Writer and broadcaster

The Fishy Tale of Mackerel Mismanagement. The Guardian.

It was ironic that I got the call that the Marine Conservation Society , had downgraded mackerel from its “eat with a happy heart” list, to “eat with caution”, as I was putting a tin of mackerel into my shopping basket. Just last week, we were told that mackerel was plentiful and good for us. But, although this is news that hits and confuses consumers now, it’s actually a story that started some years before.

First, let me tell you that the mackerel in question is from north-east Atlantic stocks (an area from Gibraltar to Russia). It is not endangered. Not yet. The scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) are the ones that look at fish stocks and make recommendations as to what are the limits of any fish caught . This limit changes every year, is decided in December and becomes part of the common fisheries policy (CFP) which governs EU fisheries. These fishing quotas are reported in the press but most consumers quite understandably glaze over them. But if you had read the reports, you’d have seen that something was going on with mackerel.

What the ICES has said about mackerel is that its spawning stock biomass is currently at about 2.7 million tonnes. The safe biological figure is 2.3 million tonnes and it’s not expected to fall below that figure at “current exploitation levels” until 2014; but that’s only next year – hence why fish conservation organisations are concerned now. So the spawning biomass is currently above the levels required for a healthy stock, but, it’s declining and there is a downward trend.

It’s a sad story. Until recently mackerel fishing was well managed. The EU and Norway (which has allied itself closely with the EU in fishery terms) had a 90% quota of the total mackerel quota; the remaining 10% went to Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Until 2008, there were almost no catches reported in the Icelandic and Faroese waters, because there just weren’t that many mackerel in the water to catch. But, in recent years, the mackerel have started to migrate, due to a myriad of factors such as rising sea temperature and to chase their food. These other coastal states wanted more than their 10%. In 2010 they started to increase their catches from 20% to 32% of the total allowed. Since 2009, Iceland and the Faroe Islands have unilaterally agreed their own quotas, which they are legally allowed to do as they are not governed by the common fisheries policy. Their own quota is about 150,000 tonnes over and above the recommended limits.

So you see, there is currently no international agreement which governs mackerel fishing limits, although there is hope of one this year. Understandably, EU fisherman are pissed off and everyone is confused.

On 31 March 2012, all seven mackerel fisheries in the UK that held the Marine Stewardship Council “tick” logo lost their accreditation. In other words any fresh mackerel they caught and that we buy, from that date on, could no longer be described as traceably sustainable. This suspension came after two years of catches above scientific advice and as a result too much mackerel catching by non-EU fleets.

There is hope. Next month there will be a meeting of scientists, representatives of the EU fisheries and also those from Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland to find a way forward. Various scientific data will be carried out this spring with results expected in September which will give up-to-date information on mackerel stocks.

The Marine Conservation Society reached its decision after looking at scientific advice, the Marine Stewardship Council’s move to suspend mackerel certification, and the reasons behind that move. Its “fish to eat” list is updated annually, in February each year, hence the timing of this announcement. The advice may well change back again next year.

So, do you need to be carefully concerned? Yes. Alarmed? No. But the difficulty is that there is no obvious help for the consumer. You can ask where mackerel in a shop or restaurant has come from and how it’s caught, but as no fresh mackerel currently holds the MSC tick logo, technically none is sustainable. So, time to look at other sources of omega 3s and treat yourself to the odd tin of mackerel occasionally. On these you will likely still find the MSC logo, as they would have been caught prior to 31March 2012. So you can breathe easily. For now.