Structural change in coastal fisheries

Coastal fisheries in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are in deep crisis. The heads of the Thünen Institutes of Sea Fisheries and Baltic Sea Fisheries, Dr. Gerd Kraus and Dr. Christopher Zimmermann, shed light on the situation.

(© Thünen-Institut/N. Stollberg)

Coastal fisheries in the North and Baltic Seas are in deep crisis, despite the fact that overfishing has declined dramatically since the turn of the millennium. There are many factors that threaten the existence of this form of fishing, which creates identity for the entire coastal region: the effects of climate change are impairing the productivity of individual, particularly important species. In addition, there are increasing losses of fishing areas, stricter legal requirements for the often outdated vessels, the correspondingly difficult search for business successors and the poor public image of fishing. On the Baltic coast, the return of grey seals is making gillnet fishing increasingly difficult.

The drastic quota cuts in 2020 and 2021 for Baltic herring, cod and North Sea cod, the extreme fluctuations in catches of North Sea shrimp and Corona-related sales problems have led to a further massive worsening of the situation. Neither herring in the western Baltic nor cod in the southern North Sea are expected to return to catch levels close to those of past decades.

Small-scale coastal fisheries are generally unable to move to other regions or to other target species. Meanwhile, governmental bridging aid and decommissioning premiums are available. This can help those affected, but it also accelerates the decline of fishery as the main source of income: more and more businesses are giving up or switching to part-time operations, as can currently be seen in the Baltic Sea in particular.

Now, as the middle segment of full-time family businesses increasingly disappears, a few large, efficient companies remain, as well as numerous part-time fishermen, who are far less strictly regulated and controled. This is having an impact on land structures: Fisheries are concentrated in a few ports, and producer organizations that previously provided transportation, crates, ice and record-keeping are disappearing. This is because they cannot be adequately financed by the sideline businesses, most of which rely on direct marketing. The indirect consequences extend far beyond the fisheries sector. Artisanal coastal fishing is formative to coastal culture and lifestyles, and for that reason alone has significant regional economic importance.

New challenges for fisheries policy

The current trends will also present new challenges for fisheries policy: If part-time fishermen continue fishing in the area, it strengthens tourism, but this form of fishing is difficult to monitor. This increases the risk of unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks - a condition well-known from the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the pressure on the government is high to tighten the rules for part-time and recreational fishing as well, and predictably ends up in political perpetual strife.

Is this the future we want? That depends on the alternatives. Therefore, it makes sense to develop various policy options and examine how they affect the future of coastal fisheries and coastal regions. In the end, this would have to be turned into an approach that identifies a better long-term outlook for coastal fisheries and fish stock utilization that is both financially and administratively feasible.

Isn't this taking far too long? There is no question that structural change is in full swing, and policymakers cannot always wait until carefully worked-out concepts for the future are available. On the other hand, fundamental questions about the future of coastal fishing will remain permanently on the agenda, because no convincing perspective can be developed with emergency measures alone. That is why we want to focus our research more strongly on the development of solution options. To do this, we need the expertise of various research disciplines, as well as the expertise and creativity of local business enterprises and administrations.

This article was published in the Thünen Institute's magazine "Wissenschaft erleben" (2020/2).