Fishing in the Baltic Sea faces an uncertain future

EM1 21 FISHA small sea with big problems

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1 / 2021.

The fishing industry in the Baltic Sea region has long and rich traditions. As early as the Middle Ages, it was one of the most important economic and social activities, and it experienced an unprecedented boom during Hanseatic times. The fishers of today can only dream of such times. Drastic reductions in catch quotas are endangering the existence of many businesses and their future is at risk. What are the causes behind this fatal development?


The catch quotas in the Baltic Sea for 2021 agreed upon by the Fisheries Ministers of the EU Member States exceeded the fishing industry’s worst expectations, with further cuts for cod and herring, the most economically important species of fish for Baltic Sea fisheries. Although the scientific data would have allowed for a moderate increase, the EU Commission decided to proceed with caution and introduce more effective protection for cod and herring stocks. Since it is nearly impossible to avoid catching cod as bycatch in plaice fishing, the eastern cod stocks, as in previous years, cannot be targeted for fishing at all. Experience has shown that the approved quota will be exhausted with the bycatch alone. The limited increase of five percent for western cod is therefore almost a concession to the fishing industry. Things look especially gloomy for herring in the western Baltic Sea, for which the catch quota has now reached its lowest point. In the late 1980s, approximately 100,000 tonnes of herring were still permitted to be caught per year. Now, the catch quantities for 2020, which were already vanishingly small, have been even further decreased, halving to nearly 1,500 tonnes. The cuts primarily affect herring in the western and central areas of the Baltic Sea. Such severe losses can never be compensated for by the slight increases in catch quotas for plaice and sprats.

Many fishing businesses in the Baltic Sea area, which in the past have shown great commitment to increased sustainability in the fishing industry and also accepted enormous economic losses in order to do so, are now on the brink of collapse. An economic sector is hanging by a thread, and with it all of its peripheral industries, from net-makers to boatbuilders to fish smoking, fish processing and catering businesses. On some coasts, the traditional fishing crafts are increasingly degenerating into a ‘folklore event,’ which at best only serves to provide tourists with an atmospheric backdrop for eating tasty fish dishes while the fish consumed must increasingly be imported. Angling tourism is also at risk, because the maximum catch quantities for recreational fishing remain limited to five cod per day. During the closed season, only two cod are in fact allowed.

The phase of intermittent overfishing has long since passed

While increasing numbers of fishers are already under pressure to give up their wonderful, but physically tough and financially barely worthwhile profession due to sinking catch quotas, some environmental organisations accuse the EU authorities of not having reduced the catch quotas even further and even claim that this is promoting continued overfishing. For these organisations, absolute prohibitions on catching herring and cod are required in order to stop the negative trends in the development of fish stocks. Some fishing resources were in fact overexploited in the past, including in the Baltic.

In the 1950s, the number of cutters increased greatly, and new net materials and more effective catching methods were deployed. In addition to coastal fishing, fishing on the open sea intensified, which led to a significant overall increase in catch yields. However, those times are now over. Because the condition of some commercially important fish stocks increasingly deteriorated, fishing has been regulated and restricted more and more from the beginning of the 1970s. Since the start of the 1980s, the number of cutters in most Baltic Sea states has decreased very significantly. Many full-time fishermen are switching to part-time or giving up the occupation completely. However, this reduction in capacity initially did not result in lower catch quantities, as had been hoped, because the remaining players improved their technology and the overall fishing effort remained almost unchanged. By the end of the 1980s, engine power had increased greatly, numerous cutters were fitted out with electronic fish locating technology and more efficient trawl nets, and the average trawl duration rose from five to seven hours per day.

Almost 60 percent of the approved quota in the Baltic is still caught with trawl nets today, however, small-scale fishing with gillnets and pots in the area near the coast has increased in significance. Although this is seen as particularly sustain- able and environmentally friendly, it is also suffering from the basic problem of Baltic Sea fishing, the very limited range of species in these waters. Fishing is concentrated almost exclusively on the three target species of sprat, herring and cod, which normally make up more than 85% of landings. From an economic point of view, the cod catch is the most important of these. After annual landing quantities regularly reaching between 150,000 and 250,00 tonnes during the 1970s, and reaching their maximum of 391,000 tonnes in 1984, they fell to some 38,000 tonnes in 1994. In the meantime, the quotas have sunk to a level that is almost equivalent to a ban on catching cod. This weakens small-scale fishing, which has enormous economic and social importance for residents in many coastal areas of the Baltic Sea. Small coastal fishers mostly undertake day fishing and market their catches both directly and via regional catering businesses. Although many fishers also offer holiday accommodation as a second income source and put on angling tours for their guests and tourists, the low catch quotas endanger their existence, because the associated financial losses can hardly be compensated for. No business can make up for permanent 60 or 65 percent declines in turnover.

