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Bitter mackerel quota feud undermines sustainability credentials, consumer appeal

By Jason Holland
April 01, 2013

This was supposed to be a landmark year for the European seafood industry with the long-awaited implementation of a new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), fundamentally designed to make the EU’s fisheries more dynamic and stocks more sustainable. Unfortunately, the CFP’s arrival is being overshadowed by the long-running mackerel overfishing crisis in the Northeast Atlantic.

While the stock has moved farther north and west into Faroese and Icelandic waters following its diet of small fish, crustaceans and squid, the high levels of autonomous quotas set by both coastal states in the years since have been strongly challenged by the EU and Norway, who for their part have stuck close to their historical joint catch share of around 90 percent of the entire mackerel quota.

This standoff, which has started to draw comparisons to the “Cod Wars” of the 1950s and 1970s, meant that while the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) had recommended a total mackerel catch of 639,000 metric tons (MT) for 2012, the actual landings by the coastal states is estimated at 920,000 MT.

Four years of consistently high volumes have proved too much for non-governmental organizations to stomach. As a result, 2012 brought the suspension of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. And this year, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) downgraded it from its “Fish to Eat” list, saying it should now only be consumed occasionally amid concerns that negotiations to introduce new catch allowances had failed to bring a sustainable coastal state agreement.

The EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands are supposed to jointly manage the mackerel (Scomber scombrus) fishery. But there has been no consensus since 2009, when the Faroes, a self-governing province of Denmark that’s outside the EU for fishery purposes, withdrew from the management agreement in response to an increased mackerel catch by Iceland. 

MCS defends its decision by saying the total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries. It says it would like to return mackerel to its green list, but in the meantime herring and sardines are good alternative species. If, however, people want to continue eating mackerel, it advises that they buy it from sources regarded as being the most sustainably responsible, such as handline, ringnet and driftnet fisheries, as well as from suppliers signed up to the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance.

These messages have not been easily digested at the latter stages of the supply chain. Suppliers such as James Knight of Mayfair, London’s largest independent wholesale fishmonger, have been helping customers assess the problem fully so they don’t take any “unnecessary kneejerk” actions.

“It seems the press coverage has been sensationalized to the extent that people are losing perspective,” says Natalie Hudd, sales and sustainability director at James Knight. “Yes, mackerel has been downgraded to yellow (MCS rating 3), but that rating doesn’t mean that you can’t use it. In many cases, customers are still using products that are rated yellow and amber (MCS rating 4). 

“We tell them that in order to have a commercially viable menu, you need to get a good mix of products. You need to put on as many greens (MCS ratings 1 and 2) as you can, but you are always going to have to temper that by having something that’s on the yellow list like salmon. And we say mackerel is still better than a lot of the other species in use, particularly as we endeavor to source from the better-rated fisheries.”

European retailers have also stood by the product — a move that’s been applauded by the Scottish pelagic industry. However, there are concerns that some retail chains will rethink the situation once stockpiles of frozen MSC-certified mackerel run dry.

“While this level of overfishing cannot continue forever, the actual stock is in very good health. We are nowhere near a stock collapse or the beginnings of it and I think the retailers’ stance reflects that. It also reflects that the MCS didn’t say ‘stop buying mackerel,’ it said ‘don’t buy it so frequently,’” says John Goodlad, chairman, Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group (SPSG).

“Anyone who follows MCS recommendations and might have had mackerel twice a week can now have it once a week. I think a lot of that was lost in the noise of the media but I do think the retailers picked up on it very early on.”

Echoing SPSG’s view, the U.K. Seafish Authority says it’s important to recognize that science and the fishing industry are in agreement that stocks of mackerel are plentiful. 

“What we are all looking at though is the future of the stock and the cautionary advice now being received from some certification bodies if the dispute about the North Atlantic quota remains unresolved,” says Seafish. “The U.K. industry and supply chain is fully switched onto the issue and has a good recent track record of working with environmental organizations to provide the best advice to consumers. That advice as it stands is that we can continue eating mackerel, albeit it with a greater awareness of the issues surrounding it, and due political process will find a solution in time to quotas.”

Value Crash

With an annual catch value of £116 million (€134.4 million/$179.3 million), mackerel is the Scottish fishing industry’s most valuable stock, representing about one-third of the value of total landings by the fleet. And despite the huge volumes of mackerel being landed, the market had been particularly strong with Scottish mackerel prices peaking in January 2012 at a whopping £1,500 (€1,738/$2,319) per MT. 

But Goodlad says “the reality of the large Faroese and Icelandic catch” took its toll last year, and in January this year, fishermen were getting just £700 (€811/$1,082) to £800 (€927/$1,237) per MT.

