MSC and ICES disagree whether mackerel in NE Atlantic is being fished sustainably

Marinet provides here a report from, 11th May 2016 which records an apparent difference of opinion between the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and ICES as to whether the NE Atlantic mackerel fish stock is being fished sustainably. We also provide the report from ICES which recommends greater caution in this regard.

MSC is the accredited scientific body for determining whether fishing activities get a “sustainability accreditation”, and ICES is the expert scientific body which assesses stock sizes, reproduction rates, and thus whether the stock can be sustainably fished.

Fish2Fork states: “Mackerel has won back the certificate of sustainability lost four years ago during Europe’s quota row with Iceland and the Faroe islands — despite the fish being caught in greater numbers than scientists recommend.

Operators of six of the seven fisheries that lost certification in 2012 have now been told they have once again been awarded the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) blue flash eco-label denoting sustainable catches.

The ruling means MSC certified mackerel will soon be available in supermarkets and other retailers.

Mackerel is an abundant fish, with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the scientific body which advises governments on fish stocks, saying that 667,385 tonnes can be caught without damaging the health of the population.

Four years ago, however, it appeared the fish population could be severely damaged because of the so-called mackerel wars in which Iceland and the Faroes unilaterally awarded themselves huge quotas in defiance of scientific advice.

Shortly before a deal was reached between the EU, Iceland, the Faroes and other fishing nations, to settle the dispute, scientists carried out a reassessment of the mackerel population and found it was much bigger than expected. It was realised that illegal fishing carried out a decade earlier
had significantly skewed population estimates.

Nevertheless, in every year since 2008 when the mackerel wars began, and even since 2013 when a deal was reached, catches of mackerel have exceeded scientific advice. In 2014 scientists recommended no more than 1.011 million tonnes be caught yet more than 1.39 million tonnes were landed.

The ICES recommendation that catches in 2016 be less than 668,000 tonnes marks a substantial reduction on the previous two years and scientists have warned that in 2013 the number of juveniles, an indicator of future population levels, was the lowest for a decade.”

Source: For the full details of this report, see


Marinet now provides here the 20i6 advice from ICES regarding the NE Atlantic mackerel fishery:

Northeast Atlantic.

Mackerel in the northeast Atlantic.

Scomber scombrus

A pelagicpelagic The ecological area consisting of the open sea away from the coast and the ocean bottom. The pelagic zone contains organisms such as surface seaweeds, many species of fish and sharks and some mammals, such as whales and dolphins. Pelagic animals may remain solely in the pelagic zone or may move among zones. schooling species that is abundant in cold and temperate shelf areas, Atlantic mackerel spawns in the south of the distribution area and migrates northwards to feed on prey items in summer.

Three spawning components make up this stock. The Western component is the more abundant and the North Sea component remains depleted in spite of two decades of protective measures. The stock has apparently expanded north-westwards during spawning and the summer feeding migrations.

The North Sea component decreased dramatically in the 1960s because of directed over-fishing after the introduction of purse seines. Today, mackerel is mainly caught with purse seines, pelagic trawls and hand lines. Discards take place but cannot be accurately quantified.

Norway, United Kingdom, and Iceland

3 620 100 tonnes (spring 2015)

1,394,454 tonnes (in 2014)

Adult stock size is large enough, however, fishing pressure is too high to ensure an optimal use in the long term.

Advice for 2016:
ICES advises that catches in 2016 should be no more than 667,385 tonnes (46% less than the estimated catches in 2015), to ensure a long-term optimal use of this resource.

Source: ICES, for further details, see


Marinet observes: Both the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) are accredited scientific bodies. MSC advises the fishing industry and determines its applications for sustainable fishing accreditation, and ICES advises government (e.g. EU) and calculates the size and reproductive capability of fish stocks.

Naturally, scientists will disagree. No one has a perfect perception of “the truth”.

However the point to note here is that fish stocks have declined dramatically between 1880 (the advent of steam-powered trawlers) and 2010 — see Marinet summary of the situation with regard to the North Sea, click here.

Marinet’s research relates to the North Sea, not the whole NE Atlantic, but this research shows that mackerel stocks have declined in size between 1880 and 2010 from anywhere between 59% to 86%. Further research will also show that the age profile of the NE Atlantic stock has deteriorated over this time period — this means that there are less older fish in the stock nowadays, and thus its reproductive ability is substantially compromised.

Marinet continually argues — throughout the recent CFP reform process, and both before and since, for fish stocks to be restored to somewhere approaching their historic levels, and to have a natural age profile to assist assured reproduction.

If the fishing industry, scientists and government were to deliver management on this basis, then fish stocks would without a doubt be more secure, and the fishing industry would once again be restored in size and financial security.

However all parties seem to be deaf to this message and its logic.

In the matter of deciding what are sustainable catch levels for the NE Atlantic mackerel fishery, Marinet is inclined to believe the evidence presented by ICES rather than MSC because its database is more extensive. However it must be observed that neither scientific body, MSC nor ICES, is seeking to restore stocks to their true potential size and age profile which, in Marinet’s opinion, it is their responsibility to recommend and to seek to do so. And, if the mackerel stock were to be doubled in size as a result of proper management, then there would be 7,240,200 tonnes to fish rather than 3,620,100 tonnes.

That’s quite a difference. Is anyone paying attention?

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