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 — Greater 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 2019.

Hake from these fisheries is the most sustainable choice currently available. The European hake stock is in a very healthy state and fishing pressure is at sustainable levels. Management seems 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

Stock Area

Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, Bay of Biscay (north). Northern Stock.

Stock information

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. Since then it has declined slightly to 277,482 tonnes in 2018, well above MSY Btrigger (56,000t). Fishing mortality (F) decreased markedly between 2005 and 2012, and has been stable at just below FMSY (0.26) since then. At 0.24 in 2018, 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 2020 should be no more than 104,763 tonnes. This is a 26% decrease on the previous year’s advice, a consequence of rescaling stock size following the interbenchmark, re-estimated lower reference points, and a lower assumption this year of recruitment in 2017.

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 EU multiannual plan (MAP) for stocks in the Western Waters and adjacent applies to this stock, but is not adopted by Norway, so it was not used as the basis of the advice. ICES was requested to provide advice based on the MSY approach instead. Total Allowable Catches (TACs) have been set just below the scientific advice since 2016, and in the last two years, total catch including discards has been below the TAC. Prior to this, catches were sometimes double the TAC.

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 Landings Obligation was phased in for this stock from 2016, and came into full force in 2019. Overall, around 7% of the catch has been discarded in the last two 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.

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

In 2018, 31% of the catch was caught by longline, 32% by gillnet and 30% by trawl. Catches are mainly 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
Coley, Saithe
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Sturgeon (Farmed)


ICES. 2019. Working Group for the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Waters Ecoregion (WGBIE). ICES Scientific Reports. 1:31. 692 pp. doi: 10.17895/ices.pub.5299. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2019/WGBIE/01%20WGBIE%202019.pdf [Accessed on 18.07.2019].

ICES. 2019. 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, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, hke.27.3a46-8abd, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4759. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/hke.27.3a46-8abd.pdf [Accessed on 18.07.2019].

Nunny L (2011). The Price of Fish: A review of cetacean bycatch in fisheries in the north-east Atlantic
Ross and Isaac (2004). The Net Effect. A WDCS Report for Greenpeace.