This article titled “Mackerel taken off conservationists’ ‘fish to eat’ list” was written by Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 22nd January 2013 08.34 UTC
For years it has been trumpeted as a popular sustainable fish, renowned for its health benefits and favoured by celebrity chefs.
But the UK’s biggest marine charity, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), has removed mackerel from its “fish to eat” list recommending that it should only be consumed occasionally, like monkfish and plaice. The society is advising consumers to eat herrings or sardines instead.
The MCS says international arguments about quotas mean mackerel is no longer a sustainable choice. Overfishing led to the suspension of the north-east Atlantic stock’s Marine Stewardship Council certification as a sustainable fishery.
There has been an increasingly bitter three-year dispute between Iceland and the EU – mainly the UK – over who has the right to land the once-plentiful fish.
Conservationists fear stocks could be at risk after Iceland and the Faroe Islands dramatically increased their quotas in recent years. In 2011, 930,000 tonnes of mackerel were fished from the north-east Atlantic, but scientists claim the maximum that should be caught is 542,000 tonnes.
MCS fisheries officer Bernadette Clarke said mackerel had increasingly been found further north-west in the Atlantic. “The stock has moved into Icelandic and Faroese waters, probably following their prey of small fish, crustaceans and squid. As a result both countries have begun to fish more mackerel than was previously agreed,” she said.
“The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries. Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.”
Mackerel, an oily fish packed with Omega 3, has been championed by celebrity chefs such as Guardian writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who in his Channel 4 Fish Fight programme persuaded sceptical consumers to eat his mackerel baps.
Clarke said: “If people want to continue eating mackerel they should ensure they buy it from as sustainable a source as possible. That means fish caught locally using traditional methods – including handlines, ringnets and drift nets – or from suppliers who are signatories to the principles of the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance.”
But Scottish fishermen say the downgrading is premature and could ultimately be counterproductive. Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said: “The stock is actually still well above the precautionary level, even if Iceland and the Faroes continue to do this. You can ignore the MCS advice this year.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment said: “The continued sustainability of mackerel is vitally important and is increasingly threatened by the actions of the Faroe Islands and Iceland. We are extremely concerned that an agreement on fishing rights has not yet been reached. That is why the UK continues to seek a new agreement that is fair to all.”
Another casualty of the MCS fish to eat list is gurnard – also a restaurant favourite, if less well-known than mackerel. Clarke said a lack of data on stock levels, scientific advice to reduce catches and concerns about the fisheries management had led the charity to move gurnard off its eat list and on to its cautionary listing.
She explained: “Gurnard, specifically red and grey, are now classified by scientists as ‘data-limited stocks’ meaning there is little information available on stock levels and how much is being fished.
“Because gurnard have historically been taken as bycatch – accidentally caught when fishing for other species and are not targeted by commercial fishing interests – there are no catch restrictions or minimum landing sizes. If the species is to become commercially targeted sustainably, we need to understand the biology of the stocks and manage them appropriately.”
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