Cod Complexities. Sustainable Cod Fishing in the Baltic is Possible – Just When?

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At the old stream everyone is interested in fish. On the embankment tourists queue up in front of the fish market’s takeaways for a fish roll, a cut of smoked fish and other fishy snacks; down on the river, flocks of seagulls noisily struggle over the discarded scraps. Countless fish restaurants, chairs and tables out on the terraces, face the dark blue water of the old stream that just a couple of hundred meters further down, will end its journey and join the Baltic Sea. Now in July the season is at its peak – the place is jampacked with fish hungry tourists.

The old stream is the main artery of Warnemünde – an old fishing town and one of the most frequented Baltic Sea resorts in Germany. Located at the mouth of the river Warnow, Warnemünde was incorporated to the city of Rostock in the 14th century; the old stream runs just to the side of the massive sea-channel, which forms the entrance and exit gate to Rostock’s harbour. At regular intervals huge white passenger ferries outgrow the tiny rooftops of old Warnemünde, looking like moving skyscrapers sliding out to the sea.

Top One on the menu: the beloved Cod

In the shade of these white giants, the small fishing boats lined along both sides of the pier seem even more picturesque. Like an apt assurance that the fish sold here is a fresh catch from the nearby sea, they seem to suggest is there a better place to enjoy your fish than here? And people eat. More than any other fish Ostseedorsch (Baltic cod) is favoured on Warnemünde’s menus. Some of the restaurants, with a focus on regional specialities, offer up to ten different cod dishes. Warnemünder’s like their cod so much that each autumn they dedicate an entire festival (the Dorschwoche cod week) to their beloved fish.

However, it’s not exactly hot news that, according to environmental organisations like Greenpeace and WWF, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) should be off the menu. Particularly, the fish of the Baltic stocks. The two cod stocks that can be found here (there is a western and an eastern stock with the island of Bornholm roughly marking the dividing line) are said to suffer from massive over-fishing.

The Decline of the Cod

Even though Warnemünde’s menus seem to suggest the opposite, the fact is that cod catches in the Baltic have been dropping dramatically over the last two decades. In 1973, the annual catch was at 189,000 tonnes. In 1984, the year with the highest catch on record, an unprecedented 442,000 tonnes were landed. In 2006, some 20 years later, the reported annual catch was a mere 71,000 tonnes. It’s not only environmental activists who ask for a reduction in fishing. Last year the renowned International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) – an international organisation of marine scientists – advised the EU to stall cod fishing in the eastern Baltic so the population could recover quickly.

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Strolling along Warnemünde’s Mittelmole it seems a bit strange, however, to assume that Warnemünde’s fishermen and their small vessels should be contributing to the problem. Down the pier a group of fishermen is idly sitting in the hot midday sun in front of one of their boats.
“Do you sell fresh cod?”
A sporty, well tanned man with moustache and silver hair answers for the rest of them.
“Hardly any cod at the moment. He (pointing at one of the men), he got four this morning.”
“So, why is it so bad?”
“Well, it’s the weather. If the weather changes, catches could be already better by tomorrow. You never know. Come here round 8 a.m. tomorrow and you’ll see what we got.”

At one of the takeaways, there is the same answer. “Cod? Cod is really bad at the moment,” informs the fishmonger. “It’s not the season. Now they get some eels, but mostly small plaice. Lots of those plaice you have to discard. They’re too small. In September it should be better again. Some of the fishermen don’t even go out right now. Diesel is too expensive. Doesn’t make sense.”

Small vessels, small catch

The vessels the Warnemünde fishermen operate are mostly smaller than 12 meters; they count among the roughly 800 vessels that constitute Mecklenburg’s fleet of small coastal fishery. The Warnemünders practice what is called “passive fishing” using gillnets and fish traps which they position 3-4 sea miles off the shore. The price of diesel limits the range of their activities. If fish are further out to sea, they are out of range. A problem unknown to the four giant industrial freezer trawlers, on average 110 meters in length, whose home port is Rostock; these trawlers have no range limitation – they belong to the fleet of the Dutch company Parlevliet & van der Plas B.V. that roams the oceans of the world. In 2007, the cod quota for Mecklenburg’s small coast and offshore fishery was set at 2623 tonnes one of those giants could easily fish that quota alone, probably in one go.

