By Lewis Smith | June 06 2012
The quota row with Iceland and the Faroe Islands has led to mackerel being taken off a list of fish recommended as a sustainable choice for the dinner table.
Mackerel, which has for many years been one of Northern Europe’s most sustainable species of fish, has been removed from the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) ‘to eat’ list.
It follows a long-running row between the European Union and Norway on one side, and Iceland and the Faroes on the other, over how to share out the £1 billion mackerel annual catch from the North east Atlantic.
The row, dubbed the mackerel war, has already led to the suspension of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certification of sustainability and the loss of the organisation’s prestigious eco-label for seven fisheries.
Scientists have calculated that the maximum quantity of mackerel that can be caught this year without harming future stock levels is 639,000 tonnes. Quotas, however, have already been set at more than 870,000 tonnes.
Quotas for mackerel have risen substantially in the last five years because Iceland and the Faroes, frustrated at what they perceived to be too small an allocation, declared unilateral catch levels in defiance of previous agreements with Norway and the EU.
Iceland has this year declared it is entitled to catch more than 145,000 tonnes while the Faroes have set their own quota at more than 148,000. Before 2007 the Icelandic catch was just a few thousand tonnes while the Faroe Islands claimed 28,000 in 2010 but both believe that a shift in the mackerel migration route mean they should be entitled to a greater share of the valuable fish.
The EU’s quota for 2012 has been set at 396,000 tonnes while Norway’s is 181,000 tonnes. The UK gets the biggest share of the EU’s quota, with between 180,000 and 190,000 tonnes expected to be allocated this year.
A series of multi-national summits failed to find a solution to the row and unless a deal is struck within months the EU is threatening a trade war to force Iceland and the Faroes to back down. Among the likely measures are bans on any fish from Iceland or the Faroes being imported into Europe.
Mackerel was removed from the MCS’s list of recommended species in recognition of the unsustainable level of catch now believed to be taking place.
The MCS usually relies entirely on scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) but decided the issue was so pressing that it could no longer regard mackerel as a ‘fish to eat’.
Fish recommended as species being caught sustainably and listed as ‘to eat’ under the MCS’s guidelines are classified as ‘1’ or ‘2’. Mackerel was a ‘2’ but is now listed as “under review”. Officially the MCS rating has not changed because the organisation is awaiting the latest scientific data, but in practice it is no longer recommending the fish. ICES is expected to reassess data on mackerel stocks over the summer and the MCS expects to be able to re-classify mackerel’s sustainability status by early September.
Debbie Crockard, fisheries policy officer at the MCS, said: “This is an emergency measure. It would be irresponsible of us to continue to advocate it as a ‘2’ when it could possibly be a lot lower than that.
“The TAC [total allowable catch] is now 50 per cent above what the maximum should have been, which is unacceptable.”
But Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association, accused the MCS of reacting prematurely by taking action before scientists have made their assessments.
He said it was “the wrong time” for the MCS to have changed its advice and that it should have waited until the new scientific assessment is ready by September.
Moreover, he believes mackerel stocks are in good health and that they will remain so for at least another year despite quotas being higher than the science recommends. “The fact is the stock is still in very good health,” he said. “That’s the one good thing we have in our favour.” Some fishermen, he added, have reported that they have never seen so many mackerel as now and that they have encountered shoals 20 miles long.
See also: Mackerel trade war looms
Minister warns of mackerel collapse