Press release

North Sea cod to lose sustainability certification

September 24, 2019

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificates for North Sea cod fisheries will be suspended after stocks dropped below the safe biological level.  The suspension affects all MSC certified fisheries targeting the North Sea cod stock.

The latest scientific advice changes the perception of the North Sea cod stock – previously thought to be in good health. The causes of the decline are unclear, however scientists suggest it may be a result of factors, such as warming waters – driven by climate change – and fewer young cod surviving into adulthood for the last two years running. This decline has occurred despite industry initiatives to actively avoid catching juvenile fish; critical in the reproduction cycle and overall health of the stock. They have done this primarily through improving fishing selectivity and avoiding spawning grounds, features that were instrumental in the fishery attaining MSC certification.

Erin Priddle, UK and Ireland Programme Director for the Marine Stewardship Council explains: “The decline in the North Sea cod stock is a worrying development, with the latest stock models suggesting that the fishery has not recovered as well as previously thought. 

“The MSC programme was established to recognise and reward sustainable fisheries and is designed to identify when certified fisheries are not performing as they should against our Standard. The independent auditors have now examined the latest advice and concluded that this drop in the stock – below the safe biological level – coupled with a recommended sharp cut to quotas and management shortfalls means that the North Sea cod fishery no longer meets the MSC Standard.

“While this news is devastating for industry, it is a testament to the MSC Standard working as it should: to pick up on threats to stock sustainability, as is the case with North Sea cod. It is imperative that industry works collaboratively with fishery managers, NGOs and the wider seafood supply chain to introduce effective measures that will see this fishery once again achieve certification. Now, more than ever, we need coordination and cooperation for the sustainability of our oceans and the marine life within.” 

Strong industry response

The Scottish fishing industry has committed to a five-year project, known as a Fishery Improvement Project, to return the stock to health. 

Mike Park, Chairman of the SFSAG, explains: “The industry are concerned that notwithstanding their best efforts to continue to rebuild North Sea cod some developments are taking place that seem beyond their control.  That said, they are committed to introducing balanced and proportionate measures in an attempt to reverse the decline.  We will be liaising closely with managers to ensure that these measures apply to all vessels operating within the mixed demersal fishery.”

North Sea cod: a history of highs and lows

Today’s announcement is the latest news in a mixed history for the North Sea cod fishery. 

Cod stocks in the North Sea peaked at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s, when this iconic fish was widely sold and enjoyed. However, the stock fell to just 44,000 tonnes in 2006. 
The industry worked closely with the Scottish and UK Governments to implement a suite of measures – known as the ‘Cod Recovery Plan’ – designed to help nurse the stock back to health.

The plan linked conservation measures to the number of days fishing that boats were given. The plan aimed to reduce cod catches by 25 per cent in 2009, followed by subsequent annual reductions of 10 per cent. In response, the Scottish industry closed large spawning areas to fishing, trialled new nets and a system of remote electronic monitoring using CCTV cameras on board boats.

In 2017, the fishery was MSC certified with the stock reaching 152,207 tonnes, the highest since 1982. Moreover, stocks were forecast to hit 180,990 in 2018, the highest since 1975. 

Unfortunately, the 2018 ICES advice included a far smaller stock estimate, a trend that has continued with the latest advice showing a stock of only 81,224 tonnes, below the safe biological level for the stock, putting it in increased danger of collapse.  This, combined with management shortfalls, including quotas for 2019 set above scientific advice and the lack of a management plan for 2020, resulted in the certificates’ suspension. The fishing industry will now work collectively to recover the stock over the next five years.

Impact of a Changing Climate

Later on Wednesday 25th September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish a landmark report on climate change and our oceans. The report will add to the mounting evidence of the profound impact that climate change is having on the distribution and health of fish stocks. To adapt to climate change, progress towards sustainable fisheries management is now more urgent than ever before.

Priddle explains: “The seas are a dynamic and ever-changing ecosystem. However, changes in the marine environment are accelerating under climate-related impacts and will continue to present significant challenges for achieving sustainable fisheries unless we can find ways to adapt management and fishing practices to ensure fishing can be carried out sustainably.

“Going forward, it will be critical to deepen our understanding of warming seas on fisheries, as well as improving the science and monitoring needed to ensure the future sustainability of fisheries across the globe. For North Sea cod, we look forward to seeing improvements in science and monitoring, and working with the fishing sector as they develop their plans to restore this ecologically and culturally valuable stock.” 

The fisheries affected by this suspension are:

The suspension will become effective as of 24 October 2019. Cod caught by these fisheries caught after this date will not be eligible to be sold with the blue MSC label.

 For media queries, please contact your nearest MSC representative
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