The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificates for North Sea cod fisheries will be suspended after stocks dropped below a 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 occurred despite industry initiatives to actively avoid catching juvenile fish with improved fishing selectivity and avoiding spawning grounds, features that were instrumental in the fishery attaining MSC certification back in 2017.

“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," said Erin Priddle, the MSC's UK and Ireland program director.

“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."

Scotland commits to rebuilding the stock

The Scottish fishing industry has committed to a five-year fishery improvement roject (FIP), to return the stock to health.

“The industry is concerned that notwithstanding their best efforts to continue to rebuild North Sea cod some developments are taking place that seem beyond their control," said Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG).

"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.”

Mixed history

Cod stocks in the North Sea peaked at 270,000 tons in the 1970s, but the stock fell to just 44,000 tons 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 percent in 2009, followed by subsequent annual reductions of 10 percent. In response, the Scottish industry closed large spawning areas to fishing, trialed 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 metric tons, the highest since 1982. Stocks were forecast to hit 180,990 metric tons 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 metric tons, 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.