Photo: Wolf Wichmann
What is the status?
0 out of 8

internationally assessed fish stocks are in good status with respect to both biomass and fishing mortality. 14 stocks currently lack evaluation.


grey seals were caught as incidental bycatch in trap nets and gill nets in Sweden, Finland and Estonia in 2012.

> 0

birds are caught as incidental bycatch each year in the Baltic Sea.

Fishing and hunting are traditional sources of livelihood in all Baltic Sea countries. Hunting has a minor role today, but fishing is still an important source of food and income. Stock assessments show that three out of eight internationally assessed fish stocks achieve good status with respect to both biomass and fishing mortality rates. However, fourteen stocks are not yet evaluated. Recreational fishing may contribute considerably to the total mortality, especially in coastal areas, but estimates on its magnitude are uncertain. A current challenge being met by the fishing sector is to ensure resource utilization in line with the ecosystem approach.

Commercially exploited fish

The Baltic Sea fisheries targets both marine and freshwater species, but the most important species for the commercial fisheries are marine. Cod, herring and sprat represent about 95% of the total catch in biomass terms. The catches are used for human consumption or industrial use as oil, fish meal or animal fodder, depending on the market conditions.

Other important commercial species are plaice, flounder, dab, brill, turbot, along with the migratory species salmon, and sea trout. Common commercial species with freshwater origin include pike, perch, pikeperch, vendace, and whitefish. The Baltic Sea fisheries also catch eel, classified as a widely distributed species with a population that extend over several marine regions but which has declined considerably (see also Box 5.3.1 in Chapter 3 Fish). Recreational fishing mainly targets the same stocks as commercial fisheries.

The overall objective of the Baltic Sea fisheries is to ensure economically, environmentally and socially sustainable use of fisheries resources in alignment with the ecosystem approach. Long term management plans for the internationally managed fish stocks aim to ensure that these are capable of producing a maximum sustainable yield (MSY), as mainly being regulated by the exploitation rate (EC 2016). Advice based on analytical assessment are provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Results are reported here with respect to fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass in relation to the reference points for maximum sustainable yield, including data as available by ICES (2016a).

For stocks where sufficient data for analytical assessment are lacking, ICES provides fisheries advice based on trends in biomass and fishing pressure with no defined targets, applying the precautionary approach. The relative impact of fishing on biomass trends is not possible to evaluate in these cases, since the biomass is also influenced by factors other than fishing. ICES is currently introducing reference points for such data-limited stocks, which will make it possible to evaluate the status in relation to management targets for more species and stocks in the future.

Commercial species in coastal and transitional waters are assessed nationally and are not covered here.

Assessment result

The currently presented assessment result is based on the average results for the years 2011 to 2015, based on data from ICES (2016b).

For each stock, the level of fishing mortality was assessed by comparison with the reference value ‘FMSY’, which is the level of fishing mortality estimated to deliver a long term maximum sustainable yield. The spawning stock biomass was assessed in relation to the associated reference value ‘MSY B-trigger’. Reference values from 2015 were used (ICES 2016a). The results were evaluated against the condition that the average assessment ratios for all included years should achieve a threshold value of 1 for both fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass.

Three of the eight assessed stocks had too high a fishing mortality on average during 2011–2015, whereas five stocks were fished at a level consistent with maximum sustainable yield. Spawning stock biomass was below the biomass reference point for three of the eight assessed stocks, indicating not good status.

Fourteen of the internationally managed stocks currently lack reference points and could therefore not be assessed. (Figure 4.6.1). Furthermore, there is no assessment available for the age and size distribution.

Figure 4.6.1. Number of Baltic Sea internationally managed fish stocks in good and not good status, by species groups.

Figure 4.6.1. Number of Baltic Sea internationally managed fish stocks in good and not good status, by species groups. Currently non-assessed stocks are given in white. Left: Fishing mortality, Right: Spawning stock biomass.

Table 4.6.1. Internationally managed fish stocks in the Baltic Sea. Status during 2011–2015 is shown based on fishing mortality (F) and spawning stock biomass (SSB) assessed in relation to the reference points for FMSY and the MSY B-trigger, respectively. Cases where the indicator does not achieve good status are shown by red cells. Green cells denote that the average value of the indicator during 2011–2015 achieves the 2015 reference point. White cells denote cases were no assessment is available. Total status is assessed based on the condition that both indicators should be in good status. Source: ICES (2016a).

