Industry responds strongly to the challenges it faces

by Thomas Jensen

The fisheries sector in Latvia is multifaceted and is represented by fishing, processing, trading, and fish farming. The fishing segment relies on the Latvian coastline that has a length of 500 km along the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea as well as 2,400 sq. km of inland waters.

The Latvian fleet in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga comprises over 60 vessels targeting sprat, herring, cod and salmon. Here a vessel belonging to the company Varita returns to port after fishing in the Gulf of Riga.

In 2015 the total catch in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga amounted to just under 65,000 tonnes of which 2,600 tonnes was from the coastal fishery. Inland water fisheries and aquaculture production together amounted to about 1,000 tonnes. Total fisheries production in Latvia in 2015 thus amounted to some 81 thousand tonnes a significant drop from the year before when production was 120,000 tonnes. The reduction was essentially due to a fall in catches by the Atlantic fleet.

National fleet subdivided into three categories

The fishing fleet in Latvia is segmented into the coastal fleet, the offshore fleet, and the high seas vessels. The coastal fleet numbers about 600 vessels with a total tonnage of 735 GT and a capacity of 4,440 kW. Although these vessels constitute 90% of the total Latvian fleet in terms of numbers, they are very small vessels often only 5 m in length and without an engine. They make up 3% of the tonnage and 10% of the capacity of the entire fleet. Coastal fishermen use various fixed gear, traps, nets, and pots, to catch fish. These nets are set and then emptied at regular intervals. The coastal fishermen catch mainly herring flounder and cod with insignificant volumes of several other species. This segment of the fleet caught 2,600 tonnes of fish in 2015, of which herring was the dominant species. Many of the smaller coastal vessels are used for subsistence fishing, where the catch is consumed by the fisherman and his family rather than sold commercially. One of the challenges coastal fishermen often bring up is the damage to their catches caused by seals. In summer and autumn when catches are better the menace from seals is also more prevalent. The seals are not native to Latvia, but are migratory creatures swimming from Finland or Estonia, where they breed. The administration is now considering compensation for fishers affected by seals subject to the fishers providing data on the nature and extent of the damage. Trials with seal repelling equipment have also been carried out, but the results have been inconclusive.

Latvian fishing fleet, 01.01.2016
Fleet segmentTotalTonnage , GTCapacity, kW
Fishing fleet in the baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga:637,10318,403
Of which, trawlers 12-24 m125352,424
trawlers > 24 m445,96014,568
vessels using net as main gear > 24 m76081,411
Fishing fleet in coastal area6127354,442
High seas1116,83820,455
Total 68624,67643,300

The fleet in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga consists of 63 vessels of which 12 are between 12 and 24 m, while 51 are above 24 m. The number of vessels in this fleet segment has been reducing steadily since 2011 as quotas have fallen, EU support for vessel decommissio
ning was available from the EU, and profitability needed to increase. In 2015 these vessels had a combined tonnage of 7,000 GT and a capacity of 18,000 kW, corresponding to 29% and 43% respectively of the national fleet. While most of the vessels in both length categories are trawlers targeting small pelagic species, a few of the vessels above 24 m use fixed nets. These are used to net mainly cod, flounder, smelt and salmon. Catches from the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga consist primarily of herring and sprat. These two species alone accounted for over 85% of the catch in 2015. The quota utilisation for the two pelagic species was very high in 2015 at 98% for herring and 99% for sprat. The other main species caught in the Baltic Sea are cod and flounder, while in the Gulf of Riga it is European smelt.

Drop in quotas worries fishermen

The Latvian quota in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga for three of the four main species, herring, sprat, cod, has fallen in 2016. For salmon the quota has stayed stable at 12,600 pieces. The cod quota shows the most drastic decline at 20% to just under 4,000 tonnes, due to concerns about overfishing. A series of measures was also agreed on by the European Commission, including the extension of the closed season to protect the spawning stock, monitoring of the impact of recreational fishing by Member States around the Baltic, and close surveillance of the development of the stock by scientific advisory bodies. For herring and sprat the reductions were smaller at 7% and 5% respectively. Latvia’s herring quota for 2016 now stands at 23,700 tonnes higher than any of the seven years prior to 2015. The 2016 sprat quota on the other hand is in keeping with a consistently declining trend since 2008. The sprat, herring, and salmon quotas are in line with scientific advice and consistent with provisions in the Common Fisheries Policy that legally require the maximum sustainable yield exploitation rate to be achieved by 2020 at the latest for all stocks.

