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Estonia's national fish stock fell by half even while adhering to quota

Baltic herring.
Baltic herring. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

The European Commission is recommending that herring fishing in the Baltic Sea be restricted, as there are significantly fewer herring left. However, the shortage of herring is only a symptom of the poor state of the Baltic Sea and its changing ecosystem.

Estonian national fish is Baltic herring, which is a traditional staple of the Estonian diet. The Baltic herring has been near Estonian coast for 5,000 years.

Joonas Plaan, coordinator of the Estonian Fund for Nature's sustainable fisheries project, said that although the situation of the herring stock in the Baltic Sea appears to be deteriorating, it is not because the stock has been overfished but rather because our knowledge of it has increased.

"At the same time, Estonians can breathe easier, because the herring population is still doing well in the Gulf of Riga and Pärnu," Plaan explained on "Terevisioon". The rest of the Baltic Sea is in the so-called red zone, where herring fishing should be stopped or at least greatly reduced.

Someone working on a laptop while eating fried Baltic herring. Source: Renee Altrov/Brand Estonia

Plaan explained how, despite the fact that more is known about the Baltic Sea, fish populations continue to decline due to shifts in the marine ecosystem. "Some species are disappearing and this is affecting the rest," he said.

We cannot presume that Estonian waters have been overfished for herring. Since 2014, politicians have listened to scientists and scientists have been also adjusting their methodologies, he said. "We haven't overfished herring in the recent past," he said.

This year, scientists recommend capturing one-fifth fewer herring in the Gulf of Riga compared to the previous year. This is because in previous years they have studied how herring move into the Gulf of Riga at certain times. "The largest herring population has been in the open Baltic Sea, where its situation is the worst. We are waiting to see what the European Commission decides: whether to impose a total ban or to allow minimal fishing," Plaan said.

According to Plaan, scientists usually give policymakers two recommendations on how much herring to catch. On the one hand, they suggest the highest sustainable level in the short term, and on the other, the minimum precautionary level. "So far, the ministers responsible for fisheries have opted for a maximum quantity. It turns out, however, that we need to be as careful as possible when catching herring in the future because of the impact on the whole Baltic ecosystem," he continued.

A large proportion of herring never reaches the human diet. It is also used to make fish feed, for example in Norwegian salmon farms. "Quite a lot of herring have found their way onto the tables of Ukrainians in the past, who are very fond of our native fish," he said.

While you can still eat local fish, it's worth looking at a sustainable fish diet guide, said Plaan. It will tell you which fish are sustainable and which fish will do a little worse this year. "Unfortunately, eel is a globally threatened species and eating it should be restricted. Similarly, cod from the Baltic Sea has completely disappeared," he said.

Pärnu's Japsi Habor on April 30, 2022. Source: Kaupo Meiel/ERR

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

Source: "Terevisioon", interviewer Reimo Sildvee.

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