Landing the blame: overfishing in the Baltic Sea 2020

Uncovering the EU member stats most responsible for setting fishing quotas above scientific advice

Fisheries ministers are risking the sustainability of fish populations by consistently setting fishing limits above scientific advice. This is our sixth year running a series of briefings to identify which Member States are standing in the way of more fish, more profits, and more jobs for European citizens. 

Food for an additional 89 million EU citizens. An extra €1.6 billion in annual revenue. Over 20,000 new jobs across the continent. Far from being a pipe dream, all of this could be a reality, if we paid more attention to one of Europe’s most significant natural resources – our seas. If EU waters were properly managed – with damaged fish populations rebuilt above levels that could support their maximum sustainable yield (MSY) – we could enjoy their full potential within a generation.

Fishing limits vs scientific advice

Every year, fisheries ministers have an opportunity to make this a reality when they agree on a total allowable catch (TAC) for commercial fish populations. Scientific bodies, predominantly the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), are commissioned to provide information about the state of most populations and advise on maximum catch levels.

Yet overfishing continues as this scientific advice has not been heeded. Our historical analysis of agreed TACs for EU waters between 2001 and 2018 shows that, on average, two-thirds of TACs were set above scientific advice. While the percentage by which TACs were set above advice declined throughout this period (from 42% to 8% in all EU waters), the proportion of TACs set above advice did not.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that entered into force in 2014 aims to restore and maintain fish populations above levels capable of supporting MSY. It mandated a corresponding exploitation rate to be achieved by 2015 where possible and by 2020 at the latest for all populations. Following scientific advice is essential to achieve this goal, end overfishing, and restore fish populations to healthy levels. 

Agreements behind closed doors

The negotiations over TACs are held by the Agricultural and Fisheries configuration of the EU Council of Ministers. These negotiations are not public, only their outcomes are. This lack of transparency means that ministers are not on the hook when they ignore scientific advice and give priority to short-term interests that risk the health of fish populations. This briefing, a continuation of the Landing the Blame series, reveals which Member States and ministers are behind decisions that go against the EU’s long-term interests. To reach this conclusion, it analyses the outcomes of the
negotiations and calculates which Member States end up with TACs above scientific advice. The key assumption is that these Member States are the main drivers of overfishing, either because they have been actively pushing for fishing limits to be set above scientific advice, or they have failed to prevent such limits being put in place. A Freedom of Information Request revealed that the results of the Landing the Blame series corresponded remarkably well with the Member State positions heading into the Council negotiations.

The Baltic 2020 TACs

During the October 2019 negotiations, ministers agreed fishing limits for 10 Baltic Sea populations of herring, cod, salmon, plaice, and sprat. This was the fourth year for TACs set under the Baltic Multi– Annual Plan (MAP) – a new management scheme designed to move TAC-setting away from a political process and towards rule-based decision-making. Importantly, the Baltic MAP is also a test case for other areas of European waters that are currently discussing MAPs of their own. 

Most TACs were reduced from previous years, with the exception of one increase and one rollover. Our analysis reveals that six Baltic TACs were set above scientific advice. Some of the excess TAC (TAC set above scientific advice) goes to all eight EU Baltic nations: Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Sweden.

The table below allocates the excess TAC to each Member State and notes the minister/​representative present during the TAC negotiations. Mirroring last year’s report, Germany once again tops the league table, this year with 17% of its TAC above scientific advice – more than 2,500 tonnes. This excess TAC is largely due to Western Baltic herring and Eastern Baltic cod. Germany has been in the top three spots in our analysis of Baltic Sea TACs since 2016. 

The other Member States also set excess TAC for 2020, some with greater quantities than Germany due to their larger presence in the Baltic Sea, and greater targeting of large pelagic fish populations.

Member State


Excess TAC (Tonnes)

Excess TAC (%)


Julia Klöckner




Mogens Jensen




Evaldas Gustas




Anna Moskwa




Jennie Nilsson




Jānis Grasbergs




Mart Järvik




Jari Leppä



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