Hake, European

Merluccius merluccius

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Gill or fixed net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — North Sea, Celtic Seas, Bay of Biscay (north). Northern Stock.
Stock detail — 3a, 4, 6, 7, 8a, 8b, 8d
Picture of Hake, European

Sustainability rating two info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2020

The Northern European hake stock is in a very healthy state and fishing pressure is at sustainable levels. A combination of management and beneficial environmental conditions seem to have successfully recovered the stock from low levels in 2001. Hake is a late maturing fish. Discards of young hake can be substantial in some areas and in some fleets and measures are required to address this. Capture methods are evenly split between longline, gillnet and demersal trawl. While demersal otter trawl will have the greatest seabed habitat impacts, gillnetting and longlining can both have high levels of bycatch of vulnerable species such as sharks. Gillnets can also catch marine mammals, including harbour porpoise.

There are several Marine Stewardship Council certified mixed demersal fisheries in the North Sea, including hake, and a certified hake gillnet fishery in Cornwall.


Hake belongs to a group of fish known collectively as Merluccidae. There is only one species, European hake, found in European seas. European hake is widely distributed over the Northeast Atlantic shelf. Hake is a top predator and cannibalistic. It is a late maturing fish, spawning from February to July in northern waters. There are two major nursery areas: the Bay of Biscay and off southern Ireland. As they approach maturity, hake move into deeper waters offshore. Hake can attain a length of 100-180 cm, with a weight of 11-15 kg. Females mature at 5-6 years at about 50 cm.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0 info

The stock is in a very healthy state and fishing pressure is at sustainable levels.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has increased substantially from below BLim in 2006 to reach the maximum on record in 2016 (290,000 tonnes). Since then it has declined slightly to 265,202 tonnes in 2020, well above MSY Btrigger (56,005t). Fishing mortality (F) decreased markedly between 2005 and 2012, and has been fluctuating close to FMSY (0.26) since then. At 0.23 in 2019, it was the lowest on record. Recruitment is variable without trend, and recent recruitment is uncertain.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2021 should be no more than 98,657 tonnes. This is a 5.8% decrease on the previous year’s advice, because the perception of the stock size has been revised downwards.

The assessment was improved in 2019 and now includes discard estimates, allowing total catches to be taken into account.

Mean weight at length of individuals seems to have decreased since 2011.


Criterion score: 0.25 info

The northern hake stock is now in a very good state, and fishing pressure is at sustainable levels, although this has been strongly influenced by high recruitments in 2008 and 2012. Management measures appear to be controlling the fishery, although discarding can be an issue in some areas and catch limits do not cover all of the countries accessing the stock.

The EU multiannual plan (MAP) for stocks in the Western Waters and adjacent applies to this stock, but is not adopted by Norway. Total Allowable Catches (TACs) have been set just below the scientific advice since 2016, but in 2020 the TAC was set at 112,903 tonnes - 8% above the advised limit of 104,763 tonnes. This is because TACs are limited from changing by more than 20% from year to year, to keep the fishery stable. From 2017-2019 (2019 figures are preliminary), total catches including discards have been below the TAC, with the preliminary 2019 catch estimated at just 60% of the TAC. Prior to this, catches were sometimes double the TAC. The ICES catch advice applies to the whole stock, but the TACs only apply to EU member states, so management measures may not be enough to prevent overfishing - although the main catching countries are France, Spain, and Scotland.

The minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) is 27cm (30cm in Skagerrak and Kattegat). The size at which approximately 50% of females mature however, is 50+ cm.

The Landing Obligation was phased in for this stock from 2016, and came into full force in 2019. Overall, around 6% of the catch has been discarded in the last three years, and discarding rates have decreased since 2015. However, discarding of juvenile hake (both above and below MCRS) can be substantial in some areas and fleets, particularly gillnetting. Recently, discarding of large individuals increased because of quota restrictions in certain fleets. Continued monitoring is required.

An Emergency Plan was brought in in 2001 to recover the stock, involving a TAC reduction and minimum mesh size of 100mm (depending on vessel size, location and proportion of hake in the total catch). It included targets for increasing stock size and reducing fishing mortality, and limited changes in TAC from year to year. The stock is now in a very good state, and fishing pressure is at sustainable levels, although this has been strongly influenced by high recruitments in 2008 and 2012.

There are several Marine Stewardship Council certified mixed demersal fisheries in the North Sea, including hake, and a certified hake gillnet fishery in Cornwall. These certified components are required to take action to implement a Harvest Control Rule which will ensure that exploitation rates are reduced as limit reference points are approached.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 31st December 2020, and new UK Fisheries legislation is being developed during 2020. MCS will update ratings with new management information when new legislation comes into force.