Name Scientific name Assessment area (ICES Sub-division) F SSB Total
Brill Scophthalmus rhombus North Sea, Skagerrak and Kattegat, English Channel (4, 3a, 7d,e)
Cod Gadus morhua Western Baltic Sea (22–24)
Eastern Baltic Sea (25–32)
Flounder Platichtys flesus Belt Sea and Sound (22–23)
West of Bornholm, S Central Baltic (24–25)
East of Gotland, Gulf of Gdansk (26, 28)
N Central and Northern Baltic Sea (27, 29–32)
Dab Limanda limanda Baltic Sea (22–32)
Plaice Pleuronectes platessa Kattegat, Belt Sea, Sound (21–23)
Baltic Sea excl. Sound and Belt Sea (24–32)
Sole Solea solea Skagerrak and Kattegat, W Baltic Sea (3a, 22–24)
Turbot Scophthalmus maximus Baltic Sea (22-32)
Herring) Clupea harengus Central Baltic Sea, excl. Gulf of Riga (25–29, 32)
Gulf of Riga (28.1)
Bothnian Sea (30)
Bothnian Bay (31)
Spring spawners, Skagerrak, Kattegat, W Baltic (20-24)
Sprat Sprattus sprattus Baltic Sea (22-32)
Salmon) Salmo salar Baltic Sea, excluding Gulf of Finland (22-31)
Gulf of Finland (31)
Sea trout Salmo trutta Baltic Sea (22-32)
Eel Anguilla anguilla Throughout its natural range

Among the most widely distributed pelagic stocks, the fishing mortality of sprat during 2011–2015 was above the long term average, whereas that of herring in the central Baltic Sea was slightly below the long term average (Figure 4.6.2). The fishing mortality of Western Baltic cod was also lower than the long term average, but still high above the reference point[23].

In addition to commercial fishing, substantial removals by recreational fisheries are documented for Western Baltic cod and salmon, and these catches are included in the assessment.

Figure 4.6.2. Temporal development of fishing mortality relative to FMSY in the pelagic fish stocks herring in the central Baltic Sea, the sprat stock, and the Western Baltic cod stock.

Figure 4.6.2. Temporal development of fishing mortality relative to FMSY in the pelagic fish stocks herring in the central Baltic Sea, the sprat stock, and the Western Baltic cod stock. F/FMSY was calculated based on the 2015 assessment data (ICES 2016a). ‘Herring Baltic Sea’ is the stock of ICES subdivisions 25–29 and 32, ‘Sprat’ covers ICES subdivisions 22–32, and Western Baltic cod covers ICES subdivisions 22–24.

Box 4.6.1. Methods used in the commercial fishery

Cod is mainly fished by demersal trawls reaching the seabed. It is also fished with gillnets, often with a by- catch of flatfish, which is also utilised. Pelagic commercial species are almost exclusively sprat and herring, and are mainly fished by pelagic trawls, in the water column.

Impacts and recovery from fishing

Impacts of overfishing include depleted fish stocks and reduced biomass. Since fisheries are typically focused on specific species and larger fish, they may also cause structural changes to populations and the food web. Such changes in overall species composition, and a decreased size and age structure of populations, have been seen both in the Baltic and adjacent areas (Cardinale et al. 2009, Eero et al. 2008; Svedäng and Hornborg 2014, see also Chapter 5.3 Fish). Overfishing, and the associated changes at population and ecosystem level, affect long term fishing opportunities and food provision, since the changes in population or food web structure make the depleted stocks less productive and more vulnerable to environmental pressures (Berkeley et al. 2004, Stige et al. 2017).

Fisheries activities in Baltic Sea countries are regulated by the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). In 2009, the European community and the Government of the Russian Federation agreed to cooperate over fisheries and conservation of living marine resources in the Baltic Sea. The current revision of the common fisheries policy was adopted in 2013 and aims to promote environmentally, economically and socially sustainable fishing, including measures to end overfishing and reduce fish discards, for example. Currently, multi-annual plans are in place for the main part of the internationally managed fish stocks, and adjustments to fishing gear have taken place to mitigate negative impacts on the ecosystem and fish stocks (EU 2016c).

In addition to the targeted species and size classes of fish, unselective fishing imposes mortality on smaller sized fish and non-target species of fish, but also on mammals and birds (see Box 5.4.2 and Box 5.5.1), which are caught as incidental by-catch. The unwanted catch of fish has been mostly discarded in the past, and has been monitored and included in stock assessments for cod and some flatfishes. Since 2017, there is a discard ban in place for cod, sprat, herring and salmon. In coming years, the effects of these measures are to be evaluated.

Box 5.4.2. Incidental by-catch of mammals in fishing gear

Drowning in fishing gear is believed to be the greatest source of mortality for harbour porpoise populations in the Baltic Sea, and is also a concern for seals (HELCOM 2013g). The risk of incidental by-catch is highest in various types of gillnets but other stationary fishing gear, such as fyke nets and push-up traps also have incidental by-catches (ICES 2013a, Vanhatalo et al. 2014).

Box 5.5.1. Incidental by-catch of waterbirds in fishing gear

Drowning in fishing gear is believed to be a strong pressure on the populations of divers,  grebes, cormorants, alcids, mergansers and ducks, especially in wintering areas with high densities of waterbirds.

