NEAFC advances ecosystem-based management measures, but overfishing concerns persist for blue whiting, mackerel, and herring

Boxes of mackerel

The North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) has taken a step toward ecosystem-based management of stocks in the region, but the 2024 total allowable catch (TAC) allocations of overfished pelagic species is yet to be decided.

NEAFC met from 14 to 17 November 2023 to discuss management measures for a number of species in its coverage area, including the overfished blue whiting, mackerel, and Atlanto-Scandian herring. Through the meeting, NEAFC made acknowledgements of the potential impacts of climate change on the environment and ecosystems, and committed to addressing the issue “through its management and science processes.”

NEAFC also committed to increasing monitoring and setting a 15 January 2024 launch date for its electronic reporting system. The system will be combined with a new online interface to help inspectors see data from individual vessels on the high seas, the regional fishery management organization said.

“This not only helps with enforcement, but the data also helps NEAFC’s scientific advisor to better develop advice on ecosystem-based fisheries management and the protection of biodiversity,” NEAFC said in a release.

The move toward improved monitoring and a consideration of the wider ecosystem in management practices was welcomed by NGOs, which have called on the commission to include the issues in its decision-making.  

“NEAFC parties have made a serious and noteworthy commitment to safeguarding the health of all biodiversity within the region, not just fish species,” The Pew Charitable Trusts Manager of International Fisheries Jean-Christophe Vandevelde said in a release.

The move toward new management strategies, however, did not solve one of the most pressing issues facing the NEAFC – the overfishing of pelagic stocks in the Northeast Atlantic. The stocks of North Atlantic mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring, and blue whiting have all been overfished for multiple years, leading to downgrades of species sustainability metrics and the loss of Marine Stewardship Council certifications.

Coastal states managed to reach agreements on the shared TAC of the three species in line with scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) in October. However, the sticking point in the past has been negotiations between coastal states, which continue to disagree on how much quota should go to each member country, leading to catches exceeding the agreed-upon TAC.

Those negotiations haven’t been finalized, meaning the fate of the three overfished pelagic stocks is still uncertain.

“While the agreements for the pelagic stocks were not comprehensive, given allocations of the total allowable catch to each contracting party had not been set out for 2024, important consultations will continue between the coastal states, including on blue whiting,” NEAFC said.

The North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA), an organization composed of the fishery's biggest buyers, said its mission continues to be focused on reducing overfishing rather than the implementation of ecosystem-based management.

“NAPA's asks do not extend to ecosystem-based management at present. Although NAPA is aware of these debates, it chooses to focus its attention on the more basic and pressing need to agree quota allocation at 100 percent of advice, and the current lack of political will to achieve this, which has led to the fundamental overfishing that threatens the future sustainability of mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herrin,g and blue whiting in the Northeast Atlantic,” NAPA Senior Science and Policy Officer Fiona Birch told SeafoodSource. 

Birch said NAPA believes cooperation is the core to the stocks’ success, and that coastal states establishing and setting quota allocations that can respond to shifts in stocks and biomass is key to bringing fishing pressure back in line.

“NAPA's asks of the coastal states center around the need to follow the science, agree on sustainable catch shares, and commit to long-term management plan,” Birch said. “NAPA is therefore using its collective voice to advocate for long-term, science-based management practices and effective cooperation between coastal states to restore overall catches to sustainable levels.”

Through NAPA, multiple companies, including Biomar, Young’s and Asda, have pledged to stop purchasing any of the overfished species if the fisheries remain unsustainably managed. 

Photo courtesy of David Gonzales Yllera/Shutterstock


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