In the European Union (EU), EU fishing vessels can fish up to 12 nautical miles of any Member State coast, and closer by agreement. There is overarching fisheries legislation for all Member States, but implementation varies between fisheries, Member States and sea basins.
The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the primary overarching policy. Its key environmental objectives are to restore and maintain harvested species at healthy levels (above BMSY), and apply the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. To achieve the MSY objective, the MSY exploitation rate is supposed to be achieved by 2020, but this seems unlikely to happen.
The CFP also introduced a Landing Obligation (LO) which bans the discarding at sea of species which are subject to catch limits. Some exemptions apply to species with high post-capture survival, and where avoiding unwanted catches is very difficult. These exemptions are outlined in regional discard plans. Despite quota ‘uplift’ being granted to fleets under the LO, available evidence suggests there has been widespread non-compliance with the policy, and illegal and unreported discarding is likely occurring.
Multi-Annual Plans (MAPs) are a tool for implementing the CFP regionally, with one in place or being developed for each sea basin. They specify fishing mortality targets and ranges for the main targeted species, as well as lower biomass reference points. If populations drop below these points it should trigger a management response. The MAPs also empower Member States to jointly apply measures such as closures, gear or capacity limits, and bycatch limits. There is concern however that the MAPs do not provide adequate safeguards to maintain all stocks at healthy levels.
The EU Technical Measures regulation addresses how, where and when fishing can take place in order to limit unwanted catches and ecosystem impacts. There are common measures that apply to all EU sea basins, and regional measures that vary between sea basins. Measures include Minimum Conservation Reference Sizes (MCRS, previously Minimum Landing Sizes, MLS), gear specifications, mesh sizes, closed areas, and bycatch limits.
The Control Regulation, which is being revised in 2019, addresses application of and compliance with the above, e.g. keeping catches within limits, recording and sharing data, and satellite tracking of vessels over 12 metres (VMS).

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.5 info

Catches are split roughly evenly between longline, gillnet, and trawl and are mainly taken by France, Spain, and Scotland. Hake is caught in mixed fisheries together with megrim, anglerfish and Nephrops.

Bycatch of marine mammals and other non-target species is problematic in fixed-net fisheries for hake. Reports indicate that there is concern regarding the bycatch of cetaceans, particularly harbour porpoise, by gillnets. One of the areas of most concern is off the South West of England, where areas of higher gillnet fishing effort coincide with areas of larger harbour porpoise populations. However, these reports are based on highly uncertain data which cannot indicate the likelihood of bycatch either causing populations to decline or preventing populations from recovering. Progress on this issue is being made in some areas, with Defra leading work to improve monitoring and mitigation of cetacean bycatch (“Hauling Up Solutions”). A pilot project trialling self-reporting of bycatch is taking place in Cornwall, potentially backed up by electronic monitoring and VMS in time, and trialling the use of pingers and other mitigation technologies, which are known to deter harbour porpoise from entanglement in nets. MCS is pleased to see this progress, but notes that if catch rates of harbour porpoise do not show a decrease then scoring of this capture method may be affected. Because of gillnets’ durability (they are made of nylon), if lost, they can continue to fish for several weeks before becoming tangled and bundled up, a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’. However, static nets, as with all gear, represent an investment by fishermen, and therefore there are incentives to avoid losing or damaging gear.

There are several Marine Stewardship Council certified mixed demersal fisheries in the North Sea, including hake, and a certified hake gillnet fishery in Cornwall. These certified components are required to take action to reduce bycatch of starry ray and common skate, for to mitigate habitat impacts, especially on sea pens.


Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.

Basa, Tra, Catfish or Vietnamese River Cobbler
Cod, Atlantic Cod
Cod, Pacific Cod
Coley, Saithe
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish, White
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Spurdog, Spiny Dogfish, Dogfish, Rock Salmon or Flake
Sturgeon (Farmed)


ICES. 2020. Hake (Merluccius merluccius) in subareas 4, 6, and 7, and divisions 3.a, 8.a–b, and 8.d, Northern stock (Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, and the northern Bay of Biscay). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, hke.27.3a46-8abd. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.5945 [Accessed on 07.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. Working Group for the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Waters Ecoregion (WGBIE). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:49. 845 pp. Available at http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.6033 [Accessed on 07.07.2020].

ASCOBANS, 2009. Conservation Plan for Harbour Porpoises in the North Sea as adopted at the 6th Meeting of the Parties to ASCOBANS, Bonn, Germany. 16 - 18 September 2009. Available at https://www.ascobans.org/sites/default/files/document/ASCOBANS_NorthSeaPlan_MOP6.pdf [Accessed on 31.07.2019].

Calderan, S. and Leaper, R., 2019. Review of harbour porpoise bycatch in UK waters and recommendations for management. January 2019, WWF. Available at https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-04/Review_of_harbour_porpoise_in_UK_waters_2019.pdf [Accessed on 31.07.2019].

ICES, 2018. ICES Advice: Bycatch of small cetaceans and other marine animals - review of national reports under Council Regulation (EC) No. 812/2004 and other information. Published 11 September 2018. Available at https://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2018/2018/byc.eu.pdf [Accessed on 31.07.2019].

Northridge, S., Kingston, A., Mackay, A. and Lonergan, M. (2011). Bycatch of Vulnerable Species: Understanding the Process and Mitigating the Impacts. Final Report to Defra Marine and Fisheries Science Unit, Project no MF1003. University of St Andrews. Defra, London, 99pp. Available at http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=MF1003-FINALRevisedAugust2011.pdf [Accessed on 31.07.2019].

Tindall, C., Hetherington, S., Bell, C., Deaville, R., Barker, J., Borrow, K., Oakley, M., Bendall, V., Engelhard, G. (Eds), 2019. Hauling Up Solutions: Reducing Cetacean Bycatch in UK Fisheries. Final Workshop Report. 31 pp. Available at https://www.cefas.co.uk/media/201924/hauling_up_solutions-workshop-report-final_web.pdf [Accessed on 31.07.2019].