Northern European Cod Collapse Predicted

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, October 28, 2002 (ENS) - Scandinavians who once depended on abundant codfish as a staple food, will have to eat something else, and lovers of fish and chips will not find cod in the deep fry. Cod populations from the waters off western Norway to the Atlantic shores of Scotland are now so depleted that "all fisheries in this area that target cod should be closed," scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) warned Friday in their latest six month report.

The chance of "a collapse must be seriously considered," scientists from the council have advised the European Commission and the European Union national governments.

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Juvenile codfish caught in a gill net (Photo courtesy U.S. National Undersea Research Program)
The council's Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management releases two reports per year reviewing in total 135 fish and shellfish stocks. For the past 17 years, the amount of cod reproducing themselves in this area is calculated to have been below the biomass precautionary approach reference point.

Fisheries closures may give the cod in the North Sea, Skagerrak, the Irish Sea and waters west of Scotland a chance to recover from overfishing by large pelagic trawls that have brought numbers to their lowest ever recorded levels, the council says.

But even these closures might not be enough to save the cod fishery. The ICES report admits that current cod populations are "so far below historic sizes that both the biological dynamics of the stock and the operations of the fisheries are unknown."

Cod stocks in the Irish Sea remain "outside of safe biological limits," the report says, and the authors do not consider historic experience and data "reliable for medium term forecasts" of fish population dynamics under various rebuilding scenarios.

Last year, ICES warned that the "spawning stock biomass" of cod in the North Sea was at a new historic low, saying that the "risk of stock collapse is high."

As part of an emergency recovery plan, a large part of the North Sea was closed for cod fishing for 10 weeks in February, March and April 2001 to protect juvenile cod. The total allowable catch was was set at about half of the 2000 quota, and technical measures were put in place. Still, the North Sea cod have not recovered.

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Codfish drying in Lofotens, Norway
(Photo courtesy NAArc)
Cod are also caught as a by-catch in mixed fisheries, such as haddock, whiting, flatfish, shrimp and prawn fisheries.

The situation is so serious that ICES is recommending these fisheries as well as the cod fishery itself should be closed unless they can demonstrate that they are not causing a cod by-catch.

In fisheries where cod comprises solely an incidental catch, there should be stringent restrictions on the catch and discard rates of cod, the council said, and called for effective monitoring of compliance with those restrictions.

The advice of ICES' Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management forms the main scientific input to European Union ministers' annual round of bargaining over total allowable catches and national quotas, which this year threaten to be even more acrimonious than usual.

Stocks of several other commercially caught fish species, such as hake, whiting, eel and plaice, are also close to or outside safe biological limits in some sea areas, the ICES report concludes.

The council blames a method of catching fish using large pelagic, deep sea, trawls that capture all marine life in their path for the sharp decline in cod.

The pelagic fishery targets cod during the summer now, opening a whole new season. The smaller trawling vessels that once dominated the cod fishery targeted spawning cod in spring and juvenile cod in autumn and winter.

Europeans need only look across the North Atlantic to see what could be in store for their cod fishery. In 1992, the collapse of the cod stocks off the east coast of Newfoundland forced the Canadian government to close the fishery. Over 40,000 people lost their jobs.

Once the most productive cod fishing area in the northwest Atlantic, the cod fishery off southern Labrador and to the east of Newfoundland yielded an estimated annual catch of 250,000 tons for more than 100 years before the mid-1950s. From 1956, the small fishing vessels that had caught most of the cod were supplanted by large factory fishing vessels.

From then until the late 1970s, factory trawlers from Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, Poland, the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Asia had legally fished to within 12 miles of the eastern Canadian seaboard and along the U.S. coast of New England.

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Mates filet Atlantic Cod after a fishing trip to Georges Bank. (Photo by Guliz Irtez-Gillis courtesy NOAA)
Concerned that the cod were being decimated, Canada and the United States passed legislation in 1976 to extend their national jurisdictions over marine living resources out to 200 nautical miles. The foreign factory trawlers were relegated to the high seas.

But Canada's Atlantic offshore fishing fleet took over, and by the mid-1980s, the Canadians were landing more than 250,000 tons of northern cod annually. In 1992, the commercial limit of the Newfoundland cod was reached, and Canada ordered the fishery closed.

The current state of the cod, and the failure of past measures to bring fishing mortality down to rates that allow rebuilding, mean that more stringent action is required for the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the waters off Scotland, and the waters of the Skagerrak separating Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

ICES scientists caution that any new management action taken to reduce fishing mortality on adult cod in this area should not be offset by an increase in the take of juvenile cod.

{ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London online at: http://www.ends.co.uk }