The truth is that, despite a contrary impression, not many fishermen are left in Warnemünde. Dieter Zimmermann is one of the survivors, a tall, self-confident man in his late forties and obviously proud that he made it. “Have a look,” he says and starts counting the vessels lined along the pier. “The five ships over there are not used for commercial fishing any more; they offer harbour roundtrips and go out with recreational fishermen. That makes …Five … Six … Seven.”

Fishing Cod the recreational way

Zimmermann himself stopped fishing for wild fish; he has established an aquaculture, raising rainbow trout offshore. And, together with his partner, he runs the cutter Jasmund, a vessel for recreational cod fishing. After 1989, when the Fischereiproduktionsgenossenschaft FPG was dissolved, and the Warnemünde fishermen suddenly became self-employed businessmen, this was one of the options – to organise cod fishing tours for recreational fishermen on the former FPG vessels. The former fishermen locate the fish via echosounders and GPS to ensure that the recreational fishermen have a good catch.

Curiously, these sports-fishermen are facing no restrictions, such as individual catch limits – in contrast to the professional fishermen whose catch is strictly regulated by EU quotas. And even if the cod fishing isn’t what it used to be, Zimmermann gives assurances that the recreational fishermen on his vessel do catch their cod. More cod than the remaining professionals, he adds with a sly smile.

How to fill the Cod menus

So, where then does all the cod on the Warnemünde menus come from, in an out of season month like July, with just a few fishermen left? Zimmermann gives assurances that the Warnemünde fishermen are not the ones that deliver to the resort’s eateries; maybe here and there they sell a couple of fish but that’s it. The overwhelming mass of Warnemünde’s fish comes from around ten Rostock based fish delivery companies. One of those grand distributors is F&F Fisch und Feinkost GmbH. F&F reports that the company delivers about 60,000 kilograms of fish annually to Warnemünde, to about 50 different restaurants, takeaways and hotels. Their cod is not solely of Baltic origin. They buy from the big freezer trawlers that fish in the North Sea and the Barents Sea.

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If one wants to learn more about the situation of the cod in the Baltic (and, by implication, about the impact humankind can have on the eco-system sea), once again a Mr Zimmermann is a good contact. Christopher Zimmermann is deputy director of the Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries (OSF) in Rostock; an expert scholar on cod and herring, Zimmermann is probably more talkative than all the Warnemünde fishermen together. His welcoming and friendly way pleasantly contrasts with the rather reserved manner of his namesake and the other Warnemünde fishermen (who somehow never seemed to lose their slight suspicion of the stranger from Berlin).

“In the Baltic Sea we have very special conditions”, explains Zimmermann. “This is why the cod stocks have to be managed very carefully,  if we want to ensure a sustainable harvest.”  And, as if sensing that all the bad news on over-fishing and the depletion of the world’s fish stocks may make such a claim sound outrageous, he repeats, “Yes, we can harvest cod in a sustainable manner.”

Trouble Makers: Commercial fishing and marine polution

This is exactly the purpose of the OSF – to study the preconditions for sustainable fishing management in the Baltic. The institute resides in a modern four-story steel skeleton construction in Rostock’s Fischereihafen, about five kilometres up the Warnow from the old stream. The location couldn’t be more suitable. From the windows one enjoys a splendid view of the river – and of the nearby cold storages of F&F and Venfisk, another one of Rostock’s fish delivery companies.

