Mackerel wars

The suspension of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) status for eight North East Atlantic mackerel fisheries has undoubtedly added further weight to the long-running dispute over quota sizes for this highly valuable stock. But there’s a danger that this latest complication could threaten the future of niche operations for which the eco-label holds special economic importance.

The MSC suspended eight mackerel certifications on 31 March after the EU, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands failed to agree on quotas for the 2012 season within the given scientific advice. The certifier has said certificates can be reinstated on completion of a condition (namely a sustainable total catch) with no need to fully reassess the fishery. But with the stakeholders having already racked up two years of failed negotiations, eco-label status may have become a pipe dream.

Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA), told SeafoodSource he believes the mackerel sector as a whole now finds itself in “an unknown place” in terms of the market reaction to the suspension.

Gatt said Scotland is probably better placed than some other EU member states because the Scottish fleet has already harvested about 60 percent of its catch allocation for 2012. So, for the time being, the bulk of its fish will be MSC-certified. But he acknowledged the situation could become more problematic in the September season.

Another boon for the Scots’ industry, which is worth more than GBP 110 million (EUR 133.4 million, USD 174.3 million) per year, is that around 90 percent of its mackerel catch is sold outside of Europe, and of this a large amount goes to Russian and Japanese importers who are not specifically buying MSC products. In such cases, processors say the suspension will have a negligible effect on the prices paid to SPFA members.

But other fishing areas aren’t going to be so lucky and are likely to suffer a more immediate hit. For example, there are fears the loss of MSC status will hit the pockets of Hastings fishermen, who catch mackerel and herring in the Eastern English Channel. 

Paul Joy of the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society confirmed the suspension could have a “detrimental impact” on the local fishermen but also on the market and the companies that the fish goes through. 

“It’s definitely a problem for us because we sell mackerel directly into London for niche markets and restaurants. The fish are caught and then go out the same day so these customers get maximum freshness and quality,” said Joy.

This special supply chain brings with it a price premium, so the main worry for Hastings is that customers with MSC chain-of-custody certification may not want the fish in the future because they cannot sell it as MSC-certified.

“There’s now effectively no difference to catching it by the ton through any [conceivable] method or in a sustainable fishery that’s working on it in a sustainable way. If you haven’t got MSC you could just end up on the open market where the value of the product is less,” said Joy.

The frustration is that this small, selective driftnet fishery — which Joy said catches “literally a few boxes of mackerel, here and there,” and has no effect on overall stocks whatsoever — is paying the price for failed negotiations for volumes of tens of thousands of metric tons.

Following the breakdown of catch share negotiations earlier this year, Norway and the EU (representing Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom) have established a bilateral agreement that gives Norway a total allowable catch (TAC) of 181,085 metric tons, while the EU has a TAC of 396,468 metric tons. Meanwhile, Iceland has set its own quota at more than 146,000 metric tons, and the Faroes has set its quota at more than 148,000 metric tons. As a result, the combined North East Atlantic fleets could land nearly 900,000 metric tons of mackerel in the 2012 season, which is significantly more than the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)-recommended TAC of 639,000 metric tons.

Such volumes might seem incomprehensible amounts to the modest Hastings fishermen. Yet with their fate now out of their hands, they will be hoping more than others that MSC certification is quickly reinstated.

Looking at the bigger picture, whether the loss of the eco-label status itself will be enough of a catalyst to bring the coastal state standoff to a close remains to be seen. The SPFA, for one, believes it will require more political clout. And Gatt said that’s the reason why the association is “vigorously following” the approach of encouraging the European Commission to follow through with its proposal to impose trade sanctions on both Iceland and the Faroes.

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