Challenging ICES age estimation protocols: lessons learned from the eastern Baltic cod stock
Over the recent decades, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has set guidelines for best practise quality control of age estimation procedures. The applicability of these guidelines is assessed by reviewing the ageing issues of eastern Baltic cod (EBC) as a case study. Since the implementation of an age-based assessment of EBC in the beginning of the 1970s, the assessment has been hampered by the quality of the age composition data, in recent years to a degree that age-based assessment is no longer used. The reason for the age reading problems is the low visual contrast between growth zones in the otoliths which seems to be the result of complex interactions of the hydrography in the Baltic Sea with the cod’s biology and behaviour. Over the last 40 years, various expert groups have struggled to document and improve the agreement of age estimation between national otolith readers, standardize methods and age estimations through repeated exchanges and reference collections as well as an internationally agreed manual. Despite these initiatives the precision of the age estimations based on traditional ageing did not improve, with significant bias persisting between and within readers. Additionally, a wide range of alternative methods for deriving the age information necessary for stock assessment and for validation of the true age have been tested. However, these methods did not produce unbiased age estimates over the entire size and age range of the EBC stock. An age-validation is urgently needed. Deviations from the ICES guidelines identified are as follows: (i) the lack of rigorous quality control, particularly the auditing of national trends in age precision over the years using a reference collection and (ii) the implementation of an age error matrix in the stock assessment.