Scotland, Norway, EU, Iceland and Faroes square up in mackerel smackdown

Posted by Willie — 20 August 2010 at 7:35pm - Comments

It's a confusing time in the north Atlantic with an international controversy brewing over the humble mackerel. Some are comparing it to last century's 'cod wars', when the UK and Iceland went to battle over access to cod fishing.

Mackerel, an exquisitely beautiful fish related to the tunas, is relatively plentiful, occurs in big shoals, and can be caught quite 'cleanly' by seine nets or handlines. For these reasons (as well as the health benefits of it being an oily fish), it has become a firm favourite for those seeking a sustainable option.

As Charles Clover reported a couple of months back, many of the mackerel fisheries are MSC-certified, and the species is championed by the likes of us Greenpeacers as a better-option for the fish-conscious. It also happens to be the most important species £££-wise for the Scottish fishing industry.

But all is not well in the mackerel world. A confusing confluence of circumstances, and the age old fishy problem of the 'tragedy of the commons' have sparked international discord, culminating in Scottish fishermen taking direct action to block a Faroese vessel landing fish, and the Scottish first minister to wade in and demand EU action.

I'll try and explain in lay-person's terms just what the fuss is.

Mackerel, like most fish, don't recognize national boundaries in the sea. They don't know, or care, if they are in EU waters, Icelandic waters, or whatever. Their movements are based largely on the fishy primal urges - eating and breeding. So they are guided by currents, temperature, and the availability of food. In recent years, the impacts of Climate Change have resulted in an apparent change in mackerel distribution, and the fish are being increasingly found in more north-westerly waters (which just so happens to be near where Iceland is).

Mackerel is a lucrative, and important fish for some fishing nations - most notably Scotland (within the UK, within the EU) and Norway.

In EU waters, fishing is regulated by the EU. The EU also has a fairly good working relationship with Norway, Scotland's next-sea-neighbour, in managing joint access to fish stocks that are in the north North Sea.

But as mackerel move north-westwards they pass into the fiercely defended seas of the Faroes and Iceland who are not EU members nor part of the EU-Norway negotiations.

So things get a bit tricky when it comes to deciding who has the rights to take the fish, and even more tricky when it comes to coordinating and regulating it internationally.

It gets worse. Iceland (and the Faroes) has arbitrarily increased their own (self-appointed) mackerel quotas in what they see is a reasonable reaction to the increased presence of the species in their seas. The Scottish fishing industry is outraged, and with some good reason.

Quite apart from any selfish national interests at play (and let's be honest, that applies to every country), the vast increases in quota from Iceland and the Faroes mean that many more mackerel are being caught overall, and they are concerned that a hugely-important species is being overfished.

That, of course has ramifications for all of us, including the MSC and environmentalists. How can we promote mackerel as sustainable if this is happening?

It's a real worry. And it shows how the current system isn't built to deal with the impacts of climate change, and how sustainable certification schemes can be jeopardized by the actions of third parties.

It also raises many thorny questions. Like what about Iceland becoming part of the EU?

Of course there are some ironies, such as the Faroes, Iceland and Norway previously being held as shining examples by some in Scotland keen to see the country wrest back exclusive control of its own seas (by getting out of the Common Fisheries Policy, for instance).

To my mind, notwithstanding the many failings of the Common Fisheries Policy, we'd be in an even worse situation if this (and all other border-crossing species) were being haggled over on a case-by-case basis by every EU state independently too.

But clearly there is a big problem here, and the Scottish government is right to say that the EU needs to wade in and help resolve it. But so too do the Marine Stewardship Council, lest they are happy to see one of the most widely-accepted sustainable choices in seafood disappear from our plates and our seas.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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