Last chance in European mackerel standoff

Few were surprised when the news came from Oslo, Norway, that the most recent round of talks between the European Union, Norway, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands over North East Atlantic mackerel quotas had broken down. But there’s a growing fear that if a resolution isn’t found quickly then irreparable damage could be inflicted upon this pelagic industry.

This was the seventh time in as many months that the four parties had sat round the negotiating table to establish who gets what quota, but there was the same lack of consensus at the end of the three-day meeting.

However, a deal is not dead in the water just yet; Iceland’s chief negotiator on mackerel fisheries Tomas Heidar, for example, has said the country is willing to be “flexible” and accept a lower quota.

Sensible compromise is now being urged by many stakeholders, and according to Heidar the ball is currently in the EU-Norway court. He said he expects them to respond to Iceland’s increased flexibility by taking steps to reduce the broad gap that still exists between the parties’ expectations.

Threats certainly haven’t worked. This was best illustrated when European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki floated the measure of implementing a ban that would essentially block landings of mackerel from Icelandic boats in EU markets when she learned that Iceland was setting a 2011 mackerel quota of 146,818 metric tons (up from 130,000 metric tons last year).

Damanaki clearly hadn’t been advised that Iceland supplies very little mackerel to member states; its main markets are outside the EU, i.e. Russia, China, South Korea and the United States. Therefore, her strategy – even if it were to be implemented – would have very little consequence.

It should be noted the Faeroes wasn’t included in Damanaki’s original threat because it was yet to set its mackerel quota for 2011 at that time.

However, the Danish territory unilaterally ramped up its mackerel quota by 76 percent last week to 150,000 metric tons, up from the total allowable catch (TAC) of 85,000 metric tons it set last year. The new quota has stoked further outrage in Norway and throughout the EU.

But putting politics to one side, what will all this mean to mackerel prices? The laws of supply and demand suggest prices should nosedive, but this wasn’t the case last year when talks broke down and Iceland and the Faeroes unilaterally raised their North East Atlantic mackerel quotas to 130,000 metric tons and 85,000 metric tons, respectively, while Europe and Norway shared a larger 572,000 metric tons.

Prices held firm despite the 2010 hikes. In fact in the first two months of this year double-digit year-on-year price increases were reported on a number of key fish markets, while mackerel landings were only a few percent higher than at the same stage of 2010.

But this time around we’re looking at close to an additional 100,000 metric tons being landed, with the EU and Norway saying they plan to catch up to 583,882 metric tons of mackerel, or more than 90 percent of scientists’ recommended TAC of 646,000 metric tons, added to Iceland’s 146,818 metric tons and the Faeroes’ 150,000 metric tons.

Sources say if such an amount (a combined total of 880,000 metric tons) is actually landed, saturating markets, then the tipping point will be reached and prices will tumble.

Scottish fishing leaders – who have been particularly vociferous over the decision by both Iceland and the Faeroes to set their own, larger quota – are among the most worried because with a value in excess of GBP 109 million (EUR 125.5 million/USD 200.2 million), according to provisional statistics released last week, mackerel is their fleet’s most valuable catch.

The only saving grace is that mackerel is a species that is enjoying something of a renaissance in Europe’s consumer mainstream, particularly in the United Kingdom where it has been touted in the media as an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 by a number of influential food professionals.
SeafoodSource readers will also recall that mackerel played a key role in UK campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight crusade in January, with the aim to get the species on the menu in British Fish & Chip shops as “a more sustainable alternative to the habitual favorite Cod and Chips.”

And just last week Young’s Seafood unveiled its Young’s Chip Shop Mackerel in major supermarket chains Tesco and Morrison’s, citing Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign as its inspiration for the product.

While these are bold steps, surely consumer markets cannot absorb so much additional fish without prices being adversely affected. Another round of mackerel consultations hasn’t been put in the diary, but the four parties have said they will keep close contact over the coming weeks and decide upon their next steps. With so much quota set to come into play, is this their last chance saloon?


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