For years, mackerel has been considered to be an ethical choice of fish for consumers, yet recent overfishing has led to this species no longer being a sustainable choice, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).
Green to amber
In light of the drastic decline in stocks of cod and other much-loved food fish in recent years, mackerel has been promoted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc as an ethical, and healthy, alternative for consumers.
However, mackerel is distinctly absent from the most recent list of fish deemed by MCS to be from well-managed, sustainable stocks or farms, and is therefore no longer considered to be the best option for consumers. In its latest update to the Good Fish Guide, MCS has downgraded mackerel to the amber category, meaning that the society recommends that consumers only eat mackerel occasionally. International arguments over quotas have been cited as the reason for this species no longer being viewed as a sustainable choice.
“At the moment, the stock biomass according to the scientific data is above the levels that are recommended. However, the number of fish being removed is above the target and too high,” said Bernadette Clarke, Fisheries Officer at MCS. “The stock is good for now but it is currently declining. It is now rated as a fish to eat only occasionally – it is not rated as one to avoid.”
Placing the blame
Once found mainly in the northeast Atlantic, mackerel stocks have since been on the move, following their prey of squid and crustaceans westwards towards Iceland and the Faroe Isles. As a result of this shift, it has been reported that Icelandic and Faroese fisheries have increased the amount of mackerel that they catch, leading to overexploitation of the stock.
“The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries,” said Clarke. “Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.”
Yet in a statement issued last year, Icelandic ambassador to the UK Benedikt Jonsson insisted that his country had worked for years to reach an agreement on mackerel fishing.
“We have repeatedly offered proposals that sustain the mackerel population and ensure a fair outcome for all countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, certain countries have responded with attacks on Iceland and threats of sanctions, while simultaneously demanding a vastly oversized portion of the mackerel catch. The facts are clear: Icelandic fishing is generally recognised as sustainable and responsible.”
Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has promoted mackerel as an alternative fish in the past, has now said that he would be dropping his call for mackerel to be more widely eaten, with the exception of locally caught fish in support of fishermen. Fearnley-Whittingstall is angered by the fact that mackerel stocks have been allowed to become depleted, and urges countries involved in current disputes to reach an accord as soon as possible.
“When we started the mac bap campaign two years ago, mackerel was certified as sustainable and part of a well managed fishery,” he said. “Unfortunately, things have changed, and politics and greed are getting in the way of common sense. If the countries involved could agree sensible catch limits this could still be a certified sustainable fishery.”
MCS has recommended that consumers should seek alternatives to mackerel, including herring and sardines, or ensure that any mackerel purchased is caught locally using traditional methods, therefore being as sustainable as possible.
However, such recommendations have not been well received by Scottish fishermen for whom mackerel is a critical stock, with £164 million of the popular fish landed in 2011.
“The stock is actually still well above the precautionary level, even if Iceland and the Faroes continue to do this,” says Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.
So far, political representatives have been involved in 12 rounds of talks in an attempt to come to a mutual agreement on mackerel quotas, and the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes that this is the only way forward. It is clear that action needs to be taken for mackerel stocks to recover.
“We hope that these so-called mackerel wars can be laid to rest as soon as possible, so we can all go back to eating mackerel again with a clear conscience,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Learn more about the work of the Marine Conservation Society.
Find out more about the Atlantic mackerel on ARKive.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author