FEARS OF overfishing may put mackerel's comeback on hold as customers face a tough choice between eating healthily and sustainably.
What a difference two years make. This time in 2011, mackerel was riding on the crest of a wave – in plentiful supply, promoted as part of a healthy diet thanks to its high levels of omega-3 fats and backed by a Channel 4 and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign to encourage fish and chip shops to sell more of it (“Mackbaps” were in vogue). It was also cheap.
But in January this year mackerel hit choppy waters when the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) announced it was removing the fish from the “to eat” list. “After years of being a popular sustainable choice, mackerel should no longer be appearing so regularly on your dinner plate,” the MCS said. Mackerel “is now rated by the charity as a fish to eat only occasionally”.
Three factors combined to affect mackerel’s rating. First, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended its certification of the north- east Atlantic stocks after what it said was overfishing. Second, scientific data emerged showing that the breeding-age population is in good condition but declining. And third, the mackerel stock moved north, chasing its prey of small fish, crustaceans and squid into Faroese and Icelandic waters. Iceland and the Faroes have, in turn, caught more and more mackerel – in 2005 Iceland caught no mackerel at all, but it now lands 145,000 tonnes, while the Faroes take another 100,000 tonnes. According to Seafish, the UK’s authority on seafood, catches by the two countries since 2009 have been well in excess of the agreed “total allowable catches” advised by ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. The European Union has been desperately trying to broker a deal that will limit catches to sustainable levels. Iceland has argued that it needs to catch more mackerel to stop the “invasion” crowding out other species, while the Faroes walked away from talks to develop an international mackerel stock management plan, fearing that its fishermen would be short-changed.
The row has spilled over into other quota talks, with the Faroes pulling out of an international agreement on herring. Ian Gatt, chief executive at the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA), accused the Faroes of “acting like pirates” over herring and called for EU sanctions.
The Scottish government has called for a neutral international mediator to be brought in to resolve the mackerel problem. But with no agreement in sight, what does this mean for the fish? For the time being, the SPFA and Seafish suggest stocks are in good health. Gatt suggested the Marine Conservation Society had reacted “far too quickly” given the “great Bernadette Clarke, Mackerel Industrydeal of uncertainty in the current scientific advice”. Seafish’s CEO, Paul Williams, said the science isn’t in doubt. “It is important to recognise that science and the fishing industry are in agreement on this one – stocks of mackerel are plentiful. What we are all looking at though is the future of the stock and the cautionary advice now being received from some certification bodies if the dispute about the north Atlantic quota remains unresolved.”
Few – apart from fishermen in Iceland and the Faroes – disagree that catch levels are unsustainable in the long term. The decision may be hasty but one of the roles of the Marine Conservation Society’s list is to ensure that today’s healthy stocks don’t become tomorrow’s overfished ones. “We’re not for one minute suggesting that people stop buying or eating mackerel,” says the society’s fisheries officer, Bernadette Clarke. “Mackerel has been downrated to a level of ‘caution’, but it’s not a fish to avoid. If people want to continue eating mackerel they should ensure they buy it from as sustainable a source as possible.” By that she means fish caught locally using traditional methods or from suppliers which have signed up to the principles of the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance.
The added complication with mackerel is that health experts have long campaigned for people to eat more of it. According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), consumption of oily fish, like mackerel, stands at about one third of a portion per week, while the recommended intake is one portion. “In order to help with this environmental issue but still keep our hearts healthy we should choose our fish responsibly and try to vary the types of fish we eat,” says the BHF’s senior heart health dietician, Victoria Taylor, adding: “People can sometimes find it difficult to reconcile the environmental impact of fishing and public health advice to eat more fish.”
The mackerel issue brings together the health and environmental agendas, but should one take precedence over the other? The likes of WWF-UK argue that truly sustainable diets consider both aspects, but universal agreement is some way off. Others suggest that consumers are expecting businesses to offer products that are environmentally sustainable, but want the choice when it comes to health. “For us the consistent message is health and environmental agendas, but should one take precedence over the other? The likes of WWF-UK argue that truly sustainable diets consider both aspects, but universal agreement is some way off. Others suggest that consumers are expecting businesses to offer products that are environmentally sustainable, but want the choice when it comes to health. “For us the consistent message is sustainability,” says Andy Milner, the procurement and supply chain director for Westbury Street Holdings, the parent company for BaxterStorey, “and within that customers will have [the option] to choose healthier products. “In some respects,” he adds, “the mackerel issue has played into our hands given the focus we have on seasonal products and working with local suppliers.”