Whiting

Merlangius merlangus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal otter trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Celtic Seas (South), English Channel (West)
Stock detail — 7b, 7c, 7e-k
Picture of Whiting

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: January 2021

Default red rating: Whiting in the Celtic Seas is at dangerously low levels, below the point at which its ability to reproduce is compromised. Fishing pressure has been too high, but in 2020 it decreased to target levels. Some management measures are in place, but there is no recovery plan to get the stock to above Blim. Catches have been below the recommended limits since 2017. However, catch limits cover two different whiting stocks, preventing adequate control of fishing pressure on each stock. Discards are significant, but reduced in 2018 to 15% from 32-26% for the previous three years. More needs to be done to improve gear selectivity and avoid unwanted catches of whiting. Whiting is caught as part of a mixed fishery, with haddock and cod. The bycatch of Celtic cod is of particular concern as the stock is in a very poor state and advice for it is a zero catch. Around 75% of whiting catch is by demersal otter trawling, which can cause abrasion to the seabed. This method is responsible for most Celtic cod catches. This rating receives a Critical Fail owing to the stock size being below Blim and the lack of precautionary recovery plan.

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

Whiting in the Celtic Seas is at dangerously low levels, below the point at which its ability to reproduce is compromised. As there is no precautionary recovery plan, this rating receives a Critical Fail for stock status and is a default red.

Spawning-stock biomass (SSB) of whiting has fallen rapidly from 61,000 tonnes in 2015 to 31,034 in 2020. It has been below MSY Btrigger (47,963 tonnes) since 2017, and below Blim (34,516 tonnes) since 2018. Fishing mortality (F) has also fallen recently, from 0.7 in 2016 to 0.36 in 2019 - the lowest since records began in 1999. Fishing pressure associated with maximum Sustainable Yield (FMSY) is 0.4, while the upper limit (Flim) is 0.89. Recruitment has been below average since 2014.

ICES advises that when the EU multiannual plan (MAP) for the Western Waters and adjacent waters is applied, catches in 2021 that correspond to the F ranges in the MAP are between 4,458 tonnes and 5,261 tonnes. This is a 19% reduction on last year’s advice, owing to changes in reference points and low incoming recruitment. It is surprising to see advice given in the form of a range rather than a single recommended catch limit when the stock is below BLim. Under the current fishing pressure, SSB is projected to increase to 32,000t in 2021 and 37,500t by 2022 - above Blim, but still below MSY BTrigger.

A new stock assessment model was used for the 2020 assessment. Reference points have been changed, with MSY BTrigger and Blim both increasing by around 40%, and FMSY and Flim decreasing by 20-25%. This has not changed the status of the stock.

Management

Some management measures are in place for Celtic Sea whiting, but the stock size is currently below safe biological levels. There is no recovery plan in place. Catches have been below the recommended limits since 2017. However, catch limits cover two different whiting stocks, preventing adequate control of fishing pressure on each stock. More needs to be done to improve gear selectivity and avoid unwanted catches of whiting.

This stock is covered by the EU Western Waters Multi Annual management Plan (MAP). Rather than holding strictly to MSY-based reference points, the MAP includes upper and lower ranges for fishing pressure (F), and requires F to be reduced when the stock drops below MSY BTrigger. It allows for a fishery to be closed if the stock falls below BLim, as is currently the case for this stock. Whiting in the Celtic Seas (divisions 7.b, 7.c, and 7.e-k) is fished under a common TAC with whiting in eastern English Channel (Division 7.d). By mixing the biological and TAC areas for different whiting stocks, it will be difficult to achieve the objective of fishing at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for both stocks. ICES therefore recommends that management should be implemented at the stock level.

In general, it would appear that catches have been some way below TACs and advice, suggesting that catch limits are not limiting in this fishery.

Since 2017, the landing obligation has applied to this stock, although up to 6% of the catch can be discarded by the main gear types. A significant proportion of unwanted catch is above the Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS, 27 cm), and is possibly discarded due to low market value. Discards are still significant, but reduced in 2020 to 14% from 52-19% for the previous three years. High levels of discarding for a species like whiting reduce long term yields, so efforts to improve selection and reduce discards in the mixed fishery should be encouraged. Further gear modifications to increase the likelihood of small whiting passing through the gear, such as introduction of larger minimum mesh sizes, separator panels, or grids may be needed.