The quality of Icelandic and Faroese mackerel is not as good as that of Scotland because mackerel disperse the farther north they migrate, he says. This means that whereas boats fishing off the northwest coast of Scotland in January will tow for just 30 minutes and the resulting fish are in “fine, firm condition” when they are landed, the Icelandic and Faroese boats could be towing for four to six hours and the mackerel in their nets doesn’t keep as well. 

“Poorer quality mackerel fetches very low prices, but the price for everybody has effectively halved,” says Goodlad. “So not only are there long-term concerns over the sustainability of the stock, but the disagreement is also having immediate financial implications.”

Unfortunately, he says there’s no indication of any movement that could lead to an agreement between the coastal states.

“From the EU and U.K.’s points of view it’s good because we always fear a weakening from the EU, but it’s also disappointing because we are hoping that the Faroes and Iceland will weaken,” says Goodlad. “However, I think everyone realizes that this cannot go on and quite frankly it’s an embarrassment to have sophisticated western countries unable to reach an agreement on the management of an important international stock.”

Also frustrated by the situation and the new MCS rating of mackerel is campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who in his first “Fish Fight” TV series in 2011 was urging the British public to eat much more of the oily fish. 

“Only a few years ago we were saying we should all eat more mackerel because it comes from a sustainable stock. The most frustrating thing is that this is a solvable problem; it’s a political problem. It’s not that people are eating too much mackerel; it’s that the politicians can’t agree on the quotas,” he says.

New quotas 

At press time Faroes officials were staying tight-lipped over their strategy for the coming season. Iceland’s government has laid its cards on the table with the confirmation that it’s reducing its quota for 2013 by 15 percent or 22,000 MT, from 145,227 MT to 123,182 MT. It is the second year in a row that Iceland has lowered its catch quota. In 2011, its total allowable catch (TAC) was set at 154,825 MT.

According to Steingrimur Sigfusson, Iceland’s minister of industries and innovation, the latest reduction is in alignment with ICES recommendations.

“Our 2013 mackerel quota continues our efforts to help preserve the mackerel stock, which is our top priority,” says Sigfusson.

“We are willing to further reduce our catch if [the] other coastal states agree to do so as well. We need to work as partners to protect the mackerel stock, and Iceland is ready to take this important step so we can reach a reasonable agreement together.”

However, the move has only served to crank the dispute up another notch with EU and Norwegian stakeholders incensed that Iceland’s unilateral quota is 23 percent of the entire 542,000 MT catch recommended by ICES.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki was among the first to condemn the country’s decision to again opt for a unilateral quota.

“Iceland’s claim to reduce its quota conceals the fact that Iceland’s unilateral quota remains excessively high, before and after the reduction. Iceland awards itself almost a quarter of the entire scientifically justified quota for the North Atlantic mackerel stock, from a zero level a few years ago. This leaves the 10 or more other fishing nations to share the remainder. Therefore, Iceland’s mackerel fishery is still unsustainable and ignores the health of the mackerel fish stock as well as the legitimate interests of all other coastal parties,” reads a statement from Damanaki’s office.

It continues: “Iceland’s self-awarded quota of 23 percent exceeds by far Iceland’s own claim, made at the negotiating table, and anything that scientific surveys can justify. Science is clearly pointing to the need to reduce catches of mackerel.”

In the meantime, the EU and Norway have bilaterally cut their proposed 2013 catches by 89,000 MT. 

Kristine Gramstad, Norwegian vice-minister for coastal affairs, is left wondering what scientific advice Iceland and the Faroes are basing their quotas on, calling the situation “the biggest disharmony” in Northeast Atlantic fisheries.

“With normal recommendations, Iceland should have around 6 to 7 percent not 23 percent. We need to base the mackerel on the same scientific principles that we are using for every other stock and I don’t see how or why mackerel should be treated any differently,” says Gramstad.

She says Norway and the EU have “tried to be reasonable, to listen to the positions of the Faroes and Iceland” and to find a solution through many ministerial meetings. She believes Iceland and the Faroes must return to the negotiating table and prove they are willing to try and find a reasonable agreement. 

“Norway is ready to negotiate and the EU is too. We want to see this ended as soon as possible because it’s a valuable stock for us and if we keep overfishing it, it will backfire. It’s still a strong stock, but this year there was a 20 percent reduction in ICES’ recommendation; how much will it be next year and the year after that?” asks Gramstad.

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London 

Find other SeaFood Business articles covering mackerel here.

April 2013 - SeaFood Business  

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