Latvian quotas in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga in tonnes
Year Herring Sprat Cod Salmon*

Over the last few years the cod fishery has been affected by the poor quality of the fish, which have been characterised as skinny. The problem was so widespread that Mr Voits asked the ministry to shut down the fishery and pay the fishermen compensation instead. The request was rejected as other countries were not planning similar measures and Latvia’s action alone would not have achieved anything. Today, according to Mr Voits, the situation is no better. While the Latvian quota for cod in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga has averaged 6,000 tonnes for the five years to 2015, catches have averaged 3,400 tonnes. Average utilisation of the quota was only 54% due to the poor condition of the fish. Had the fish been twice as large as they were, utilisation would have been much higher. Mr Voits, a former trawler owner himself, says today all the cod are the same small size, while in the past it was possible to find a mix of fish of different sizes. He would therefore like to see the cod fishery closed for two or three years for all the countries around the Baltic and the fishermen given compensation instead for the expenses they incur while their vessels are in port. However, according to Poland’s National Marine Fisheries Research Institute there are many possible factors behind the cod’s skinny condition, including the state of other stocks such as sprat on which cod preys, changes in the hydrological conditions in the Baltic, migration of sprat to different areas of the sea, spawning conditions for cod, the size of the cod stock, the abundance of other species on which cod feeds, and so on. Given all these influences on the condition of the fish, whether a theoretical Baltic-wide moratorium on fishing cod will have the desired impact is questionable. Mr Voits himself admits that even among the fishermen around the Baltic there is no consensus on the issue or its solutions.

Bycatch not an issue in the pelagic fisheries

Latvia has quotas for herring in the Gulf of Riga and in the Baltic Sea. The allocation in the Gulf of Riga is the main one generally accounting for over four fifths of the total. About 15% of the quota is reserved for the coastal fishers, who fish in a zone up to a depth of 20 m using small boats often without engines and gear such as trap nets. Herring and sprat are often caught together and are then sorted. Bycatch in the small pelagics fishery is not really an issue. In 2015 Mr Voits made some calculations on the amount of potential discards and found that in the last three months these were 4.6%, 3.7% and 1.7%. The fish was exclusively cod
and was not actually discarded but brought back to shore for use as fishmeal and fish oil. Discards in the pelagic fishery are thus minimal, which is also confirmed by Normunds Riekstins, the head of the Fisheries Department. Even before the introduction of the landing obligation fishermen were landing everything, he says. However, the logistics of reporting the amount of bycatch, say cod, and of dividing it up into fish above and below the minimum reference size, when the catch is not sorted on board is posing problems. How this fish is finally utilised also remains to be decided. Producer Organisations are being invited to submit project proposals with suggestions as to how this fish can be used. One of the proposals is for the POs to have their own fishmeal and fish oil production plant which can use this fish. Latvia is also part of BaltFish, a regional grouping of representatives from countries around the Baltic, where discussions are taking place on technical measure for the Baltic Sea on how to improve the status of cod.

Catches in the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga, 2015
 YearBaltic sea and Gulf of RigaCoastal areaTotalUse of quota (%)
Salmon (pieces/t)137/0.41190/3.61327/4.022
Baltic herring23,2781,98825,26698
Flounder1,9491242,073not applicable
Smelt1,083431,126not applicable
Other species2,3373652,702not applicable