The structural change to small-scale coastal fishing with boats that are mostly less than 12 metres and the use of passive fishing gears have not only reduced overfishing in the Baltic Sea, but in large areas have made it an almost insignificant issue. Despite the catch quotas having been extremely low for years, however, there has still not been any sustainable recovery in stocks. The bleak conditions continue, putting the fishing industry under increasing pressure. Given this situation, it is not surprising that fishers want to strongly repudiate responsibility for this alarming development. If, despite their bitter abstention, no improvement occurs, other factors must indeed be the cause for this misery, which are however barely discussed in the public sphere. External influencing factors on the Baltic Sea, both natural and anthropogenic, are plentiful after all. For example, the increasing industrialised exploitation of the waters, which is causing interactions between the competing claims. Gigantic projects such as the Öresund bridge and the planned Fehmarnbelt tunnel crossing endanger sensitive ecosystems, valuable spawning grounds and nursery areas for some species of fish. Regionally, gravel is being extracted, gas and oil pipelines are being sunk and wind energy facilities are being installed at sea. In addition, there is brisk shipping traffic in the area, which is often respon- sible for the introduction of waste oil residues. The introduction of heated cooling water from power plants is contributing on a regional basis to the ‘thermal pollution’ of the Baltic Sea. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the construction of large hydro- electric power plants and dams made important waterways much more difficult, if not impossible, to access, thereby reducing the natu- ral increase of salmon, sea trout, eel and some other fish species.

Complex combinations of natural and anthropogenic influences

The biggest problem in the Baltic Sea, however, results from the geomorphology of the waters combined with eutrophication caused by humans. At only 415,000 square kilometres, the Baltic is one of the smallest seas on our planet. It was first formed approximately 12,000 years ago, when the Weichselian glaciation ice sheet, which was up to 3,000 metres thick, melted during the oncoming warmer period. Originally the Baltic Sea was a purely freshwater lake due to the barrier of melting ice that was present. However, enormous quantities of seawater entered through the connection to the North Sea, now known as the Kattegat, which mixed with the fresh water from large Baltic rivers such as the Oder, Vistula, Neman, Daugava and Neva, making the Baltic Sea the largest area of brackish water on Earth. This created an intracontinental marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, in the brackish water of which developed relatively species-poor, but quite diverse forms of life. Most of these are immigrant marine life forms that have adapted to the less salty environment. Because the salt con- tent of the water declines from the West towards the East – in the Kattegat the conditions are practically marine, in the Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Bothnia they are in contrast almost limnic – the number of marine species decreases as the salt content sinks. At the transition to the North Sea, species such as cod, herring and often mackerel are found, while in the lagoons and bays along the coast hornfish and flounder abound along with salt-tolerant freshwater species such as pike and zander. Far to the North and East of the Baltic, bream, roach, perch and trout prevail.

One of the oceanographic peculiarities of the Baltic Sea is that the salt water streaming in from the upstream North Sea must pass through the barely 25 m deep Belt Sea before reaching the much deeper areas of the Arkona Sea, and the seas off Gotland and Bornholm. The opening of the Belt Sea, which can only be passed during periods of longer-lasting westerly winds, restricts the water inflow from the North Sea significantly, and puts the Baltic Sea ecosystem under constant stress. For some fish the water is too fresh, for others too salty, and some species avoid the region entirely. These special conditions make the inflow of the salty and oxygen-rich North Sea water an important regulating element for the ecosystem. Declines in fish stocks are frequently a consequence of stopped or less intense saltwater inflows from the North Sea. The striking slump in cod stocks up to the mid-1990s, for example, can be attributed to the limited inflow of North Sea water during the period from 1978 to 1994.

