Populations gone to pot
Despite being heavily fished for centuries, in 1970 cod stocks were still large enough to be sustainable. But over the past 30 years global cod catches have decreased by over 70%, with catches by the current EU countries now at just 10% of the 1970 level.
Canadian cod stocks in the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland were the first to collapse from overfishing, in 1992. The Canadian government closed the fishery, but even so, the stocks have not yet recovered. Several European stocks could soon follow suit.
Given no chance to survive
Atlantic cod can live to 25, with females producing millions of eggs each year. But these days, 72% of two-year-old cod in the North Sea do not live until sexual maturity, mainly as a result of fishing.
Vast numbers of juveniles are caught in various fisheries, including those for cod, haddock, whiting, Norway lobster, Northern shrimp, plaice, and sole - and then discarded, often dead, back to the ocean.
In the North Sea, a whopping 51% of cod caught in such fisheries are discarded as they are undersized. The species is now classified as Vulnerable - and if stocks continue to decline at the current rate, there will be no more Atlantic cod in less than 15 years.
The first warnings about falling cod numbers in European waters came in the 1990s. In 2000, it was confirmed that cod stocks in the North Sea and to the west of Scotland were on the verge of collapse, and those in the Skagerrak and the eastern English Channel were in bad shape.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) — the body responsible for providing advice on cod stocks to European governments — stated that fishing mortality for cod had been underestimated, and stock size over-estimated. Accordingly, in 2002 ICES recommended the total closure of several key cod fisheries in Europe (Skagerrak, Kattegat, North Sea, Baltic Sea, Greenland cod) as well as a rebuilding plan to increase stock sizes.
ICES has continued to recommend no fishing or reduced cod catches each year since then. But EU Fisheries Ministers have consistently ignored this advice and allowed fishing to continue — even on stocks for which ICES has recommended zero catch. Contrary to ICES advice, the EU has also increased quotas for other fisheries with a high bycatch of juvenile cod, such as Norway lobster. A recovery plan was finally introduced for North Sea cod in 2004, but scientists and environmentalists fear it is too little, too late.
Illegally caught cod
Overfishing for cod is not just due to quotas being too high — it’s also due to illegal, over-quota catches. This is a considerable problem in several European cod fisheries, including the Baltic Seaxi, Barents Sea, and Celtic Sea.
Unreported catches of the Northeast Arctic cod stock in the Barents Sea, for example, are estimated at 90,000–115,000 tonnes per year, or 20% of total catches. Most of these illegal catches come from Russian trawlers, whose catches are thought to be 50% higher than the legal quota. This illegally caught cod is landed in countries such as UK, The Netherlands, and Germany, and ends up for sale in European markets.
Footing the bill
Declining cod catches due to overfishing represent a huge loss of revenue.
The Baltic Sea cod fishery lost €160 million in 2002 alone due to a low quota of 76,000 tonnes, instead of 165,000 tonnes which would have been possible if sustainable quotas had been in force since 1977.
Similarly, the North Sea cod fishery lost €243 million in 2002. Illegal cod fishing in the Barents Sea is estimated to cost Russian and Norwegian fishermen at least €250 million each year. And if Canada’s cod fishery had not collapsed in 1992 but rather had been fished sustainably, it could be earning in the order of €700 million per yearxviii.
Collapsed fisheries also bear an enormous cost to society.
Some 30,000 people, including 10,000 fishermen, lost their jobs overnight when Canada’s cod fishery collapsed. The country’s total federal government assistance to fisheries increased 5-fold from the mid-1980s to around €500 million in the mid-1990s, largely due to this collapse.