Hunting of seals

Seals have been hunted historically for skin, fur, meat and fat, and they were an important source of income for people, particularly in the Northern Baltic Sea. Seals were also considered a nuisance due to their competition with fisheries, and hunting was encouraged. During the 1900s, bounties were even paid for hunting seals. A combination of hunting and environmental factors led to a dramatic decline in seal populations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, seals were protected by all countries in the Baltic Sea region. The number of seals has increased, and today conflicts with human fishing activities have re-emerged in an increasing number of areas. As a result, controlled hunting is allowed for grey seals in Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden, ringed seals in Finland and Sweden, and harbour seals in Denmark and Sweden. The highest permissible annual quota among these countries is around 2 000 grey seals, 230 ringed seals and 235 harbour seals combining information from all countries. The reported hunting is often below the quotas (Table 4.6.2).

Incidental by-catch of seals in fishing gear is an additional source of human induced mortality for seals that is not included here (Box 5.4.2), and the levels of illegal hunting are not known.

The Baltic Sea regional recommendation on management principles for the conservation of seals states that there should be no hunting of seal populations below the safe biological level (the so called limit reference level, see Chapter 5.5 Waterbirds), and that hunting of populations above this level is only allowed if the growth rate is positive. These principles are adhered to in the Baltic Sea region at this time[24].

Table 4.6.2. Numbers of hunted seals per year and the shares of highest permissible annual quota (%) in Finland and Sweden. The data is for 2011–2015 (min–max) for Finland and for 2016 for Sweden. Hunting of grey seals is also allowed in Estonia. In Denmark, licenced fishermen may apply for permission to shoot a limited number of grey seals or harbour seals within close proximity of their fishing gear. Ringed seals are only hunted in Finland and Sweden.

Species Finland Sweden
Grey seal 224–307 (15–20 % of quota) 201 (41% of quota)
Harbour seal 180 (62% of quota)
Ringed seals 87 (87% of quota) 81 (77 % of quota)

Hunting of waterbirds

The legislation for bird hunting is highly variable among countries.

Waterbirds are hunted in some countries, although the timing is regulated, with hunting prohibited during the spring migration and breeding season[25] (EC 2009). For example, in Denmark there is no hunting of waterbirds allowed between 1 February and 31 August.

Southern Baltic Sea countries have a more extensive protection of bird species. For example all sea ducks in Poland are protected, and bird hunting is not permitted within a 3 000 meter strip between the coast and the sea or for 5 000 meters onto land (Polish hunting Law 2004). In effect, ducks (mallard, common teal, common pochard and tufted duck) which can be hunted on inland waters are protected at the coast. A similar legislation is in place in many other countries (Table 4.6.2).

Where hunting is permitted, common game species include common eider, long-tailed duck, common goldeneye, mallard, common teal, Eurasian wigeon and common scoter (Table 4.6.3). The velvet scoter is hunted in Denmark (Asferg 2016) and protected in Sweden. Species hunted only in some countries include goosander, tufted duck, and red-breasted merganser as well as garganey, pintail, shoveler and gadwall. In addition, waterbird populations are hunted elsewhere along their flyways.

In addition to game hunting, the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), which is considered to cause damages to fish stocks and fisheries, is hunted as part of predator control in some countries. Reports show on average 2 100 shot cormorants per year in Denmark (Asferg 2015), 400–800 per year in Finland (Åland) and around 3 500[26] in Sweden (HaBiDeS 2017). Some countries have an eradication programme for cormorants, where eggs are sprayed with a substance to prevent them from hatching. Birds are also decimated by other human induced pressures, such as oil spills and incidental by-catch, with unknown total level.

Among the hunted water bird species, common eider, long tailed duck, mallard, goosander and red- breasted merganser are included in the HELCOM Core Indicators, showing below baseline values during the assessment period. The common goldeneye, tufted duck and cormorant are included in the core indicators showing values higher than the baseline years.

The numbers of long-tailed duck have decreased strongly and the wintering population is categorised as endangered on the HELCOM Red List of Birds (HELCOM 2013b), and the same status applies to common eider, common scoter and velvet scoter.

Table 4.6.3. Reports on hunted water birds in Baltic Sea coastal areas, estimated numbers per year during 2011–2016. Hunting of these species does not occur in in coastal and marine areas of Germany, Lithuania and Poland, but some of the species are hunted at adjacent inland waters. An ‘X’ denotes that the species is hunted, but that the number of hunted birds in the Baltic Sea area is not known.

Species Denmark
Finland Sweden
common eider (Somateria mollissima) 43 000 0 1 000–7 000 2 000
long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) 1 400 7 8 000–19 000 40
common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) 8 400 79 x x
common teal (Anas crecca) 100 500 1771 x x
mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 483 500 3783 x x
common scoter (Melanitta nigra) 7 100 1 x 90
velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) 2 700 0 x 0
goosander (Mergus merganser) 0 0 x x
tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) 5 300 25 x x
Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope) 41 000 1019 x x
red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) 0 0 x x