Increasing Interest in sustainability certification


Cod stocks in the Baltic Sea are divided into the eastern stock and the western stock. Five fisheries targeting the eastern stock from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Latvia have been certified to the Marine Stewardship Council standard. The Latvian fishery as recently as July 2015. In December 2015 however the certification was suspended following an audit that concluded that the 2015 stock assessment by ICES was insufficient to provide advice on stock status. The fisheries have responded with an action plan the implementation of which will be monitored by the certification bodies who will finally re-audit the fisheries. The loss of the certification will probably have an impact on the sector as many customers and companies ask for it. It is very important for the market, says Mr Voits, in a number of countries, such as Denmark, Germany, and the UK. Latvian fishermen in the National Fisheries Producer Organisation Pelagic Trawl started the certification for the sprat fishery in the Baltic Sea at the end of 2015 a process that is expected to take to the middle of 2017 to complete. The certification is expected to open new markets for sprat initially in the Netherlands and the UK, but also in other countries. Mr Voits says that a number enquiries have been coming in asking when the fishery will be certified. Part of the interest is in response to trials that the Latvians have made with the sprat, whereby the fish are mechanically headed and gutted giving a clean and user-friendly product. The interest in certified fish has spurred Latvian fishermen to also consider having the herring stock in the Gulf of Riga certified. Here the quota is about 20,000 tonnes as opposed to 4,000 tonnes in the main basin of the Baltic Sea.

Latvia for the first time held the presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2015. For a small country with a small administration leading regulatory developments in the EU is always a challenging task. Normunds Riekstins, director in the Fisheries Department is broadly satisfied with the Latvian effort in the fisheries sector. Mentioning the multispecies multiannual management plan for the Baltic Sea, he says although it was only finalised a year later, Latvia played an important role in moving it forward from the initial presentation of the regulation to the consultation and agreement with the European Parliament, setting an exa
mple for how efficiently legislation can be guided through the parliament. The major issue is how fishing opportunities are going to be set for future years. These will be based on developments in the stocks that will be monitored by scientists who will furnish the advice each year. One of the differences the plan will introduce says Mr Riekstins is that there will be less scope to adjust the TACs through negotiation between the different bodies (Council, Commission and Parliament) as the plan will lay down the law and the emphasis will be on stable stocks rather than a stable fishery. Latvia also efficiently steered regulations on the landing obligation and the reduction of discards through the parliamentary procedures. An important issue was international relations, for example, the fisheries partnership agreements and the NEAFC and NAFO agreements, where the presidency leads the EU’s internal consultations.

Normunds Riekstins, Director, Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture
Inarijs Voits, President, Latvian Fishermen’s Association
Normunds Riekstins, Director, Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture

High seas fleet makes use of fisheries partnership agreements

The Latvian high seas fleet consisted of 11 vessels in 2015, which, with a gross tonnage of 16,800 and a capacity of 18,000, accounted for 68% and 47% respectively of the tonnage and capacity of the national fleet. These vessels have in fact increased in number for the first time in three years returning to the numerical strength they last had in 2011. Despite this increase in number catches by this fleet segment in 2015 were poor in relation to previous years for all the main species. Compared with 2014 horse mackerel catches declined by 77%, mackerel by 56%, redfish by two thirds and catches of sardinella fell to almost nothing from 10,100 tonnes. The gear used by these vessels is mainly trawls. These vessels are active off the coasts of Mauritania and Morocco in West Africa, where they target pelagic fish thanks to fisheries partnership agreements that the EU has signed with these countries. These agreements combine commercial, political, and humanitarian aspects and are therefore quite complicated, but they are of interest to the vessel owners because they offer substantial fishing opportunities. In fact, in good years, Latvian catches under these agreements are more than the country’s total catch from the Baltic. However, most of the fish is traded without ever returning to Latvia.

Latvian vessels also fish in the convention areas of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), where the important species are red fish and shrimp. Altogether, high seas catches of the main species amounted to about 15,000 tonnes in 2015 down from some 60,000 tonnes the year before. Over the last couple of years a new fishery has developed in the NEAFC area of the Barents Sea for queen crab (Chionoecetes opilio), which are fished using pots. Latvian vessels have been active in targeting this resource which is either processed on board or on land and in some instances also shipped live to the final destination.

A variety of products are made for the domestic market based on imported fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, and seafood.

Latvia also has a small Inland fishing activity where catches have hovered around 300 tonnes for the last several years though with a slight declining trend. This may be attributed to restrictions placed on the use of certain gears in inland waters. River lamprey, bream, pike, and tench are the most common species caught by inland fishermen. Another activity, highly popular in Latvia, though not of commercial significance, is angling. Sport fishers need a license and typically fish in inland water bodies, however fishing from boats in the sea is also increasing in popularity. The proceeds from the sale of angling licenses is used to fund a substantial restocking effort, where larvae and juveniles of several freshwater and a few marine species are grown and released. In recent years burbot, vimba, river lamprey, pike and salmon are among the fish bred for restocking.

