The murky waters of fish sustainability - mackerel
Charles Redfern - 05 February 2013
Mackerel is back in the news again. Fish Fight
recommended switching to mackerel - with mackerel baps in fish & chip shops - to replace endangered cod, only last year.
Now mackerel seems to have lost its eco-shine. Why is that and how can consumers navigate the murky waters of fish sustainability? I attempt to give my answer. And whilst I'm trying to simplify matters, I think I want my central message to be: it's not that simple!
Historically, the catch has been largely for Scotland and Norway. But because of climate change and warming seas, the mackerel has moved northwards in vast numbers to Icelandic and Faroese waters.
Not surprisingly the Icelandic and Faroese fishermen now want to catch the fish swimming in their waters. It's not just for commercial reasons either; there is a fair ecological argument too. Iceland - well-regarded for the sustainable management of its waters - says an excess of mackerel could crowd out other marine species, changing the eco-system.
Norway and the EU however want to maintain their catch limits and keep the business they've been doing - not surprisingly. Put together the new catch limits from Iceland and the Faroe Islands (which are not part of the EU) plus the previous limits agreed by Norway and the EU, and current mackerel fishing then exceeds what scientists have determined as sustainable stock levels.
In other words, if mackerel fishing carries on as it is now, then there will be a problem a few years down the line. The ironic thing is that currently the sea is teaming with mackerel - something the scientists acknowledge.
What are ethical consumers, and sustainable companies such as Fish4Ever
, to do? For me, the mackerel dispute proves the disconnect and difference between the two claims: ‘from sustainable fisheries’ and ‘sustainably-fished'.
Sustainably-fished means first and foremost choosing the type of equipment and methods which do not cause damage, or upset the eco-system. There are many methods that cause huge by-catch, kill iconic species such as turtles, albatross and sharks, or do huge damage to the bottom of the sea.
Sustainably-fished means avoiding known risks, such as illegal fishing and fishing in spawning grounds (which destroy baby fish, or juveniles). There are no hard-and-fast rules: one type of equipment that is damaging in one area or for a specific species, can be fine elsewhere.
We think sustainably-fished means supporting, when and where possible, smaller artisan boats and local fishing, and local packing and local fishing communities. Those living closer to the fish are better at managing fish stocks than global fleets scouring the oceans of the world. The latter often use more damaging equipment and are harder to track and manage, so they are harder to control if they are also fishing illegally.
In the vast majority of cases, local artisan boats have not caused over-fishing - it is industrial fishing that has led to the seas becoming so depleted.
Now for sustainable fisheries. This is about decisions made at the total stock level. A fish stock is scientifically identified as a separate entity, then management rules are set for that stock. But who owns that stock? Here we go into the realms of international law, and it gets increasingly complex because fisheries interact with each other so that the decisions taken for one type of fishery might affect another...ad nauseum.
There isn't time here to go into the nitty-gritty of stock management but if you want a little flavour of this topic and since we are talking about mackerel, here is the science
Suffice to say, fisheries management is complex because it is a resource held in common, often with several different countries involved. So governments and their scientist convene and co-operate - sometimes fairly well, and sometimes quite badly - to try to manage this common resource. Sometimes there is the science but not the agreement, and sometimes even the science is contested or incomplete. There are plenty of international and domestic laws, but compliance and controls can be quite poor. In fact the more one learns, the murkier and more complicated it gets.
At Fish4Ever, our promise is sustainably-fished - not sustainable fisheries. We do sustainably-fished very well. But we are not the competent legal party, to use the correct terminology, to give stock level advice.
We do our best. We try to live with the complexity that is marine sustainability. Land sustainability is not straightforward either. However again, we do our eco-utmost by ensuring our fish are canned with 100% organic land ingredients.
So we conclude the current MSC/MCS advice is right, especially in line with precautionary science: the total stock is in danger at current levels. But let's see this as a warning shot, both to the fishing industry and governments.
By the same token, this isn't the time to abandon the ex-MSC UK certified fisheries that worked so hard to get certified in the first place. We believe the correct decision is to carry on supporting our UK fisheries, monitoring the situation and adding our voice to those urging a resolution of the problem.
The Portuguese sardine fishery had its MSC certificate rescinded for a year but it is now being re-instated. I'm confident the same will happen with mackerel.
Allow me a final PR plug. We have 'land, sea, people' principles and a sustainability approach embedded in our DNA. We engage and campaign continuously. By all means dump the growing number of fair-weather tourists in fish sustainability but stick with the one brand that really does care and has worked so hard to drive change.
Charles is the founder of the ethical canned fish company, Fish4Ever, the sister company of Organico, both based in Reading. Fish4Ever's motto is Land, Sea and People. Its land ingredients are 100% organic - supporting traditional fishing communities is as important as saving the fish. He is currently involved in a number of awareness-raising campaigns working with WWF, Sustainable Fish City, the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society.