Faroe Cod is underfished - not overfished

Misinterpretation of biological data

Article in FISHING NEWS 9. July 2004
by Jon Kristjansson

ICES scientists say that the cod stock at the Faroe Isles is overfished and recommend a total ban in order to rebuild it quickly or at least two thirds cut in the catch to help it recover at a slower rate. They say that the cod stock has already fallen below minimum recommended stock size (FN 18 June 'Faroe cod overfished says ACFM').

They also say that the Icelandic cod stock is at risk if it continues to be harvested at such a high rate. This is interesting, because the Icelandic cod stock has been harvested strictly according to the recommended ICES rate, 25%, since 1994.

The Faroe situation is particularly interesting as Faroe has been using an effort control system (no quotas or catch limits) since 1996. They have a days at sea system in which fishing days are divided between different fleet categories. The number of days has been unchanged since 2000, when it was cut by 5%. That is, there has been constant fishing pressure, the same fishermen in the same boats on the same grounds for the same number of days each year, for four consecutive years.

As an independent scientist I have been consulting the Faroe government and the fishing industry on fishery management since 2001. We have managed to withstand ICES' yearly recommendation for a 25-35% cut in effort and kept the fishing days intact, and have thus been able to see the effect of constant effort, no discards and almost perfect fisheries data.

What is the outcome of the experiment? Despite the landings of the three major demersal species, - saithe, cod and haddock, - have exceeded the recommendation from ICES by large amounts, the stocks increased in size until 2003 when they started to decrease again. The catch of cod, haddock and saithe around the Faeroes in 2002 was 120,000 tons - a record.

The fishing pressure was not sufficient to counterbalance the stock increase and the stock size exceeded the carrying capacity of the feeding grounds. The cod stock especially became to big for its food resource and individual cod started to get very thin in 2003. Growth ceased, and according to recovered tags, cod above 60 cm increased only 0-3 cm in one year. Mortality increased accordingly, but the stock was adjusting to a new food regime, and when the scientists registered the mortality in 2004, it was called "fishing mortality" because natural mortality is always fixed at 18% per year. The difference between this 'fixed' level of 'natural' mortality is always put down to 'fishing' mortality, according to ICES methodology. Calling this 'overfishing' is mininterpretation of the biological data.

In my opinion, the stock decline is a result of 'underfishing', and accordingly, my advice to the Faroese this year was the same as last year - learn from this experiment and increase the fishing pressure.

The Faroese fishing days committee has already suggested maintaining the status quo to the fisheries minister, but the fishing industry has demanded 20% increase in fishing days.


ICES advice on Faroe cod 2001-2004

Catch in 2000 - 22,000 tons


ICES advises that fishing mortality in 2002 should be reduced by at least 25% towards the Fpa, corresponding to landings of no more than 22,000 t .

Catch in 2001 - 29,000 tons


ICES advises a reduction in fishing mortality to below Fpa (0.35), corresponding to an effort reduction of 50%. If this cannot be done in one year then as a first step, the fishing mortality in 2003 should be reduced by at least 35% in accordance with the fishing mortality advised (0.46) in 2001.

Relevant factors to be considered in management: Current fishing mortality is far above the Fpa, but the basis for Fpa is under revision. A reduction in fishing mortality to Fpa corresponds to landings of less than 23,000 t, and a 35% reduction in fishing mortality in 2003 corresponds to landings of less than 28,000 t.

Catch in 2002 - 40,000 tons


ICES advises an effort reduction of at least 25% compared to the recent level to bring the fishing mortality towards Fpa .

Catch in 2003 - 30,000 tons


Fishing mortality for the Faroe Plateau cod in 2003 is more than twice the level that is recommended based on precautionary principles. For haddock and saithe the present fishing mortality is also above the precautionary level.

Therefore, ICES recommends a reduction of the fishing effort directed at cod and haddock in the neighbourhood of 2/3. For the saithe fisheries ICES recommends that effort be reduced by around 30%. This effort is predicated on the present low bycatch of cod and haddock in the saithe fisheries. If the bycatch of cod or haddock is observed to increase in the saithe fishery, then effort will have to be reduced proportional to the increase in bycatch rate. For Faroe Bank cod effort should be reduced to the 1996-2002 level.

Catch of cod in the first period of 2004 is similar to the catch in the first period of 2003.


Evolution of the demersal stocks at Faroes 2000-2004.

Fishing pressure was constant during the whole period. Fishing pressure does not hinder stock increase and stocks reach maximum level. Cod stock overshoots in relation to the food availability, growth ceases, cod get thin and stock declines as a result of starvation (natural mortality increases). Stock numbers from ICES 2004.

Catch increases, always higher than recommendations. Despite of that, advice increases from 2002-2003. Stock increases despite harvesting more than advice. Stock falls as a result of 'overshot', not detected until later, zero catch recommended, although fish are dying from starvation.

Catch lower than advice in the first year. Zero catch recommended in 2001 but 17.000 tons are caught. Stock increases dramatically. Catch increases, stock increases and advice for next year increases. Catch increases to historically highest value in 2003, 27.000 tons in a decreasing stock.

Catch always much higher than advice, but very low in relation to stock size (16-20%). Advice increases despite excess fishing. Stock increases for then to decrease to initial level. Latest advice pessimistic.

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