decisions on North Sea cod, both as the main quota holder of North Sea cod and the economic zone in which a substantial proportion of the cod population is located.


The fishing industry is noticeably adaptive. Fishing vessels, as businesses, will seek to remain viable trip-by-trip, under whatever the regulatory regime may apply. In the past, drastic management measures have generated pressures leading to fleet displacements into adjacent areas, or into changing target species, or gear types. All such displacement effects have potential knock-on effects.


In navigating their way through to a solution, fisheries managers and the fishing industry will have to take account of:

  • The adverse scientific advice
  • The consequences of the EU landing obligation
  • Cod as a bycatch in several fisheries
  • Self-inflicted legal constraints, such as the EU MSY timetable and constraints on the use of fishing mortality ranges to set TACS
  • The economic viability of fishing businesses and communities
  • The volatile political and jurisdictional context

Above all, experience suggests that fisheries managers working with the fishing industry, will have to try to understand and anticipate the impact of proposed solutions in the real world.