Stocks of fish

As a result of catch limits set by the European Union, important fish stocks for consumption in the North Sea have recovered in recent years. For the first time in years, five major fish stocks -, herring, cod, plaice, sole and saithe - are above the sustainability threshold in 2017.

The issue

Fish stocks are global commons, i.e. natural resources shared by several countries, and therefore sensitive to over-exploitation. This poses a threat to the quality and quantity of future fish stocks. Furthermore, modern fishing methods have unwanted side effects such as overfishing and damage to the seabed.

European fisheries policy focuses on sustainable and balanced ways to exploit its sea areas. . The EU’s main policy instruments are restrictions on total annual catches for a number of commercially important fish species, and restrictions on capacity and activities of the fishing fleet., A new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) came into effect on 1 January 2014, prescribing that fish must be caught according to the principles of ‘maximum sustainable yield’ (MSY). Article 2 of the CFP states that a so-called precautionary approach should be applied to fisheries management. This means that ‘living biological resources of the sea may only be exploited in such a way that populations of captured species are brought and maintained above a certain stock size in order to be able to continue to produce the maximum sustainable yield’. This has put an end to wasteful fishery practices, such as discarding undersized fish and fish not targeted in the catch. In addition, new opportunities are to be created for employment and growth in coastal areas (European Commission, 2014).


The sustainability of the fishing industry can be determined by annual monitoring of fish stocks. This is important for both the economy and biodiversity. The relationship between the economy and the quality of fish stocks is indicated by the share of five commercially important fish species in the North Sea for which stocks are above the sustainability threshold. In 2017, all five species monitored show stock sizes above this threshold.

As a result of EU catch limits, the size of fish stocks in the North Sea has been showing a clear upward trend in recent years. For the first time since 1982, stocks of cod are above the sustainability threshold in 2017. Plaice populations are well beyond the threshold in 2017 and are now at their highest level since monitoring began in 1957.