Merlangius merlangus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal otter trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — North Sea, English Channel (East)
Stock detail — 4, 7d
Picture of Whiting

Sustainability rating four info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2020

The stock is at a sustainable level in 2020, although for most of the last 15 years it has been below this point. Fishing pressure is too high, and has been since 1978. Discarding of the stock is high in some areas, and measures are required to improve selectivity. There is a mismatch between management areas and stock areas, which makes it harder to manage fishing pressure. Most of the catch is from the Northern North Sea and landed into Scotland by boats working with larger meshes to reduce discard levels. However, there is still a risk that the vulnerable North Sea cod stock could be caught as bycatch. There is also potential for the demersal trawlers to have impacts on vulnerable seabed habitats such as sponges and corals.


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: 0.5 info

The stock is at a sustainable level in 2020, although for most of the last 15 years it has been below this point. Fishing pressure is too high, and has been since 1978.

Spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has fluctuated between MSY Btrigger (166,708 tonnes) and Blim (119,970t) since the mid-1980s. Estimated SSB in 2020 is 169,979 tonnes - just above MSY BTrigger, and the first time it has exceeded this level since 2002. Fishing mortality (F) has been above FMSY (0.172, revised downwards from 0.3 in 2018) since records began in 1978, apart from in 2005. In 2019 it was 0.21, which is above FMSY but below Fpa (0.33) and Flim (0.46). Recruitment of young fish into the fishery has been fluctuating without trend, but there appears to be a spike in 2019, which would be the highest level since 2001.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2020 should be no more than 26,304 tonnes. This is a 19% increase on the previous year and is projected to allow a 2.7% increase in SSB. The COVID-19-abbreviated advice from ICES doesn’t explain the cause, but it would appear to be related to SSB being above MSY BTrigger and the high incoming recruitment.

This whiting stock (in division 7d) is managed under a common TAC with the whiting stock in divisions 7b-c and e-k. This mismatch between management and stock areas makes it difficult to achieve the objective of fishing at MSY for both stocks.

There is a concentration of whiting biomass in the western part of the North Sea and therefore catch rates from some local fleets do not represent trends in the overall stock. This can also result in high levels of localised discarding.

This assessment is based on the 2018 benchmark, but new survey index calculations were applied in 2020, which has improved the data quality.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

Catches of unwanted whiting in this fishery are very high, averaging around 40% in the past 5 years. There is also a mismatch between the stock areas and management, which makes it difficult to properly manage fishing pressure.

Catches of whiting have declined from 243,570 tonnes in 1979 to 31,286 tonnes in 2019, including discards and industrial bycatch. This stock is covered by the EU’s North Sea Multi Annual management Plan (MAP), and although the MAP has not been adopted by Norway, joint TACs are agreed through the EU-Norway Agreement. In 2019 the European Union and Norway jointly requested ICES to advise on the long-term management strategies on joint stocks, including whiting. ICES assessed that its own MSY approach was not precautionary because the probability of SSB falling below Blim was greater than 5%. ICES is investigating whether the reference points of its own advice need to be redefined, but in the meantime, and until a management strategy is agreed upon, ICES advice continues to be used. Part of this whiting stock (in division 7d) is managed under a common TAC with the whiting stock in divisions 7b-c and e-k. This mismatch between management and stock areas makes it difficult to achieve the objective of fishing at MSY for both stocks. Whiting in divisions 7.b-k is included in the North-western waters MAP, while this stock is under the North Sea MAP. ICES recommends that management should be implemented at the stock level.

The fishing pressure on this stock has always been at levels above MSY. The spawning stock biomass is slightly above MSY BTrigger in 2020 - the first time since 2002. Recruitment in 2019 appears to be the highest since 2001. Therefore, scientific advice for 2021 is a 19% increase on the previous year. Catch advice is split into the human consumption fishery, the industrial bycatch fishery and unwanted catch / discards. The 2020 advice for a total catch of 26,304 tonnes works out as 14,487t marketable landings, 9,584t unwanted catch and 2,233t industrial bycatch. From 2015-2019 total catches have averaged 118% of the advice.

The Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS) for whiting in this area is 27cm. Unwanted catch, which includes discards and below MCRS landings, averaged 39% of the total catch from 2015-2019. Since 2018, whiting catches in all fleets are subject to the landing obligation, with a de minimis exemption for whiting caught with bottom trawls in Division 4c. However, below MCRS landings reported to ICES in 2015-2018 were low and substantial discarding still continues, based on observations from sampling programmes. ICES recommends improvements to the selection pattern and reductions in catches of undersized fish. The 2008-2016 North Sea cod recovery plan included measures to improve selectivity of fishing gear and reduce fishing effort, which benefitted associated species such as whiting, but these measures have been discontinued. The minimum mesh size for targeting whiting in Subarea 4 is 120 mm and in Division 7d is 80 mm. Whiting are a bycatch in some Nephrops fisheries that use a mesh size of 80 mm, although landings are restricted through bycatch regulations. They are also caught in flatfish fisheries that use a smaller mesh size. The industrial bycatch of whiting in the sprat, Norway pout and sandeel fisheries is dependent on activity in that fishery.

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: 0.75 info

There is a risk that the vulnerable North Sea cod stock could be caught as bycatch in this fishery, and there is also potential for the demersal trawlers to have impacts on vulnerable seabed habitats such as sponges and corals.

Whiting are caught as part of mixed demersal fisheries, which include haddock, cod, Nephrops, plaice, and sole. Demersal trawls and seines with a mesh size of 120 mm or more in the North Sea accounted for the majority of the 2018 catch, at 65%. Demersal trawls with mesh size of 70-99 mm in the North Sea accounted for 6%, and the same gear in the Eastern English Channel accounted for 21%. Updated figures are not available for 2019 owing to Covid-19 disruption that has resulted in abbreviated advice from ICES. Whiting are also taken as bycatch in industrial fisheries for sand eels and Norway pout, and in Nephrops and flatfish fisheries, which use smaller mesh sizes.

Trawling is associated with high levels of bycatch and, if in contact with the seabed, benthic impacts can also occur. However, damage to vulnerable and sensitive marine habitats is likely to be minimised given that the footprint of the fishery is within core areas, typically historically fished ground. Spatial management to reduce potential interactions with vulnerable habitats are being developed, as there remains uncertainties about the location of some sensitive seabed habitats so these remain at risk.

Under the North Sea MAP, bycatch species should be managed under the precautionary approach if scientific information is not available, and otherwise managed according to the key CFP objectives. If stocks fall below trigger levels, measures can be brought in such as limits on characteristics or use of gear (e.g. mesh size, depth); time/area closures; and minimum conservation reference sizes.

ICES and STECF data indicate that the demersal otter trawl roundfish-directed fishery has the biggest impact on the North Sea cod stock, and therefore cod bycatch is of concern in this fishery. Mitigation measures include: minimum 120mm mesh size in the northern North Sea and seasonal closures to protect spawning stocks (spawning cod, in particular). For cod, haddock, saithe and whiting in the North Sea and Skagerrak, if more than 10% of the catch by weight is juveniles (smaller than 35cm, 30cm, 35cm, or 27cm respectively), the area in which they were caught is closed for 3 weeks.


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)


EU, 2018. Regulation 2018/973 establishing a multiannual plan for demersal stocks in the North Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32018R0973&from=EN [Accessed on 02.07.2019].

EU, 2019. Bilateral Agreements: Norway Northern Agreement. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/cfp/international/agreements/norway [Accessed on 02.07.2019].

ICES, 2018. ICES Stock Annex: Cod (Gadus morhua) in Subarea 4 and divisions 7.d and 20 (North Sea, eastern English Channel, Skagerrak). cod.27.47d20_SA. Revised: May 2018. Available at https://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Stock%20Annexes/2018/cod.27.47d20_SA.pdf [Accessed on 30.07.2019].

ICES. 2020. Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in Subarea 4 and Division 7.d (North Sea and eastern English Channel). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, whg.27.47d. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.5935 [Accessed on 07.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. Working Group on the Assessment of Demersal Stocks in the North Sea and Skagerrak (WGNSSK). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:61. 1140 pp. Available at http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.6092 [Accessed on 07.07.2020].

Jones, H., Cook, R., des Clers, S. and Deleau, M. 2020. Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) 3rd Surveillance Audit Report: Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG) Northern Demersal Stocks. Prepared by Control Union Pesca Ltd, February 2020. Available at https://fisheries.msc.org/en/fisheries/sfsag-northern-demersal-stocks/@@assessments [Accessed on 07.07.2020].

Seafish, 2019. RASS Profile: Whiting in the North Sea and Eastern English Channel, Demersal otter trawl. Available at https://www.seafish.org/risk-assessment-for-sourcing-seafood/profile/whiting-in-the-north-sea-and-eastern-english-channel-demersal-otter-trawl [Accessed on 03.07.2019]

WWF, 2019. Remote Electronic Monitoring in UK Fisheries Management 2017. Available at https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-10/Remote%20Electronic%20Monitoring%20in%20UK%20Fisheries%20Management_WWF.pdf [Accessed on 02.07.2019].