The special conditions of the Baltic, Zimmermann goes to explain, are the key to understanding the situation of the cod living there. Unlike in the North Sea, for instance, where commercial fishing is almost solely responsible for the poor state of the cod, the influence of fishing on the Baltic cod populations can be said to be maybe fifty percent. The other half can be attributed to environmental factors, which presently are negatively influenced by human activity other than commercial fishing.

Salinity: the loss of the comfortable zone

The most crucial adaptation of Baltic fish, is its ability to cope with the Baltic’s low salinity. However, explains Zimmermann, to ensure successful reproduction, a minimum level of salinity is required. Cod do spawn in open water – but if salinity in the spawning areas drops below a certain point, their eggs lose the ability to free-float, they suck in water, sink to the bottom and explode. This is why the Baltic cod has chosen a few deep basins (such as the Gotland and the Bornholm deeps) of the otherwise shallow sea, as its spawning grounds.In those deep basins the salinity is the highest. Since salt water is heavier than fresh water, the saline inflows from the North Sea are trapped there.

These exact spawning grounds are threatened by a massive intake of nutrients. Fertilizer used in agriculture is washed to the Baltic via the rivers. The result is oxygen depletion, a process also observed and well known in freshwater systems. If phytoplankton dies, it sinks to the ground where it is decomposed by bacteria – a process in which dissolved oxygen is reduced. In the deep basins of the Baltic, oxygen-depletion has led to the loss of potentially successful spawning areas for the cod and the eggs suffocate. According to Zimmermann, in some places cod find only one meter, within an 84 meter water column, in which the conditions (oxygen level and salinity) allow for egg survival.

Shift of eco-system: the predator becomes the hunted

With a limited space for successful reproduction, it is no wonder that the cod stocks are facing difficulties. A point often overlooked in the debate on over-fishing and the reduction of the Baltic cod stocks.

Commercial fishing can add unwanted additional pressures. Fishing doesn’t simply reduce the size of a stock by directly taking away some of the fish. It can also lead to changes in the structure of the affected eco-system. Zimmermann gives an example – with the drop of the cod population, the stock of sprat explodes. As their main predator becomes less and less, sprats thrive. What is good for the sprat, however, is in turn bad for the cod. Since sprats feed on cod eggs and larvae, the increased number of sprats is capable of further reducing an already ailing cod population. In this scenario the prey regulates the population size of the predator. This ecological turning of the tables has economic consequences. “For the Baltic fishing industry, sprat is not half as valuable as cod. From a strictly economical point of view the present status quo doesn’t make sense. A healthy cod population would be far more profitable.”

Theoretically the Baltic stocks are quite productive, says Zimmermann. If managed in a sustainable way, cod stocks could recover; an intelligently managed fishery could even increase the productivity of the stocks. Fish and fishermen would profit alike.

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Why then is an intelligent management of the Baltic cod stocks such a problem?
This is a question to which one can find many smart, but no satisfactory answers. Let’s not go into the details of collective decision-making problems and the “tragedy of the commons. ”The fact is, the EU has all the information needed for intelligent action – probably no other maritime eco-system is as comprehensively researched as the Baltic Sea. And, at least in theory, everything could be so easy: reduce the nutrient inflow, set aside some marine reserves, reduce the quotas for a while and effectively control the fishermen.’

Import: Does it matter where the Cod comes from?

For the moment there are other paradoxes. If a cod on a Warnemünde dinner plate comes from the Barents Sea this may be odd – still, for a conscious consumer this may even feel like a better choice. The Barents Sea population is again classified as healthy. Transport and delivery of course are much more energy consuming – and this may add limits to the “eco-balance” of a Barents Sea cod. Especially, since large amounts of those cod are first transported to China; there they are defrosted, filleted, and refrosted before they finally find there way to German markets. However, aren’t we already used to the idea that our food has travelled a long distance? In fact, all this is not stranger than buying an apple in the nearby supermarket that was shipped over from New Zealand.

Illustration by Hanna Zeckau, Berlin

 

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