The following article by Ian Gatt, Chairman, Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group, appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 17 October, 2019.
For fishermen and processors, it is always a nerve racking time waiting for the forthcoming year’s catch advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) – but when the 2020 assessment and advice was recently published, it was great news for both mackerel and North Sea herring with both stocks being deemed to be in a healthy state.
For mackerel, the assessment by ICES puts the spawning stock biomass at a very high level of 4.4million tonnes. This is more than 2.4 million tonnes above the limit reference point, a trigger level which if the stock level drops below, means that fishing is no longer considered sustainable. The advice also shows that the 2016-2018 recruitment (the amount of young fish entering the fishery) is also at its highest level since records began.
With mackerel being in such great shape and being fished sustainably, it is perplexing that the current suspension of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label remains in place.
The MSC maintains that this is because there is no integrated long-term management plan that incorporates all countries fishing for North East Atlantic mackerel.
This matters to us hugely, because mackerel has undergone an incredible transformation from being of not much interest to the Scottish fishing fleet prior to the 1970s to the current position of being Scotland’s highest value and volume catch. It is a much sought after fish in the global marketplace with modern state-of-the-art processing plants in Shetland and the north-east of Scotland now handling the majority of the catch.
And as such, we have gone the extra mile in ensuring that fishery is sustainable. In particular, Scottish fishermen, along with fishers from Ireland, England, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden, formed a grouping called the Mackerel Industry Sustainability Alliance (MINSA) to forge a long-term management plan. This even resulted in MINSA accepting in 2013 a 23% reduction in their traditional quota to accommodate the Faroes into a mackerel agreement. Currently, MINSA accounts for over 60% of mackerel catches in the NE Atlantic.
The problem is that other countries have moved into the fishery – Iceland, Greenland and Russia – and despite our best efforts, they have so far failed to agree to negotiate an all-encompassing management plan. As the biggest player in the mackerel fishery, and having adopted a range of measures to protect the stock and fish sustainably, it is hugely disappointing that this has led to the MSC certificate for mackerel being suspended, through no fault of our own.
We sincerely hope that the suspension is lifted in the near future, given the healthy state of the stock and our track record of fishing sustainably.
Meanwhile, for North Sea herring, we are delighted that it still retains the MSC eco-label, with the latest ICES advice recommending an uplift in the total catch of 38% for 2020 compared with the advice from the previous year.
All this underlines the sustainable fishing practices carried out by Scottish mackerel and herring fishermen. Our fishermen are committed to a sustainable future and are involved in a range of scientific measures relating to data collection to help improve our knowledge of mackerel and herring stocks.
This includes work on a pioneering ‘self-sampling’ scheme building up a time-series of information that can be used in the scientific assessment process of stocks, including calculating biomass and identifying changes over time. By doing this, and by using fishing vessels as research platforms, we can contribute to the overall accuracy of stock assessments by providing additional input data.
Whatever happens with the mackerel MSC suspension, the important thing is that consumers can continue to purchase mackerel safe in the knowledge that the stock is healthy and being sustainably fished.
Mackerel is an incredibly versatile and tasty fish, with the firm flesh rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids and essential vitamins and minerals. Fresh mackerel can be grilled, fried, or barbecued and is perfect for stuffing and oven-baking. Hot smoked mackerel also tastes great and is ideal for use in salads or making a delicious pate. Canned mackerel makes an excellent sandwich filler.
So, with the Scottish mackerel season currently in full swing, now is the time to make this healthy-to-eat and delicious treat part of your weekly shopping basket.