Whiting

Merlangius merlangus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal otter trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — West of Scotland
Stock detail — 6a
Picture of Whiting

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2020 

West of Scotland whiting is now a data limited stock, but considered to be at very low levels with no signs of rebuilding. Fishing pressure is estimated to be very low. There is no precautionary management plan or recovery plan for this stock, resulting in a critical fail for stock status and a Default red rating . Landings of whiting have been low, averaging 250 tonnes from 2015-2019. Discards have been high, averaging 1,000 tonnes or 80% of the total catch from 2015-2019, and include juvenile (age 0) fish. West of Scotland whiting is mainly caught as bycatch in the whitefish (mainly haddock, saithe, and anglerfish) and Nephrops (scampi) fisheries. In 2019, whitefish trawlers caught 57% of the total catch and discarded 46% of what they caught. Nephrops trawlers caught 39% of the total whiting catch, and discarded all of it. Trawling can have impacts on the seabed through abrasion of habitats.

Biology

Whiting is a slender bodied, sandy, blue-green coloured fish with conspicuous white sides and belly, silvery when alive. A member of the gadoid family, the same as cod and haddock, it occurs throughout northeast Atlantic waters at a wide range of depths, from shallow inshore waters to depths of 200m. They mature at an age of 2-3 years and at a length of about 30 cm. The average landed length is usually around 30-40 cm, however whiting can grow up to 70 cm and 3 kg. Whiting breeds between January and July, but mostly in spring. The maximum reported age is 20 years.

Stock information

Criterion score: Critical Fail info

West of Scotland whiting is now a data limited stock, but considered to be at very low levels with no signs of rebuilding. Fishing pressure is estimated to be very low. There is no precautionary management plan or recovery plan for this stock, resulting in a critical fail for stock status and a Default red rating .

Catches of West of Scotland whiting declined from around 15,000 - 20,000 tonnes in the late-1970s to less than 2,000 tonnes since 2005. Around 78% of the catch is discarded. The stock size is thought to be smaller than all possible reference points. While there is very high uncertainty in the current estimates, this assessment indicates that stock size may have decreased in recent years, whereas previous assessments suggested it may have been increasing. The assessment continues to indicate that fishing pressure is very low.

ICES advises that when the precautionary approach is applied, there should be zero catches in each of the years 2021 and 2022. A zero catch has been recommended since 2006.

There were some issues with the whiting stock assessment in 2020. It was benchmarked, and the previous assessment was rejected owing to difficulties in maintaining the modelling approach, and not because previous assessments were not appropriate. However, a new assessment could not be carried out in time. Therefore, another benchmark is expected for 2021. In 2020, the stock has moved from a category 1 assessment (full assessment with reference points) to a category 5 (catch data only, and no reference points). Given the very low stock size, this is not likely to have significantly influenced the perception of the stock size or catch advice. However, previous assessments had indicated that stock size may be increasing, although still at low levels, while the current assessment states that the stock has actually decreased and there are no signs of rebuilding.

Management

There is no precautionary management plan or recovery plan for this stock, resulting in a critical fail for stock status and a Default red rating for West of Scotland whiting. This is a depleted stock, and while fishing pressure has been successfully reduced, the latest stock assessment indicates that there is no sign of the stock rebuilding.

Zero catch advice for West of Scotland whiting has been issued in every year since 2006. The Total Allowable Catch declined from 1,360 tonnes in 206 to 213 tonnes in 2018, but then increased to 1,112 tonnes in 2019 and 937 tonnes in 2020. Landings of whiting have been low, averaging 250 tonnes from 2015-2019. Discards have been high, averaging 1,000 tonnes or 80% of the total catch from 2015-2019, and include juvenile (age 0) fish. In terms of quantity, discards in 2019 (ages 1 and older) were 56% higher than those in 2018, and also above the average in the last decade. In terms of discard rate (weight of discards as a proportion of catch), they were the lowest in the last eight years.

West of Scotland whiting is mainly caught as bycatch in the whitefish (mainly haddock, saithe, and anglerfish) and Nephrops (scampi) fisheries. In 2019, whitefish trawlers caught 57% of the total catch and discarded 46% of what they caught. Nephrops trawlers caught 39% of the total whiting catch, and discarded all of it. Given the continued high discards and low TAC, this stock could become a major choke species for the Nephrops fishery. ICES advice for haddock and saithe would lead to a 21% and 1.52% decrease in fishing mortality, respectively, in 2021. The advice for anglerfish and Nephrops, two other target stocks in this area, will be released in October 2020. If TACs are set in line with the advice haddock and saithe, fishing mortality for whiting in 2021 will be similar to current values, with estimated catches of around 1444 tonnes.

