Europe’s mackerel war wanes

06 Apr 2014
Sorting pelagic fish at a factory

Sorting pelagic fish at a factory

The new three-party agreement on mackerel share allocations puts the north-east Atlantic pelagic industry on a much more sustainable footing, writes Jason Holland.

After more than four years of failed coastal state negotiations, March delivered an important breakthrough in the north-east Atlantic (NEA) mackerel dispute with the European Union (EU), Norway and the Faroe Islands agreeing on a five-year catch share management plan.

Through the trilateral deal, the EU has 58.4% of the total allowable catch (TAC), the Faroes has 14.93% and Norway has 26.67%. The three parties have agreed to adhere to these shares through to 2018.

For the time being, Iceland remains outside of the agreement but a strategy exists within the plan should it join at a later date whereby the country would have access to an unallocated reserve amount of 15.6% of the TAC, confirmed European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki who was delighted to at long last see progress made in one of Europe’s most important but heavily overfished fisheries.

“This landmark agreement testifies to the EU's commitment to sustainable fishing at home and abroad,” says Ms Damanaki. “This agreement ensures the long-term sustainability of this valuable stock.” 

Quota increases
The new plan coincides with a significant rise in the mackerel stock’s spawning biomass and all NEA coastal states are now expecting a large increase in the TAC that has already been announced for 2014, through an imminent revision from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

In October last year, ICES’ scientists recommended the 2014 catch should not exceed 889,886 tonnes, up from 542,000 tonnes last year. However, the council stressed this advice was temporary and that it would be scientifically benchmarking the stock this year as it felt its previous analysis was no longer reliable.

An update of the 2014 catch advice is therefore expected in the second-half of May and many stakeholders reckon it will be ramped up as high as 1.2 million tonnes. Should this prove to be the case, the EU would end up with a quota of 611,000 tonnes, Norway 279,000 tonnes and the Faroes 156,000 tonnes.

The fact that the Faroese allocation would be 6,000 tonnes greater than the unilateral catch it set itself last year and which led to the European Commission (EC) imposing trade sanctions against the state has raised a few eyebrows. While it is felt there could be increased condemnation of this allocation from pelagic leaders upon confirmation of ICES’ new recommendation, any criticism has remained relatively low key thus far.

Meanwhile, the Scottish pelagic industry would also be pleased with such an amendment to the overall TAC as its 42% share of the total EU quota would give its fleet an allocation of around 210,000 tonnes, which is approximately 100,000 tonnes more than it had in 2013. It has estimated the increased landings would swell its earnings by an additional £83m, consolidating the species’ position as the UK’s most valuable fish stock.

Hot on the heels of the mackerel agreement, Scotland and the Faroes also inked a deal that gives the Scottish fleet access to Faroese waters and 2,000 tonnes of whitefish for the first time in four years. In return, the Faroes has the opportunity to catch up to 15,000 tonnes of blue whiting in UK waters. This agreement, estimated to be worth £3m to the Scots, came into effect on 1 April. 

Stumbling blocks
Stakeholders are also hoping the trilateral agreement will lead to the reinstatement of the stock’s Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability certification, which was suspended in 2012 due to the certifiers’ concerns about overfishing which had been brought by the coastal states’ inability to agree on quota allocations. The industry will also be looking for an improved rating for mackerel on the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS’s) Fish to Eat list after its very public downgrade in 2013 for similar reasons to those of the MSC.

Certifiers are believed to be looking at the situation to establish whether the conditions for meeting the reinstatement of the MSC label are being met. At the same time, the MCS has confirmed it is liaising with key industry stakeholders to see how the agreement affects the stock status. The marine charity does, however, expect it will wait for the results of ICES’ stock benchmarking before issuing new advice and ratings.

Iceland’s current non-participation in the catch arrangements will be one of the main issues in both decisions. Another likely hurdle is Greenland’s increased involvement in the fishery. The country this year set itself an experimental mackerel TAC of 100,000 tonnes in light of unprecedented demand for commercial fishing licenses. This new quota is 30,000 tonnes more than the one it set in 2013 and it defends the decision by claiming the stock is migrating further into Greenlandic territory.

However, the move has been met with some resistance, such as from Gerard van Balsfoort, chairman of the Northern Pelagic Working Group (NPWG), who says, “Greenland has copied the approach developed by the Faroe Islands”.

WF&A readers should note that many of Greenland’s quotas are held by outside interests as its own fleet is not large enough to fulfil such large TACs.

Further catch deals
While Iceland currently sits outside the new mackerel arrangement, it did recently agree on two other important pelagic plans, the NEA blue whiting quota and the Atlanto-Scandian herring TAC.

In total, the blue whiting TAC has been set at 1.2 million tonnes with the EU given 331,348 tonnes, the Faroes 288,549 tonnes, Iceland 194,722 tonnes and Norway 284,352 tonnes. The EC is particularly pleased with this deal as the EU’s quota is almost double the one it had last year.

The EU, Iceland, Norway and the Russian Federation, meanwhile, have set the Atlanto-Scandian herring TAC at 418,487 tonnes. Initially, the Faroes was “not in a position to come on board in this arrangement,” said the EU, but should this situation change, the other coastal states have set aside 21,594 tonnes for the autonomous Danish province, which is based on the sharing arrangement agreed in 2007.

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