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Little brother of the cod: about the coastal cod’s construction and collapse

In a press release just before Christmas this year, the Minister of Fisheries announced that prior to this year's cod season, it could be relevant to close fishing grounds if sampling shows that fishing is mainly for coastal cod. The...

An extra cod quota

Northeast Arctic cod or cod is Norway’s most important commercial fish species. In the 70’s, a relative of the cod, the coastal cod, occupied the political arena. This happened in the Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission, where Norway and Russia have a joint responsibility for managing the northeastern Arctic cod stock. Coastal cod has been part of the Norwegian-Russian quota agreement since 1977. The reason for this was that Norway requested an extra quota of cod in addition to half the cod quota. The Russians accepted the Norwegian demand for a coastal cod quota of 40,000 tonnes, provided that Russia was allocated an equal quota of what they referred to as “Murman cod”.

In the following years, the cod quota was adjusted according to annual stock assessments, while the annual quota for coastal cod and Murman cod remained at 40,000 tonnes for each of the countries. With the cod crisis in the late 1980s, coastal cod came back on the political agenda. The crisis resulted in a radical decline in the total quota for Northeast Arctic cod. In the early 1990s, coastal fishermen lost 75% of their income base and they launched the idea of ​​an increased coastal cod quota to remedy the situation.

“No-take” torsk

This was the start of a serious and complex management problem. Even though 1977 had been based on scientific indications of the existence of a coastal cod in Norway (including Rollefsen 1933), it now faced a solid challenge. There were in fact more and more demands for local management authority of local cod stocks. If each fjord had a distinct strain of local cod, a traditional management system with quota determination based on stock estimation would result in extremely high research and management costs. The demands for the management of sub-populations at the local level actually threatened the whole of the centralizedfisheries management system in Norway. According to Professor Holm (Norwegian School of Fisheries), this also led to a dilution of coastal cod research. In parallel with the Norwegian research efforts, the Russians presented research to legitimize an increase in the quota of Murman cod. To this the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) replied that there was a lack of scientific evidence for the existence of any cod stock other than the Northeast Atlantic cod. Despite this, both Norway and Russia were allowed to keep their respective quotas of 40,000 tonnes. This continued until 2003 when ICES, at the same time as the Council accepted the existence of cod stocks other than the Northeast Arctic, warned against a sharp reduction in the Norwegian coastal cod stock and recommended “no take” for 2004.

Norwegian fisheries authorities were faced with a problem. As it is challenging to distinguish between cod and coastal cod using standard management methods, a stop in the fishing for coastal cod would in reality mean a total stop in the coastal fleet’s cod fishing. As a result, the quota for 2004 was set at 20,000 tonnes instead of the recommended “no take” recommended by ICES.

A paper cod

Coastal cod has historically been a political cod, a quota that has been created as a result of political negotiations more than research, stock estimation and knowledge of the size of coastal cod catches. Due to this, the quota of 40,000 tonnes has been referred to as a “paper quota”. This has led to major challenges for management. Today we are facing a very serious situation as Norway may risk losing the MSC mark for cod as a result of a decline in the coastal cod stock.

In the 1970s, “scientific indications” of the existence of a coastal cod were sufficient for Norway to be allocated an extra quota for cod in the Norwegian-Russian fisheries negotiations. There was a lack of stock estimates and it can be said that it was a “political construction”. But constructions also have material and economic effects and the current scientific knowledge that coastal cod stocks are declining has resulted in regulation of both commercial fishing, recreational fishing and tourist fishing. Now there is also a danger that we will lose the sustainability brand MSC for cod. This will have serious consequences for both market access and price for Norway’s most important commercial fish stock.

“The other cod”

Research on coastal cod increased throughout the 1990s. However, the field of research was marked by great disagreement about what should be the “scientific criterion” for separating cod and coastal cod. Researchers at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen and Russian research communities (Borisov et al.) Claimed that it was impossible to separate coastal cod from northeastern Arctic cod. This was challenged by researchers at the Norwegian School of Fisheries in Tromsø who claimed to have succeeded in establishing this distinction (Fevolden and Pogson). They thus claimed to have come up with scientific evidence of the existence of “the other cod”.

In the period after 1992, several resources were allocated to the Institute of Marine Research for monitoring the stock size of coastal cod. This prioritization of resources was in line with ICES ‘focus on fish stocks being managed within “safe biological limits”, which presupposes knowledge of stock size and the stock’s reproductive capacity, recruitment. In 2003, Norwegian stock researchers claimed that they had mapped the entire distribution area of ​​Norwegian coastal cod. At the same time, they claimed that they could say with scientific certainty that the population was at a historically low level and outside “safe biological limits.” This was the reason why ICES recommended ‘no take’ of coastal cod for the 2004 fishing season. As mentioned, the Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission did not follow the recommendation from ICES, but decided to set the quota at 20,000 tonnes.

Redistribution of research funds

The aforementioned demands for local management of more local cod stocks than the migratory cod came in the wake of researchers in the 80s and 90s claiming to have found indications of the existence of local sub-stocks of coastal cod (Jakobsen and Eliassen). It has been claimed that the Norwegian authorities, as a result of these requirements, changed the allocation of research funds away from this research topic because they feared such local requirements. However, the explanation for this alleged redistribution of research funds may just as well have been that the authorities had to concentrate their research efforts in order to provide the fisheries authorities with a scientific basis for quota recommendations. In addition, this period also saw a transition to ecosystem-based management, a management regime that requires great research efforts.

New definition of coastal cod north

Coastal cod researchers adapted to this new management ideal by pointing out that a change in coastal cod management had to be based on thorough studies of the dynamics of the cod stock and interactions between different genetic types of cod (Pedersen and Pope). At the time of writing, this work is being taken further by ICES in January 2021 conducting a review of the entire methodology related to the Norwegian coastal cod. As there is a gradual change in the genetic pool of coastal cod from north to south, it is considered, among other things, to set the distinction between coastal cod south and north at 67 degrees north and not at 62 degrees north as now.

As we see, the cod’s little brother is the subject of constant definition and re-definition in a triangular drama between researchers, managers and fishermen. Now it is the reason why the cod loses its eco-label MSC on April 26 this year, which is dramatic for the Norwegian seafood industry. Perhaps the ongoing work in ICES, with a review of the methodology around the coastal cod stock, can contribute to the coastal cod in the north being redefined out of the category “endangered” and we save the MSC marked for the cod? It is to be hoped for because then we can apply for an extension of the current certificate.

The article has previously been published in Fiskeribladet.