Impact of cormorants and seals on the Baltic Sea fisheries: A call for the EU and national decision-makers to take action now

Impact of cormorants and seals on the Baltic Sea fisheries: A call for the EU and national decision-makers to take action now

MEP Emma Wiesner (Sweden, Renew Europe Group) and  MEP Nils Torvalds (Finland, Renew Europe Group) co-chaired the Baltic Seal and Cormorant

Transnational Cooperation (TNC) project’s virtual seminar addressing the impact of seals and cormorants predation on small-scale fisheries.

The dramatic increase of seals and cormorants populations in the Baltic Sea is severely impacting the small-scale fisheries sector, reducing local catches, creating additional costs and thus decreasing the profitability for the sector. Moreover, seals inflict direct damage to fishing gears and spread parasites that are harmful to fish stocks.

During the webinar, Esko Taanila, Project Coordinator, presented the main conclusions of the project which aimed at finding sustainable solutions. He emphasised that fishers live at the sea and take care of their environment. “They are interested in a sea life balance”, he added.

His presentation was complemented by the testimony of Timo Matinlassi, a small-scale fisher from North Finland who explained that “old fishermen continue fishing only because they cannot do anything else. But the biggest problem is that young fishers do not want to take over and soon there will be no more fresh local fish on the table of Baltic coast households”.

MEP Nils Torvalds underlined that the Baltic seals and cormorants populations “are growing in an uncontrolled manner, causing severe ecological, social and economic damage regionally and locally.”

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Referring to many small-scale fishers exiting the activity because of years of increasing damages from seals and cormorants, he stated: “You can rebuild a stock. I am not sure we can rebuild a culture, centuries of artisanal practice of fisheries activities on Baltic coasts.”

MEP Emma Wiesner added that ecosystems are fragile. “We need to make sure that once a species has recovered, we reach a balanced population level that brings benefits for the overall ecosystem, of which fishers and coastal communities are part,” she said.

Sara Königson and Staffan Waldo, two experts from the SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Science) presented their findings regarding the economic and social direct impacts of seals and cormorants predation on small-scale fisheries as well as some potential mitigations measures.

Representatives from the European Commission, Maja Kirchner (Directorate General for Maritime affairs and Fisheries) and Micheál O’Briain (Directorate General for Environment),provided an overview of the European Union policies and legislations, and their implementation in view of conciliating the conservation and biodiversity objectives with the fisheries policy objectives.

The Baltic Sea Seal and Cormorant TNC project’s members highlighted that the seals and cormorants predation is sometimes qualified as a “local impact”. It is however a reality that is shared and endured by all small-scale fishers across the Baltic. A coordinated action at EU level is urgently needed to prevent the disappearance of the Baltic small-scale coastal fisheries.


Recommendations of the Baltic Sea Seal and Cormorant Transnational Fisheries Cooperation project

Small-scale fishers from the Baltic region have been facing growing direct and indirect impacts of predation from seals and cormorants. Successfully protected by the Habitats and the Birds Directives, the Baltic seal and cormorant populations have dramatically increased over the past decades. However, they have a significant impact on fish stocks, can damage fish and destroy fishing nets, thus reducing local catches and the profitability of small-scale fisheries.

The growing seal and cormorant populations’ impact on fisheries is sometimes qualified as a “local impact” when it is in fact a reality that is shared and endured by all small-scale fishers around the Baltic. This is how it often fails to be addressed by the Member States and the European Union. An EU level initiative promoting a coordinated action by the Member States is urgently needed.

To address this situation and find the appropriate mitigation measures, this paper outlines some recommendations identified by the project and at the occasion of the final seminar on 26 May 2021, to strike the right balance between conservation objectives and small-scale fisheries survival.

1. Promote dialogue between stakeholders to find sustainable solutions

Problem: The debate regarding the management of cormorants and grey seals populations is often polarising between fishers and environmental organisations. The leads to a deadlock of the discussions on how to tackle the impact of these species’ predation on small-scale coastal fisheries and more widely on coastal communities, while maintaining the necessary protection of these species.

Recommendation: The European Commission, Member States, regional and local authorities around the Baltic should promote dialogue and mutual understanding between different sectors and stakeholders in order to look for ecologically, socially and economically sustainable solutions for the benefits of all in the Baltic region.

2. Invest in seal-proof fishing gears

Problem: Seals remove fish from nets, representing a hidden loss for fishermen. Their presence around fishing gears also scares away fish from the areas. In many fisheries, there are still no alternative seal-proof gear ready to be used.

Recommendation: The European Commission should, through the new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund and other programs, fund further research to develop and make seal-proof fishing gears available for fishers, contributing to the socio-economic attractiveness of small-scale coastal fisheries while also contributing to the protection of the region’s aquatic biodiversity. This recommendation is however not sufficient alone, as seals can adapt to these new devices over the years and it represents an important cost for fishers.

The seal-proof gears and trap nets are also not suitable for all fisheries or all fishing grounds, but most fishers depend on net fishing. It should therefore be considered in combination with the other recommendations below.

3. The need for more ambitious management plans for seals

Problem: The population of grey seals has overall recovered to sustainable levels since 2013, thanks to its protection under the Habitats Directive. Seal predation however results in direct damages to fishing gears and decrease in fish catches, leading to important lost catches and economic impact. In Sweden, the estimated associated costs represent a 50% loss in fishers’ incomes.

Recommendation: Member States should be encouraged to adopt more ambitious management plans for seals, based on up-to-date data on the seals populations, with the support and coordination of the European Commission. They should do so by considering both socioeconomic and ecological aspects in seal management as proposed by the Habitats Directive, including their impacts on fisheries and coastal communities and on the continued delivery of locally caught fresh fish to the market. This would also respond to the objective of the Common Fisheries Policy to contribute to a fair standard of living for those who depend on fishing activities.

4. Provide incentives for hunters to contribute to management measures

Problem: The current Regulation on trade in seal products prohibits the placing on the EU market of seal products.

Further to a complaint to the WTO, the EU has revised this regulation to remove the exception of the trade ban for products derived from hunts for the sustainable management of the marine resource.

This, in practice has led to a limited participation in licensed hunts in Member States where quotas have been opened to regulate the population, thus making management plans ineffective. Quotas are opened but not reached due to the costs, ethical concerns linked to the impossibility of selling seal products and lack of incentives for hunters.

Recommendation: The European Commission should consider formulating a new exemption to the Regulation respecting the WTO ruling as to avoid the practice of simply discarding carcasses resulting from normal, small-scale fisheries management. Alternatively, a joint request from the EU Baltic states should urge the European Commission to find an appropriate solution to bridge the gap left open by the revised Regulation. Balanced incentives should be put in place to encourage hunters to participate in management activities to regulate the population of grey seals more effectively.

5. The need for a European Cormorant Management Plan

Problem: Member States can ask for a derogation to the protection offered by the Birds Directive “to prevent serious damage to” fisheries. Despite the Commission’s non-binding guidance on cormorants, this derogation is interpretated in different ways around the Baltic Sea, leading to legal uncertainty and a lack of effectiveness of measures taken locally and nationally.

Recommendation: The European Commission should develop and adopt a European Cormorant Management Plan, at least at the regional Baltic Sea level, as requested by the European Parliament in its 2008 resolution. Given the high mobility and migration behaviour of cormorants, the problem cannot only be dealt with at the local and national levels by way of derogating to the Birds Directive but requires the European intervention to articulate, co-ordinate and harmonise any action taken to mitigate the dramatic impacts of cormorants on fish stocks.


Source: Press Release

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