Both the EU and UK have fishery management measures in place, which can include catch limits, targets for population sizes and fishing mortality, and controls on what fishing gear can be used and where. In the EU, compliance with regulations has been variable, and there are ongoing challenges with implementing some of them. There was a target for fishing to be at Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2020, but this was not achieved. The Landing Obligation (LO), an EU law that the UK has kept after Brexit, requires all fish and shellfish to be landed, even if they are unwanted (over-quota or below minimum size). It aims to promote more selective fishing methods, reduce bycatch, and improve recording of everything that is caught, not just what is wanted. Compliance with the LO is generally poor and actual levels of discards are difficult to quantify using the current fisheries observer programme.

In the UK, it is too early to tell how effective management is, as the Fisheries Act only came into force in January 2021. The Act requires the development of Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs) (replacing EU Multi-Annual Plans) but there are no details yet on how and when these will be developed. FMPs have the potential to be very important tools for managing UK fisheries, although data limitations may delay them for some stocks. MCS is keen to see FMPs for all commercially exploited stocks, especially where stocks are depleted, that include:
Targets for fishing pressure and biomass, and additional management when those targets are not being met
Timeframes for stock recovery
Technologies such as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) to support data collection and improve transparency and accountability
Consideration of wider environmental impacts of the fishery

Capture Information

Whiting in the Celtic Seas is caught as part of a mixed fishery with haddock, cod, lemon sole, plaice, monkfish, and John dory. Around 75% of the catch is by demersal otter trawl, which can have seabed impacts. Catches of Celtic cod in this fishery are of significant concern, as this stock is very depleted and advice is for zero catch.

Of the estimated 6,294t caught in 2019, 5,542t was landed, and caught mainly by otter trawls (73%); and seine nets (20%). The discarded 752t was mainly caught by otter trawls (63%) and beam trawls (29%). There is a minimum mesh size of 80mm for demersal otter trawlers. This fishery catches a wide variety of species and these mixed catches means that the minimum cod end mesh size of 80 mm and other aspects of the management regimes and markets are not optimal for all the species caught. Square-mesh panels of 100-120mm (depending on the gear type) were introduced in the second half of 2012 to reduce catches and discards of smaller whiting and haddock. There is no evidence that this has been effective as there was no accompanying observer programme to test it, although vessels using this gear are likely to have a smaller bycatch, and discards will be more likely to survive, than with 80mm mesh.

Bycatch of Celtic cod is unavoidable but of significant concern, as the current advice is for zero catch of this stock.

There are prohibitions on landing vulnerable marine species with depleted population abundance, e.g. common skate, black (Norwegian) skate, white skate, undulate ray, spurdog and angel shark.

Since 2005, ICES rectangles 30E4, 31E4, and 32E3 have been closed during the first quarter to reduce fishing activity on spawning aggregations of cod off North Cornwall, and this seems to have worked. The effectiveness of the closed rectangle off the Irish coast is less apparent due to a poorer understanding of spawning cod distribution. The effects of the closed areas upon the whiting stock are unclear.

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. Most otter trawling occurs within the same historical areas, where yields are high and it is safe to trawl. The main mitigation measures are Marine Protected Areas, some of which are designated for benthic features. If those MPAs were found to be subjected to bottom trawling, MCS would consider it a default red rating unless there is evidence (e.g. environmental impact assessment) indicating the activity does not damage the integrity of the site.

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

EU, 2019. Regulation (EU) 2019/472 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 March 2019 establishing a multiannual plan for stocks fished in the Western Waters and adjacent waters, and for fisheries exploiting those stocks. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1554387217276&uri=CELEX:32019R0472 [Accessed on 12.07.2019].

ICES. 2019. Working Group for the Celtic Seas Ecoregion (WGCSE). ICES Scientific Reports. 1:29. 1078 pp. doi: 10.17895/ices.pub.4982. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2019/WGCSE/01_WGCSE_2019.pdf [Accessed on 16.07.2019].

ICES, 2020. Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in divisions 7.b–c and 7.e–k (southern Celtic Seas and western English Channel). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, whg.27.7b-ce-k. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.4807 [Accessed on 08.01.2021].

Seafish, 2018. RASS Profile: Whiting, Celtic Sea, Demersal otter trawl. Available at https://www.seafish.org/risk-assessment-for-sourcing-seafood/profile/whiting-celtic-sea-demersal-otter-trawl [Accessed on 17.07.2019]