Mackerel fishermen fight 42% TAC cut

Mackerel fishermen fight 42% TAC cut Mackerel is a key target species for inshore and large-scale fishing vessels

Pelagic fishermen working in the NE Atlantic are aghast at a proposed huge cut in the region’s mackerel TAC for 2019 and are fighting to get it reduced, reports Tim Oliver

ICES has advised a cut of 42%, from 550,948 tonnes in 2018 to just 318,403 tonnes for 2019, claiming its advice is based on poor recruitment in recent years, but fishermen say the stocks are huge. According to ICES, the spawning-stock biomass (SSB) increased up to 2011 but has been declining since then. The stock is estimated to be below MSY in 2018 – the first time since 2007.

Fishing mortality increased after 2012 and is above MSY. There was a succession of large year classes after the early 2000s but the 2015 and 2016 year classes are estimated to be below average.

ICES says the advised catch is lower than last year’s advice because there has been a downward revision of the SSB compared to last year’s assessment – the current assessment shows estimated SSB is declining, and due to a combination of high fishing pressure and below average recent recruitments, short term projections show that the SSB will continue to decrease in 2018 and 2019. In addition, the resulting SSB in 2019 will be below MSY Btrigger which implies that the advice should be based on a fishing mortality that is reduced from FMSY.

ICES advice says short-term projections show that SSB will fall below MSY in 2019 and 2020 even if catches are taken in agreement with its advice.

“Maintaining the current level of catches or fishing mortality would result in SSB falling below Blim (the minimum level of sexually mature fish needed to ensure sufficient reproduction to keep the fish stock healthy) in 2020,” ICES claims.

But fishermen’s leaders say the scientists’ assessment of the stock is at odds with what fishermen are seeing at sea and question the accuracy of the assessment. Fishermen report steaming over huge marks extending from the sea surface to the seabed for an hour or more and often try to just clip the edge of shoals to avoid taking too much fish and bursting their bags.

Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA) said his organisation viewed the proposed cuts “with huge concern” while Audun Maråk, director of Norwegian fishing vessel owners’ federation Fiskebåt said the industry cannot accept such a situation.

According to Ian Gatt, because of doubts in the accuracy of the assessment the issue had to be examined “in an open and transparent manner” and every effort made to mitigate the proposed cuts whilst at the same time ensuring the continuing sustainability of the fishery.

“There is considerable uncertainty over the accuracy of this year’s scientific assessment due to a number of factors, including concerns over how the assessment model uses data from tagged mackerel, which has pulled down the calculated SSB figure,” he said.

“Tagged mackerel data has only been used in the assessment process in recent times, and because its data shows a much higher biomass reduction, it is at odds from other data in the scientific process and throws doubt on the overall stock assessment. The ICES perception of the stock is also contrary to that witnessed by fishermen on the fishing grounds.”

He commented that the assessment uses updated egg survey information from two years ago, and with new egg survey data available next year, the SPFA hopes this will ensure a more accurate assessment of the stock.

Scientists specialising in mackerel will be forming a working group in the early part of next year to look at the issues with the tagging information and how the data is processed by the assessment model.

“As a responsible industry, we are committed to ensuring a sustainable fishery, and we will be working with our partners in the EU, Norway and Faroes on how we can all work closely together to aid this process of ensuring the best possible science when assessing the stock,” Ian Gatt said.

“We are also committed to working with Scottish and UK governments and coastal states fisheries managers to find an acceptable solution to managing the 2019 fishery.”

The SPFA’s chief scientific officer, Dr Steven Mackinnon, added that the 2018 stock assessment for mackerel indicates that the SSB is just below 2.57 million tonnes – the biomass considered to give maximum long term yield – but could be between 1.75 to 3.75 million tonnes.

“ICES believe that low recruitments in 2015 and 2016 combined with high fishing pressure are important contributors to the declining trend, with the result that ICES advice for catches in 2019 is 42% less than the advised catch for 2018,” he said.

“ICES considers the assessment to be uncertain because of its sensitivity to scientific survey data that are relatively new and vary from year to year. This year in particular, there are significant concerns regarding how the assessment model uses data from tagged mackerel, which is leading to lower estimates of stock abundance due to an apparent low survival rate of the tagged mackerel.”

He commented that another important uncertainty that affects predictions of future stock size and catch is that recruitment estimates have not been quantified for 2016 and 2017 due to the data being unavailable at the time of the assessment.

“Coastal states have to demand a new review of methodology behind the quota advice on mackerel,” said Audun Maråk at Norwegian federation Fiskebåt.

“The sharp decline in the spawning stock has not been enough. Until the quality of advice and methodology is verified, coastal states should set quotas based on last year’s advice.”

The Norwegian fishing industry has written to the Institute of Marine Research to request that the Institute rejects the entire quota advice for 2019, as the uncertainty contained in it is too great.

Stock ‘grossly underestimated’

Fishermen’s belief that ICES is grossly underestimating the size of the NE mackerel stock is supported by a study published earlier this year that claims the stock is so big that it is behind the collapse of Atlantic salmon stocks. The study claims that “unprecedented numbers” of mackerel are competing with European salmon post smolts for food and eating them. The collapse in numbers of salmon (to about 5%) returning to their native rivers points to a massive mortality at sea.

The report, by independent scientist Dr Jens Christian Holst, says mackerel are now more numerous than ever, extending into areas such as the southern tip and east coast of Greenland, around Iceland, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen, where they have never been recorded before.

Dr Holst says that on the basis of strong empiric evidence, the NE Atlantic mackerel stock has grown “totally out of proportion due to gross underestimation, leading to overly cautious fishing quotas and underfishing as a consequence​”. He estimates the stock is at least six times the size it was in 2007.

“Today, a seven-year-old mackerel weighs half of its weight of 10 years ago – a clear sign of the overgrazing and lack of food. This is only one of many signs of an ecosystem totally outside its ‘natural range’.” He estimates that the NE Atlantic SSB is close to 17 million tonnes rather than the 3.1 million tonne ICES figure.

He points out that according to Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR), mackerel distribution is currently over three times as large as 10 years ago, and the density has doubled.

“If we multiply the estimated spawning stock in 2008 of 2.8m tonnes by six, as indicated by the trawl survey, we will get a spawning stock in 2018 of 16.8m tonnes. This is a spawning stock significantly more in line with what the fishermen experience at sea and the reality in the ocean in my view,” says Dr Holst, who was a pelagic fish management scientist at the IMR and today is an independent fisheries advisor and developer.

His study examines the flaws in the research methods used to quantify stocks, and also the approach by research bodies, not least the over-reliance on modelling when the flaws in the data are known.

“In my view ICES need to take a big step back and simply reset the entire mackerel advisory process,” said Dr Holst.

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