North Sea Cod Q&A

9th December 2019 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy, North Sea

North Sea cod is regarded by many as an iconic stock. After the gadoid outburst* in the 1960s and 1970s, when a huge increase in abundance of cod-related species was observed, cod recruitment returned to more average levels by the 1980 and 1990s. By that time the stock also faced fleet overcapacity after a subsidised building boom leading to a high fishing mortality and a chaotic management system. Fleet decommissioning in the late 1990s right-sized the fleets and from 2005 or thereabouts (leaving aside the blind alley of effort control) more sensitive (and effective) management measures were adopted. From 2000 there was a dramatic reduction in fishing pressure and from then to 2015 the stock biomass increased steadily annually. This changed again around 2015, two years after the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

North Sea Cod Q&A

The questions and answers below are an attempt to address some of the most frequently issues about what is happening now.

Is North Sea Cod in trouble again?

Yes, after 15 years in which the biomass increased steadily, international scientists say that the numbers are again in decline.

Why?

There are probably two principle reasons, one environmental and one related to fisheries management. The distribution of cod, already at the southernmost extent of the species when in UK waters, is moving northwards by 12 km per year. In fact, all of the cod stocks in EU waters – Celtic Sea, Irish Sea, West of Scotland and Baltic – face problems, suggesting that in addition to fishing pressure, some kind of regime shift is under way. Cod are now almost entirely absent from the Southern North Sea.

Also, changes to the Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, and in particular the EU landing obligation, seem to have undermined the arrangements which delivered steady recovery of the North Sea cod stock between 2020 and 2015.

It is worth saying that not all fish stocks are in trouble. North Sea hake and North Sea plaice biomasses are higher than anything seen in the records. In fact, hake, as a voracious predator may be part of the problem with the cod stocks.

What can be done to rebuild the cod stocks?

Put simply, only one thing can be done: reduce fishing pressure to allow incoming year classes to rebuild the biomass

Is that easy?

No, it’s difficult because cod is caught in a mixed fishery along with other species like haddock and whiting. It is also caught in small quantities as an unavoidable bycatch in a range of other fisheries.

What is the significance of that?

It means that simply cutting the total allowable catch (the quota) for cod will not of itself lead to a reduction in fishing pressure. The lessons of the previous two cod recovery plans are that when the quota is slashed, it has led to widespread discarding by vessels fishing for other species

Why can’t we just ban discarding?

The EU has. With the EU landing obligation, which came fully into force in January 2019, all quota species must be landed, unless there is a specific exemption. But that creates a further problem – the problem of chokes in mixed fisheries.

So, what’s a choke?

If a vessel (or group of vessels, or a member state) exhausts its quota for cod, or any other quota species, it cannot, as in the past, discard cod and keep fishing for other species. It must stop fishing in the North Sea demersal fisheries full-stop. This is what is called a choke. The vessel is committing an offence if it lands fish for which it has no quota, but it is committing an offence if the fish is discarded. A Catch 22.

Why can’t fishing vessels just use more selective nets, that exclude cod?

They can. And this works very well with some species but less well with others. Cod is a large bodied species and its size and shape mean that the gears that have been designed to exclude cod, also lose valuable catches of monkfish, megrim, lemon sole, haddock and whiting, making the fishing trip uneconomic.

What else can be done?

Fishing vessels can try to avoid areas and periods where and when cod are likely to be caught. Avoidance can be formal, with mandatory closed areas and seasons, or skippers can voluntarily adjust their fishing strategies to minimise catches of cod. One variant is a restricted area which can be accessed only by vessels meeting certain conditions, such as using highly selective gear, or fitting CCTV cameras which are used to verify catches.

What is happening this week?

Norway and the EU are meeting again, this time in Brussels, to try to agree a package of measures for North Sea cod, as part of their annual reciprocal fisheries agreement, having failed to reach agreement earlier at meeting in London and Bergen.

What’s Norway got to do with it?

Because of its geography, cod is a shared stock and has been jointly managed by the EU and Norway for over 40 years. Each year there is a fisheries agreement which fix total allowable catches, access arrangements and quota shares. Norway has a 17% share of the North Sea cod stock, with the EU holding the balance. The UK and Denmark are the main EU quota holders.

Why do Norway and EU disagree on how to rebuild the cod stocks?

