End in sight

Brussels may be in the throes of establishing a more sustainable footing for Europe’s seafood industry under the auspices of its new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), but a big thorn in its side still remains in the form of the long-running standoff over mackerel catch shares in the Northeast Atlantic (NEA), which has resulted in severe overfishing of this highly valuable stock.

Over the last five years, the coastal states of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and the EU have gathered around the negotiation table to attempt to reach an accord on the EUR 600 million (USD 822.4 million) NEA mackerel catching sector. But on each occasion, talks have broken down and a bigger chasm in fisheries relations has been left behind.

Yet another round of negotiations started and finished earlier this month and there was once again little indication that an agreement would be reached. But that might not be the end of it, certainly as far as European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki is concerned.

One week ago, Damanaki published a brief statement on her European Commission website that revealed the first round of fisheries negotiations on 2014 arrangements between the EU and Norway had been put on hold. The main reason for the adjournment was “the continuing unresolved issue of mackerel sharing between the four coastal states.” But her announcement concluded: “It is expected that coastal state consultations on mackerel will resume shortly, since the positions of the parties are very close.”

Subsequent contact with the minister’s office has not revealed any further details, so it remains unclear what has triggered her optimism. However, Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA) told SeafoodSource that it looks like there’s now “a strong political will to find a solution to the sharing problems,” and that this has been “the main driver for all the recent negotiations,” and also that this level of determination had been “missing in recent years.”

Gatt assumes mackerel discussions will resume at some point but said there has been no announcement when that will happen.

“For all EU mackerel fishermen, Scotland included, the situation is very unsettling given we don’t know if there’s going to be an agreement or not, and if there is, what elements will be included in the final package,” he said.

Still, some comfort will be taken in the fact that neither Iceland nor the Faroes have announced unilateral mackerel quotas, which tend to spark outrage with EU and Norwegian stakeholders.

By this time last year, the two coastal states had set unilateral quotas of 123,182 metric tons (MT) and 159,000 MT, respectively; representing 23 percent and 29 percent of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s (ICES) recommended catch of 542,000 MT for 2013. Historically, the EU and Norway have claimed around 90 percent of the total allowable catch (TAC) and have been reluctant to change this arrangement.

But in the months that followed the 2013 unilateral quota announcements, the NEA mackerel sector was hit by a number of major challenges, all separate but nevertheless linked to its failure to implement a sustainable coastal state agreement based on the scientific catch recommendations. These impacts included the suspension of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, the downgrading (and revision) on the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS’s) Fish to Eat list and the implementation of trade sanctions on fisheries products, not to mention a fall in market prices.

For 2014, ICES has recommended a significant increase in NEA mackerel fishing possibilities, which could see the TAC raised by as much as 64 percent to around 890,000 MT and Damanaki had previously suggested this rise may contribute to eventual agreement on a management plan, although stakeholders have maintained that such a deal shouldn’t come at any cost. It should also be noted that so far this year, the EU has only set a provisional quota to get the new fishery season underway.

With pressure continuing to mount on the sector, perhaps 2014 really will be the year that the European mackerel war comes to an acceptable conclusion for all parties.


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