The Baltic Sea was still known for being low in nutrients up to the 1950s. This changed, however, with the industrialisation of agriculture, which used more and more fertiliser, primarily nitro- gen and phosphates, much of which reached the Baltic through the rivers. This ‘fertilisation’ of the water initially had the effect of significantly increasing fish stocks, because more plankton developed that fish larvae and filter-feeding species could feed on. Over the years, however, such large quantities of fertiliser were released into the Baltic that the inland sea has become over-fertilised (eutrophicated). This regularly causes severe algal blooms which float like a thick carpet in the water, die off after some time and sink to the sea floor. There, the dead algal masses are consumed by bacteria that take oxygen from the water while doing so and release hydrogen sulphide, which is poisonous to fish. Wherever the supply of fresh, oxygen- rich North Sea water is stopped for a longer period of time, the sea floor dies off and veritable ‘dead zones’ form. The extent of these regions does change constantly and they can disappear for a short time due to a large influx of saltwater, however on average over recent decades ten to twenty percent of the surface of the Baltic Sea floor has been affected. Large parts of the sea floor of the Baltic, above all deep depressions such as the Bornholm Basin, the most important spawning ground for western cod stocks, have become areas hostile to life in which the eggs and larvae of benthic spawners have only a limited chance of development.

‘Regime change’ in the Baltic requires structural adaptation in the fishing industry

Scientists do not rule out connections between global climate change and the reduced inflow of North Sea water into the Baltic, because the climate influences both the sea currents and the atmospheric circulation system, which leads to wind directions and strengths that deviate from the norm. It is still not proven with absolute certainty, but some consequences of climate change are already being detected. While heat-loving species, for example, are benefiting from sea warming, cold-loving species such as cod are being driven north- ward to colder regions. Climate change may also be responsible for the weak year classes for cod and herring in recent years. The spawning process for herring is temperature-regulated, however the development of the plankton on which the herring larvae initially feed after they hatch is primarily regulated by daily light levels. Because the herring spawn about two weeks earlier in warmer water than they would have done previously, their offspring often cannot find suitable food in sufficient quantities. Because the complex events surrounding climate change are only now beginning to be under- stood by scientists, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research began a project with baltADAPT (‘Adaptation of the Western Baltic Coastal Fishery to Climate Change’, duration: 01/11/2020-31/10/2023) which, among other things, was intended to clarify how coastal fishing in the western Baltic can be adapted to climate change.

The measures to protect Baltic Sea fish are almost always directed towards fishers, who are called upon to make exceptional sacrifices. These include reductions in quotas as well as fishing closure periods during the spawning sea- son for cod in the eastern Baltic, and to a certain extent the requirement to bring the entire catch to shore for all species subject to quotas, which has been in effect in the Baltic since as early as 2017 and robs undersized fish that are still capable of living of any chance of survival. Other influencing factors which have just as much significance for fish stocks are, on the other hand, hardly considered. The Finnish coastal fisheries action groups wrote a letter to the EU Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius in 2019, in which they noted the huge damage done to Baltic Sea fish by grey seals, harbour seals and cormorants. The harbour seal population in the eastern Baltic region was esti- mated to be between 47,650 and 63,535 animals the last time it was measured in 2018, i.e. five times more than the LRL (Limit Reference Level) target determined as sustainable by HELCOM. The let- ter states that it is urgently necessary to reduce the population of harbour seals and cormorants to a reasonable level. It has been demonstrated once again that politics is quick to formulate sustainability targets to protect popular species, but finds it very difficult to row back on these measures if the tar- gets have been reached.

Many fishers find it particularly frustrating that they are being made responsible for developments that are obviously beyond their influence and that would probably only marginally be improved even by a complete ban on fishing. A major reason for the almost ruinous reductions in quotas, in the meantime, that are putting many fishing businesses, jobs, tourism and traditions acutely at risk, may well be the fact that fishing is the only factor that can be even halfway effectively and comprehensively controlled. However, whether the measures will stop the alarm- ing dynamic of shrinking Baltic fish stocks remains uncertain. To this extent, it is also unclear whether the financial compensatory payments that many fishers are receiving for the massive cuts in their catch quotas for cod and herring will in fact open up an economic future again for these businesses at the end of this ‘dry period’. If the hypotheses of a permanent regime shift in fish stocks in the Baltic Sea is to be confirmed, consequent structural change to fishing would surely be inevitable. A development that must be supported by payment of scrapping incentives for cutters in order to make it socially tolerable for fishers to exit the industry and adjust catch capacities in a targeted way to the reduced fish stocks.