Norway, and incidentally all the affected EU member states, argue that we have to learn lessons from previous cod recovery plans. An extremely low TAC will not of itself deliver cod recovery. On the contrary, a very low quota will bankrupt fishing businesses because of the choke problem. This will drive the problem underground as some vessels try to maintain their economic viability. Recovery will be impeded, not advanced. Rebuilding the cod stock is going to take some time – five years perhaps – and a more realistic approach would be to apply a significant but not draconian TAC reduction, and work with the fishing industry on a package of supporting measures such as closed and restricted areas were concentrations of cod are located. The EU Commission, by contrast argues, that it is legally bound by its own rules to apply the scientific advice that a 61% reduction is required to (theoretically) rebuild the cod stock in one year. Throughout the negotiations the EU has been inflexible on the 61% figure and has argued that a package of supporting measures should be applied on top of this level of TAC reduction.

Has the fishing industry been sitting on its hands?

On the contrary, since the adverse advice was published in June, the North Sea industry has (for the first time ever) cooperated on building a pan-North Sea (also including Norwegian fishermen) approach to rebuilding cod. Meetings have been held in Copenhagen, Brussels and London to analyse the problem and a paper with solutions has been presented to both EU and Norway advocating a package of measures which includes:

⦁ Seasonal closures

⦁ Protection for juveniles

⦁ Real Time Closures

⦁ Restricted areas

The overall aim has been to try to redirect fishing activity away from concentrations of cod.

This initiative has been welcomed by both Norway and the EU, but the industry organisations have made clear has been that its implementation with industry support is entirely contingent on a quota level that is consistent with maintaining the fabric of the fishing industry and the communities that it sustains.

Has there been much discussion between EU and Norway on the landing obligation and this problem of chokes?

Hardly any. And that is a surprise given that:

⦁ this is the end of the first full year of the landing obligation

⦁ discard reduction has been Norway’s priority for many years

⦁ a 61% reduction in the TAC for cod would lead to EU vessels tying up or being displaced from the North Sea demersal fisheries from the first quarter of the year. There are particular concerns that a huge amount of effort would be displaced into the smaller-mesh nephrops fisheries

What are the implications of all this for Brexit?

It confirms that the Common Fisheries Policy is a blunt, inflexible, remote instrument incapable of providing effective fisheries management, especially in mixed fisheries, where a close working relationship between fisheries managers, fisheries scientists and fishermen is a prerequisite to avoid bad decisions with unintended or unforeseen consequences. The Commission’s approach to North Sea cod is not likely to persuade fishermen in any member state, much less Britain, that it is capable of moving towards effective and responsive fisheries management. Depending on the outcome of the general election this week, the UK should be in a position to negotiate during 2020 for a fisheries agreement in 2021 as an independent coastal state, not as one member state amongst many, with extremely limited leverage.

Anything else?

Yes. The scientists are having problems with the stock assessment for North Sea Cod. They have detected a retrospective bias in the model which systematically underestimates fishing pressure and overestimates the biomass. This error is corrected in subsequent years but is one of the reasons why their advice is so severe this year. Also, there is a recognition that there is significant ecosystem change underway, probably related to increasing water temperatures.

The current reference points (the fishing pressure and biomass markers for sustainable levels of fishing) may not be appropriate for the new ecosystem conditions now being experienced in the North Sea. These are under review by ICES and meetings are scheduled for 2020 and 2021. In the meantime, management decisions for 2020 are required.

What happens now?

Norway and EU delegations will meet again this week to see if the impasse can be broken and agreement reached. Three options are available:

1. The EU moves from its rigid insistence on a 61% reduction in the TAC in recognition of the unintended consequences that would follow

2. Norway caves in and agreed to the EU’s approach, moving a long way from its opening position of a 34% reduction

3. Norway and EU both shift from their current positions to set the TAC at some mid-point. A TAC is adopted consistent with a package of support measures

A fourth option is possible: a breakdown in the negotiations because of the Commission’s unwillingness to move. In these circumstances, further negotiations perhaps in the New Year might be necessary. It is unthinkable that there would be no EU/Norway agreement for 2020, or that the parties would set autonomous TACs for cod in 2020. That would be to break with 40 years of cooperation during which there have been many ups and downs but always, in the end, an agreement.

*click here for details