Whiting

Merlangius merlangus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal otter trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Irish Sea
Stock detail — 7a
Picture of Whiting

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

Default red rating: Whiting in the Irish Sea is in a very poor state: current stock size is less than 7% of sustainable levels. Fishing pressure is above sustainable levels. Advice is for zero catch, but this species continues to be caught as bycatch - almost entirely by Nephrops fisheries. Advice has been for zero catch since 2001, but the allowable catch in recent years (2012-2018) has been set at 80 tonnes, while recent discards have averaged over 1,000 tonnes. Discarding is a serious problem for whiting in this area and nationally, with over 40 million whiting discarded in 2009. The introduction of highly selective gears to reduce finfish catch and discards in the Irish Sea Nephrops fishery appears to have reduced whiting catches in the last three years - from 98% of the catch in 2016 to 95% in 2018. Most discarded whiting are undersized, and whiting now mature at smaller sizes than they used to. If current fishing pressure is maintained, the stock will continue to decrease. The poor stock status, ongoing very high catches, and lack of recovery plan result in a Critical Fail for this rating.

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: Default red rating info

Stock Area

Irish Sea

Stock information

The stock is in a very poor state and advice is for zero catch, but this species continues to be caught as bycatch. Fishing pressure is above sustainable levels.

The present stock size is extremely low. SSB has been declining since the start of the time-series and has been well below Blim (10,000t) since the mid-1990s. In 2018 it was 1,077t. MSY BTrigger is 16,300 tonnes, putting current stock size at below 7% of sustainable levels. Recruitment has been low since the early 1990s. Fishing pressure (F) has declined since 2015, but has been above Flim (0.37) and therefore FMSY (0.22) since recording began in 1990, and in 2018 was 0.46.
ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, there should be zero catches in each of the years 2020 and 2021. 0 catch has been advised since 2001, and over that time TACs have reduced from over 1000 to 80 tonnes in 2012-2018. Catches from 2013-2018 averaged 40% of the TAC, but discards have been around 40 times higher than catches, ranging from 1,974t in 2014 to 899t in 2018. In 2019, the TAC was set at 727 tonnes, now including discards owing to the implementation of the Landing Obligation. If recent fishing pressure is maintained, the stock will continue to decrease but if total catches are in line with 2019 TAC, it is predicted to increase by around 20%.

In 2017 the data available for this stock improved, allowing it to be fully assessed.

Management

The EU multiannual plan (MAP) for stocks in in the Western Waters and adjacent waters takes bycatch of this species into account. It states that bycatch species should be managed according to the key CFP objectives, which includes achieving Maximum Sustainable Yield, and applying precautionary and ecosystem based approaches to management. ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, there should be zero catches in each of the years 2020 and 2021. 0 catch has been advised since 2001, and over that time TACs have reduced from over 1000 tonnes to 80 tonnes in 2012-2018. Catches from 2013-2018 averaged 40% of the TAC, but discards have been around 40 times higher than catches, ranging from 1,974t in 2014 to 899t in 2018. In 2019, the TAC was set at 727 tonnes, and now includes discards owing to the implementation of the Landing Obligation. If recent fishing pressure is maintained, the stock will continue to decrease but if total catches (including discards) are in line with 2019 TAC, it is predicted to increase by around 20%.

ICES has advised that removing the EU TAC for Whiting in ICES Division 7.a may generate a high risk of the stock being unsustainably exploited. However, the TAC is not currently controlling exploitation.

The majority of whiting caught are discards in the Nephrops fishery and are below the EU minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) of 27cm. Whiting now mature well below this MCRS. The introduction of further highly selective gears to reduce finfish catch and discards in the Nephrops fishery, appears to have reduced whiting catches in the last three years. Discards remain high relative to the landings (95% of total catch in 2018 was discarded).

Given the continued high discards and low TAC, this stock could become a major’choke species’for the Irish Sea Nephrops fishery in the context of the landing obligation. In 2019, this stock was given a bycatch quota, on the understanding that a bycatch reduction plan would be introduced as soon as possible. While the plans should have been finalised in April 2019, they are not yet (as of July 2019) in place.


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

There is no remaining targeted whiting fishery in the Irish Sea. Whiting are taken as bycatch (and discarded) within the main Irish Sea fisheries. In 2018 around 95% of the whiting catch was discarded, and 98% of the discards were by boats trawling for Nephrops. Most of it was below the Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS).

Management measures are required to reduce bycatch and discarding of the species here. This could be achieved by effort reduction, spatial and temporal changes or closures in the fishery based on whiting abundance, nursery areas or technical measures in the gear such as escape panels, separator panels, square mesh and variations in mesh size over the net.

The closure of the western Irish Sea to whitefish fishing from mid-February to the end of April, designed to protect cod, was continued in 2018 but is unlikely to have affected whiting catches, which are mainly bycatch in the Nephrops fishery. Nephrops vessels can obtain a derogation to fish in certain sections of the closed area, providing they fit separator panels to their nets to allow escape of cod and other fish. The Nephrops fleet in the Irish Sea are obliged to use one of four types of cod selective measures, namely a ‘Swedish’grid; the inclined separator panel, SELTRA trawl or 300 square mesh panel.

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
Coley, Saithe
Haddock
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
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 12.07.2019].

ICES, 2019. Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in Division 7.a (Irish Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, whg.27.7a, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.5224. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/whg.27.7a.pdf [Accessed on 12.07.2019].