Fresh hope for mackerel solution?

Published on
October 27, 2011

To say talks between the European Union, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands over North East Atlantic mackerel quotas have not gone smoothly in recent years would be a massive understatement. But there’s a strong belief that the latest round of negotiations, for the 2012 season, that carried into a second week in London have discussions back on more constructive footing.

In the last two years, Iceland and the Faroes have controversially ramped up their mackerel quotas after the breakdown of negotiations. Iceland unilaterally increased its catch to 130,000 metric tons in 2010 and 147,000 metric tons this year, while the Faroes increased its catch to 85,000 metric tons and then 150,000 metric tons.

This time around, however, these two stakeholders take their places at the table knowing the very real threat of general trade sanctions proposed by the European Commission hangs over them if a deal on an international quota isn’t brokered. 

The tabling of these sanctions has been urged by very concerned EU member states amid growing fears that if an agreement isn’t quickly reached, then irreparable damage could be inflicted upon this highly valuable pelagic sector.

Scientists recommended a total allowable catch (TAC) of 646,000 metric tons for the 2011 season, but the total caught, while not yet confirmed, could be more than one-third greater at around 880,000 metric tons if Iceland and the Faroes filled their quotas and EU and Norwegian fleets took their planned catch, which was in excess of 580,000 metric tons.

Commenting on the situation, UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon said he wanted to reach an agreement with Iceland and the Faroes. But he’s warned that if they continued to fish at the same level as they had done this year, then the stock could be in danger as early as 2014. 

“We cannot allow that to happen,” said Benyon. “Mackerel is vitally important to the Scottish fleet in particular, and it’s not right that they should lose out when they have played by the rules.”

The UK minister has the support of the Irish government and its fisheries minister, Simon Coveney, in pressing for EU sanctions if talks do break down. 

Coveney said he appreciated that serious efforts are underway to reach agreement on the share out of mackerel, which is Ireland’s most important fishery. But he said he wanted to make sure that an agreement would not be secured at a cost that’s too high, as the share given to Iceland and the Faroes would likely require a reduction in Ireland’s agreed catch. The share agreed must be fair and proportionate, he said, echoing the view of Benyon.

Reports issued in the UK and Iceland following the first week of negotiations suggested the latest talks had been positive thus far and concerned stakeholders should take some comfort from the fact the negotiators were back around the table last week. 

But there’s some considerable ground to cover, and powerful industry bodies like the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation (SFO) have stressed that the EU and Norway must hold their nerve and secure a sensible deal for their fishermen.

Despite the heavy supply that’s been going to market, the Scottish pelagic fleet has enjoyed a good season with prices staying strong due to high international demand. But SFO CEO Iain MacSween said negotiators must learn from the mistakes made previously with blue whiting, which he said had gifted Iceland with a “disproportionate deal.”

The Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA) also warned that there must be no repeat of the blue whiting situation, which SPFA CEO Ian Gatt said has seen stocks “decimated” as a result of “a number of non-EU countries such as Iceland and the Faroes engaging in free-for-all fishing.”

Today, there are more eyes than ever on the mackerel negotiations and, in particular, the trade sanctions promised by EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki. With these still being kept very much under wraps, it remains to be seen how much of a deal-making incentive they will be.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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