I’m a big fan of mackerel. It’s a fantastic fish. Not only is it healthy and nutritious, but it reproduces quickly, breeds in large numbers, and often benefits from effective and precautionary management. Good stuff. In fact, saba has been a sushi staple of mine for years, and I encourage you to give it a shot in the place of other more troubling sushi items (like unagi or hamachi, for instance) next time you visit a sushi bar.
That being said, some troubling news from the Atlantic has forced me to revisit my standard double-fisted endorsement.
The mackerel fishery off the coast of the British Isles has been growing in popularity now that the more traditional seafood options, such as haddock, have been depleted. One would hope that we can learn from our previous mistakes and manage this fishery in a precautionary manner that will prevent us from repeating the depressing boom-and-crash pattern that we’ve seen with cod, plaice, and other North Atlantic species.
Everything looked positive at first. A pole-and-line mackerel fishery in Cornwall, as well as several midwater trawl fisheries elsewhere in the British Isles, sought and received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. Management seemed to be sound and bycatch was low. Now, however, climate change has reared its head, and a new set of challenges is looming on the horizon.
Global climate change is affecting the water temperature of our oceans. The surface waters of certain areas of the Northeastern Atlantic are beginning to warm slightly, and this has driven the mackerel stocks further north. Their migration has taken them into Icelandic and Faeroese waters — the territories of two massive new predators whose presence had not been foreseen by management or certification authorities.
The mackerel stock in the Northeast Atlantic is managed under a joint quota that is split between the European Union, Norway, and Russia. Iceland, which has never fished this stock in the past, has now unilaterally declared that it will take over 100,000 mt of mackerel annually. The total quota set for the fishery for the EU, Norway, and Russia combined is just over 500,000 mt. The Icelandic fishing industry is taking an additional 20% on top of this, and is doing so in spite of the current international management efforts. The Faeroes have also announced that they will be substantially ramping up their mackerel fishery, which may compound the problem even further.
These international tugs-of-war over our fishery resources are never good. This kind of competition can lead to overfishing, increasing pirate fishing activity, and even — especially in the case of Iceland and the UK — direct confrontation. A few decades back, these two countries had a prolonged series of naval skirmishes over fishing rights. These “Cod Wars,” as they came to be known, included ramming, net cutting, and even shots being fired. Luckily no one was harmed, but the importance of this issue to the Icelanders and the British was underscored several times over.
A few days ago, the MSC stated that additional Icelandic and Faeroese fishing pressure on the mackerel stock may end up costing certified mackerel fisheries their blue stamps, which has caused outrage in the UK. Groups like the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association are up in arms — not just because they may lose their quota, but also because the MSC’s distant deadline of January 1, 2012 puts very little pressure on the relevant authorities to resolve the dispute.
It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Iceland’s actions, but until we know more, we should exercise a bit of caution with our consumption of Atlantic mackerel… or, even better, buy domestic.