Merlangius merlangus

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

Sustainability rating four info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

The stock is fluctuating just below sustainable levels, and is subject to overfishing. 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

Stock Area

North Sea, eastern English Channel

Stock information

The stock is hovering around sustainable levels, although for most of the past 15 years it has been below the point at which management measures should be triggered. Fishing pressure is too high, and has been since 1978.

Spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has fluctuated around MSY Btrigger (166,708t) since the mid-1980s, but generally stayed below it from 2005-2016. SSB in 2019 is again below it, at 163,406t. 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, and in 2018 it was 0.199. Recruitment (R) has been fluctuating without trend, but the last two year classes are below average.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2020 should be no more than 22,082 tonnes. This is an 8.7% decrease on the previous year, owing to recent low recruitment and a reduction in fishing mortality (to below FMSY) in response to SSB being below MSY Btrigger.

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.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

Discards of unwanted whiting in this fishery are very high, at 38% in 2018. There is also a mismatch between the stock areas and management, which makes it difficult to properly manage fishing pressure.

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. The fishing pressure on this stock has always been at levels above MSY, and the spawning stock is slightly below MSY BTrigger, and recruitment has been declining. Therefore, scientific advice for 2020 is an 8.7% reduction in TAC. In 2019 the European Union and Norway jointly requested ICES to advise on the long-term management strategies on joint stocks, including whiting, and 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.

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.

Below Minimum Size landings reported to ICES in 2015-2018 were low. 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 4.c. Substantial discarding still continues, based on observations from sampling programmes (estimated unwanted catch in 2018 is 9,942 tonnes, which is 38% of the human consumption fishery catch). 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.

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%. 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. The minimum mesh size of 120 mm in the north led to a decrease in discarding rates from 60% in 2003 to 47% in 2009 to 22% in 2013. However, since 2000 the human consumption Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for this stock has been restrictive, and discarding rates increased to 38% in 2018. The minimum mesh size for whiting in Division 7.d is 80 mm.


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)


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, 2018. Report of the Working Group on the Assessment of Demersal Stocks in the North Sea and Skagerrak (WGNSSK), 24 April - 3 May 2018, Oostende, Belgium. ICES CM 2018/ACOM: 22pp. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/acom/2018/WGNSSK/01-WGNSSK%20Report%202018.pdf [Accessed on 02.07.2019].

ICES. 2019. Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) in Subarea 4 and Division 7.d (North Sea and eastern English Channel). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, whg.27.47d, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4878. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/whg.27.47d.pdf [Accessed on 03.07.2019].MSC, 2019. Marine Stewardship Council Track a Fishery: SFSAG Northern Demersal Stocks. Available at https://fisheries.msc.org/en/fisheries/sfsag-northern-demersal-stocks/about/ [Accessed on 03.07.2019].

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].