A mandatory increase in mesh size in the whitefish fishery in 2010, from 100 mm to 120 mm, and the 2008 introduction of large square mesh panels in the Nephrops fishery, are likely to have contributed to the observed reductions in fishing mortality, although they don’t appear to have reduced whiting discards. A number of measures to recover cod may also have benefitted whiting: the cod recovery plan was in force up to 2008, followed by the cod long-term management plan from 2009, which was amended in 2016 to cover the transitional period towards multiannual plans. In 2018 the cod management plan was discontinued to make way for the Western Waters Multi Annual management Plan (MAP) - but the map covers neither cod nor whiting in division 6a. Both are treated as bycatch species in the legislation. An area north of Scotland, known as the Windsock, has been closed to all fishing since 2003, except for some pelagic trawling, potting and creeling. In 2015, the industry group GITAG (Gear Innovation and Technology Advisory Group) was established to focus on improving selectivity and support the transition to the landings obligation. The first phase of the project focused on gear development in the Nephrops trawling sector to reduce bycatches, particularly undersized fish. Further trials are planned in 2018-2020. Much of the work has focussed on avoiding cod capture, but has also benefitted whiting stocks.


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

The environmental impact of demersal otter trawling is abrasion of the seabed, which can affect vulnerable marine habitats.

West of Scotland whiting is mainly caught as bycatch in the whitefish (mainly haddock, saithe, and anglerfish) and Nephrops (scampi) fisheries. In 2019, whitefish trawlers caught 57% of the total catch and discarded 46% of what they caught. Nephrops trawlers caught 39% of the total whiting catch, and discarded all of it.

Around 50% of landings are by Scotland, with most of the rest from Ireland and some in recent years from the Netherlands.

Demersal otter trawls use doors to hold nets open that penetrate the seabed, resulting in the abrasion of habitat features. The ground ropes, sweeps and bridles of the trawl can have similar abrasive impact. Otter trawl fisheries tend to follow the same tracks, which prevents new habitats from being impacted, and effort in this fishery has declined.

A new app, BATmap (By-catch Avoidance Tool using mapping) is being trialled as of July 2020 to help Scottish skippers avoid bycatch of cod, whiting and spurdog in the west of Scotland. It allows fishers to share real-time information about hotspots of these species so that others can avoid the area. This is a new technology, and it is too early to assess the impact, but innovation such as this is a very positive and vital step forward for minimising bycatch in mixed fisheries. The project is led by the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation (SFO), the University of Aberdeen and Fisheries Innovation Scotland (FIS), with support from other Scottish Producer Organisations, the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, and Seafish. Skippers from the Aberdeen Fish Producer’s Organisation and the North East of Scotland Fishermen’s Organisation are also participating.

Alternatives

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
Haddock
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish, White
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Spurdog, Spiny Dogfish, Dogfish, Rock Salmon or Flake
Sturgeon (Farmed)
Tilapia

References

Eigaard, O. R., Bastardie, F., Breen, M., Dinesen, G. E., Hintzen, N. T., Laffargue, P., Mortensen, L. O., Nielsen, J. R., Nilsson, H. C., O’Neill, G. G., Polet, H., Reid, D. G., Sala, A., Sköld, M., Smith, C., Sørensen, T. K., Tully, O., Zengin, M. and Rijnsdorp, A. D. 2016. Estimating seabed pressure from demersal trawls, seines, and dredges based on gear design and dimensions. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73:1, pp. i27–i43, https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsv099 [Accessed on 03.07.2020].

Fisheries Innovation Scotland, 2020. Press Release: Trial of fisheries bycatch reduction tool on the west of Scotland – new App now available. Available at https://fiscot.org/trial-of-fisheries-bycatch-reduction-tool-on-the-west-of-scotland-new-app-now-available [Accessed on 15.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in Division 6.a (West of Scotland). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, whg.27.6a. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.5824 [Accessed on 13.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. Working Group for the Celtic Seas Ecoregion (WGCSE). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:40. xx pp. Available at http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.5978 [Accessed on 13.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. EU standing request on catch scenarios for zero TAC stocks 2020; cod (Gadus morhua) and whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in Division 6.a (West of Scotland), and whiting in Division 7.a (Irish Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, sr.2020.05d. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.7423 [Accessed on 13.07.2020].

Jaworski, A. and Penny, I., 2009. West of Four - Effectiveness of Windsock Area Closure. Scottish Industry/Science Partnership (SISP) Report No 02/09. SISP 008/07. Available at https://www2.gov.scot/Uploads/Documents/SISP0209.pdf [Accessed on 18.11.2019].