The science of sustainable seafood, explained

We spoke to an EU fisheries insider about North Sea Cod losing its MSC certification

In August 2019, Harriet Sherwood of The Guardian reported on an ICES report about recent declines in North Sea cod populations in an article titled, “Where did all the cod go? Fishing crisis in the North Sea”. It cited a 31% drop in North cod stocks since 2015, as well as a looming decision from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to keep North Sea cod certified. The MSC eventually decided to revoke that certification.

Sherwood interviewed a few wholesalers that expressed a range of reactions to the ICES findings, from genuine worry to an opinion that North Sea Cod stocks were, “well managed, all stocks go up and down. It’s a concern, but we’ve been here before.”

The ICES report reflected this up-and-down history for Northern Cod. From the 1970’s to the mid 2000’s, cod populations in the North Sea, and the survival rate of North Sea cod to age five, both declined consistently. Around 2006 though, both indicators rose, especially the survival rate of juvenile cod, peaking in 2016-2017.  “A ‘cod recovery plan’ sought to restore stocks to sustainable levels by limiting fishing days, decommissioning boats, banning catches in nursery areas, and putting larger holes in nets to allow young cod to escape.” The recovery plan Sherwood referenced was officially established in 2004 and its effects can be seen in the ICES report (Figure 1). Total catch of North Sea cod has remained low since 2004, while fishing pressure declined until recently, and spawning stock biomass (SSB) increased until recently. Recruitment remained low since before 2004, which made the increase in SSB over the last 15 years more impressive. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) awarded North Sea cod with a sustainable certification in 2017.

ICES report figure 1

However, starting in 2016, survival rates of fish to age 5 declined and Figure 1 showed harvest rates increased. From the ICES report: “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.”

The 2019 Science, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) report failed to show a specific turning point in the last three years where North Sea cod recovery might have stumbled.  A confidential source close to EU fisheries policy discussions believed the STECF report depicted an, “overall positive (though slow) trend towards stock recovery.”

Independent auditors were commissioned to review the ICES report, and all the most recent available data on North Sea cod, to determine if MSC certification could be sustained or if North Sea cod required a re-labelling in the marketplace. The decision was made to suspend the certification. “Sustainably caught North Sea cod could disappear from UK supermarket shelves,” as a result of this label suspension, reported Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian.

This may create a political conflict because, while the UK consumes a considerable amount of Atlantic cod – 115,000 tons annually – only about 13% of that total is harvested in the North Sea. Those North Sea landings are from UK vessels, while the rest is imported from Icelandic and Norwegian fleets fishing where stocks are much larger. MSC labelling will soon exclude North Sea cod, but will maintain its certification of other European cod stocks. The embattled UK cod fleet will now be far less competitive in the marketplace.

Some Brexiteers argued that faulty EU fishing regulations were to blame for the North Sea cod decline in the first place, and if the UK had separated from the EU earlier, this wouldn’t have happened.

Our EU source speculated that the, “implementation of the landing obligation represents a risk.” The EU fisheries landing obligation policy, also known as the discard ban, aims to reduce the amount of bycatch and undersized fish that are thrown overboard by EU fishing vessels in order to save room for target species of the preferable market size. But if unwanted fish continue to be discarded, then the relatively low catch rates for North Sea cod in recent years might be inaccurate, masking a higher fishing mortality rate. “I have seen how the idea of higher TACs to ‘compensate’ for the difficulties of the landing obligation has repeatedly been proposed by certain players. Whether this risk will materialize in the near future, I don’t know; we can only speculate at this stage,” said the EU fisheries policy source.

The Guardian primarily blamed the damaged status of North Sea cod stocks on fisheries management failures. Samuel Stone of the Marine Conservation Society was quoted: “This is a fishery that was on the road to recovery, but failures to reduce fishing pressure have led to serious overfishing and a reversal of fortunes for cod.” After the MSC label was suspended, Chris Thorne, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “The MSC withdrawing North Sea cod’s sustainability certificate reflects what we already knew: our cod, like our oceans, are in crisis. Industrial over-fishing has driven stocks of cod in the North Sea to the point of collapse again, but despite this, governments continue to ignore the science and allow overfishing to continue.”

Robin Cook, senior research fellow at the University of Strathclyde, posted on The Conversation that he never felt North Sea Cod should have received an MSC certification in the first place. But he made a point to defend the fishing industry; “When fish stocks decline it is commonplace to blame the fishing industry for greedily over-exploiting stocks or for managers to be criticized for not heeding scientific advice.” Cook remarked that the most recent ICES report revealed the SSB never rose above the minimum stock size as was previously thought, and the removal rate was too high. A more precautionary interpretation of the data in 2017 might have led to a different situation today. “Science got it wrong” concluded Cook.

But perhaps warming oceans are more directly correlated to the recent decline than anything else. “We also know that cod is a cold water species likely to suffer as a result of ocean warming resulting in fewer young fish being spawned,” explained Cook. Figure 1 from the ICES report shows consistently low recruitment for North Sea cod over the last twenty years, even at the peak of its recovery in 2016. We covered the status of Atlantic cod stocks in a two-part series and found cod stocks in the southern ranges to be struggling compared to those farther north. The North Sea was defined as “low but rebuilding” in our assessment.

The ICES report on North Sea cod concluded, “There has been a subsequent decrease in all areas, and it is unclear what the reasons are for this; further work is required to investigate climate change, biological, and fisheries effects.”

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 9 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to connect chefs with US fishermen to create more value for both ends of the supply chain. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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