Processing industry invests in new products and markets

The processing industry in Latvia is highly dependent on imported raw materials in particular mackerel, horse mackerel, Atlantic herring, salmon, and other kinds of fish and seafood, much of which is landed in Klaipeda in neighbouring Lithuania, where vast refrigeration facilities make it convenient to store the fish. In 2015 Latvian imports of fish products were valued at EUR145m, while exports were EUR174m. Both imports and exports have fallen for the second consecutive year. Imported fish and seafood provide the raw material for a variety of products, fresh, frozen, prepared and preserved, as well as dried, salted, and smoked, that are sold on the domestic market as well as exported. Latvia’s main export partners are its neighbours, Estonia, and Lithuania as well as Russia, while imports are mainly from Estonia, Sweden, Lithuania, Denmark, and Norway.

Catches in high-seas (Mauritania, Morocco, NEAFC and NAFO areas)
Horse mackerel6,879
Other species231

The embargo in 2015 on exports of canned fish to Russia, Latvia’s single most important market for these products, has had an impact on the sector. Russia absorbed 50% of the Latvian export of canned fish. Now, with the embargo in place since June 2015 the fish processing sector needs smaller volumes of raw material, which in turn has an impact on the fishing sector. Latvian exports of frozen fish to Russia had already been blocked in August 2014. Making matters worse, from the start of 2016 Belarus, the main importer of frozen sprat from Latvia, also closed its borders to this product. Ukraine could pick up some of the slack as consumers there know the products and the sector has a history of trading with the Ukraine, but the problem there is the currency devaluation and the fall in living standards, which has made Latvian products more expensive. Currency fluctuations have also affected shipments to the central Asian republics that were good markets. In addition, Russia has also stopped the transit of goods through its territory, which has made it much more expensive to ship products to Central Asia. As a result of these developments, Inarijs Voits, president of the Latvian Fishing Association, expects a significant change in the export figures for 2015. The only way out of this situation is to find new export markets. Among the possibilities he names are Moldova and Georgia. The closure of markets has meant that the national fisheries producer organisation, of which he is chairman, has withdrawn 2,500 tonnes of frozen sprat and 800 tonnes of herring from the market and placed it in storage since the start of 2016.

Canning companies are developing novel products with attractive designs to appeal to consumers in different segments on new markets around the world.

Close cooperation between research and industry to foster innovation

The fish in storage was caught during the winter months and is therefore of the highest quality. In contrast, fish caught between April and September when the water in the Baltic Sea is warmer tends to be of lower quality. Mr Voits feels that at least half the stored material he will be able to sell to the processing industry later in the year. As he says, Russia, which was half the market for Latvian exports of canned fish, is now closed, but the other half of the market, some 40 countries, is still open for business. Normunds Riekstins, director in the Fisheries Department, says that the sector is responding by looking for new markets for their products in China, USA, and Latin America as well as looking at developing new product lines that will be attractive to other markets. He feels that companies will try and keep their employees on standby so that in case the situation improves companies will be able to rapidly ramp up production. Part of the answer to the loss of traditional markets may lie in the emphasis on innovation in the new European Maritime and Monetary Fund. Each year the ministry holds a conference on funding opportunities and innovation will be one of the topics for discussion at this year’s conference. Different research institutes will present results from their work that could benefit industry and at the same time establish a dialogue to ascertain what the industry’s requirement are. In general support opportunities through the fisheries funds are well utilised in Latvia. Companies are active at seeking the support and last year almost 100% of the available funding was utilised, says Mr Riekstins.

Import and export of fish products in Latvia 2010-2015   
Fish products, including canned  fish export, million EUR135156200223182174
Fish products, including canned  fish import, million EUR101126153165153145

Latvian fish products trade balance, million EUR

The search for new products and markets is necessary because at least in Russia Inarijs Voits feels that the situation will not improve for a while. The Russian rouble too has depreciated and even if the embargo is lifted consumers are going to struggle to pay for western goods. The impact is already being felt in the canning sector, where the number of cans produced has reduced drastically, some companies have retrenched, and Mr Inarijs expects a few to close, the most vulnerable being those that were exporting the bulk of the production to Russia.

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