Could seals prevent cod recovery in the Baltic Sea?

Fish populations are increasingly affected by multiple human and natural impacts including exploitation, eutrophication, habitat alteration and climate change. As a result many collapsed populations may have to recover in ecosystems whose structure and functioning differ from those in which they were formerly productive and supported sustainable fisheries. Here we investigate how a cod (Gadus morhua) population in the Baltic Sea whose biomass was reduced due to a combination of high exploitation and deteriorating environmental conditions might recover and develop in the 21st century in an ecosystem that likely will change due to both the already started recovery of a cod predator, the grey seal Halichoerus grypus, and projected climate impacts. Simulation modelling, assuming increased seal predation, fishing levels consistent with management plan targets and stable salinity, shows that the cod population could reach high levels well above the long-term average. Scenarios with similar seal and fishing levels but with 15% lower salinity suggest that the Baltic will still be able to support a cod population which can sustain a fishery, but biomass and yields will be lower. At present knowledge of cod and seal interactions, seal predation was found to have much lower impact on cod recovery, compared to the effects of exploitation and salinity. These results suggest that dual management objectives (recovery of both seal and cod populations) are realistic but success in achieving these goals will also depend on how climate change affects cod recruitment.