Why is Britain braced for a mackerel war?

Mackerel Mackerel stocks had recovered well during the past decade

Britain is said to be bracing itself for a re-run of its Cod Wars with Iceland - except this time the fish being fought over is mackerel. Yet, until recently, few were interested in a fish regarded as unclean.

As far as fishing is concerned, relations between the UK and Iceland have been as turbulent as the waters of the North Atlantic where their disputes have been played out.

So it is perhaps no surprise to see a British MEP, Conservative Struan Stevenson, calling for an EU-wide blockade of Icelandic boats - along with those from the Faroe Islands - in a row over quotas.

However, while rows in the past have been over the coveted and dwindling stocks of cod, this time the nations are clashing over mackerel.

Map of mackerel distribution

Iceland, which landed practically no mackerel before 2006, has allocated itself a 130,000-tonne quota. The Faroes, a collection of islands 250 miles north of Scotland, has tripled its usual entitlement.

The conflict led to a tense stand off at the port of Peterhead last week, when Scottish fishermen blockaded a Faroese trawler - preventing it from landing its £400,000 catch.

Start Quote

There was folklore suggesting mackerel fed on the corpses of dead sailors”

End Quote Dr Robert Prescott Scottish Fisheries Museum Trust

Coupled with an EU warning to take "all necessary measures" to protect its fishing interests, it led to comparisons with the last "Cod War" of the 1970s which saw Icelandic gunboats clash with a Royal Navy frigate.

But a war over mackerel in those days would have been inconceivable - a fact that reveals how the oily fish's image has changed.

As recently as the mid-1970s, mackerel had an image problem.

A 1976 survey of "housewives" in Britain by the White Fish Authority demonstrated a reluctance to depart from cod, haddock or salmon. Less than 10% of its 1,931 respondents had ever bought mackerel and only 3% did so regularly. Many fishmongers did not display or even stock it.

"Many housewives had heard that mackerel was a scavenger or that it had a 'bad reputation'," the authority noted.

Mackerel's image problem goes back further, says Dr Robert Prescott, vice-president of the Scottish Fisheries Museum Trust.

"There was folklore suggesting mackerel fed on the corpses of dead sailors. It takes a long time to convince the great British public to change."

It only began being landed in great numbers during the late 19th Century and even then was regarded as "unclean". By the mid-20th Century British-caught mackerel was being processed on Eastern European factory ships and sold for export.

Mackerel Facts

  • A pelagic fish - meaning it inhabits the upper layers of the open sea
  • Streamlined bodies allow speeds of 100 metres in 11secs (20.336 mph)
  • May live for more than 20 years
  • Found off all British coasts, in the Mediterranean, and American side of the north Atlantic
  • Recent movement to Icelandic waters may be due to climate change
  • An excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and vitamin B12
  • Eaten in the UK for hundreds of years, mackerel formed Samuel Pepys's breakfast on 30 May 1660

But, Dr Prescott notes, the fish has always been popular among part-time fishermen - largely because "they can't resist any kind of lure" and mackerel is an easy catch.

These days shoppers are perhaps most familiar with the fish as a smoked and vacuum-packed fillet.

Food journalist Nigel Barden says it has become more fashionable, particularly among eco-conscious consumers.

"The health factor is also a huge element. It's an oily fish, rich in omega-3, which is very good for us," says Barden. "They are very versatile. You can bake them, use them as a base for a fish pie, even use them as sushi and sashimi.

"There's nothing better than a fresh, grilled mackerel and we're lucky to have some of the best in the world off our coast."

Whether that remains the case in future decades could depend on the outcome of the current international spat.

Mackerel stocks in the North Atlantic have been carefully managed in recent years, making it something of a rarity in marine stewardship circles - a good news story.

No-one wants a repeat of the collapse in North Sea stocks which saw the volume of catches drop by 90% over a decade, from highs of one million tonnes a year in the 1960s.

Most valuable

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), on whose advice the European quotas are based, classifies stocks as at "full reproductive capacity". However, its latest report warns stocks have been significantly overfished since 2007 and the absence of effective international agreements prevents "control of the exploitation rate".

In the last two years, catches in Icelandic waters amounted to 18% of the total haul in the North-East Atlantic - none of which was taken into account before European quotas were agreed.

Smoked mackerel Smoked mackerel has become increasingly popular

"You can't just add 200,000 tonnes to the quota without expecting some ramifications," says the Marine Stewardship Council's James Simpson. "If the overfishing continues, stock will start to fall below sustainable levels in 2012."

Should that happen, the fish would lose its sustainability certification, knocking consumer confidence and damaging the reputations of fisheries across Europe.

The potential loss to Scotland, where most of the UK's mackerel is caught, is clear. Last year it brought £135m into the economy, making it the Scottish fleet's most valuable fish.

Unsurprisingly Ian Gatt, of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association, is concerned.

"The mackerel stock has been sustainably managed for many years ensuring that all those involved in the fishery have benefited," he says. "The actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands could undo all the good work in a matter of months."


But Iceland and the Faroes see it differently. Both say Europe is stubbornly protecting quotas by refusing meaningful negotiation and, since the fish has gravitated north in recent years, Iceland says it is merely fishing within its own zones.

The Icelandics have little taste for mackerel and for years, says Sigurdur Sverrisson, of the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, it was "not so much sought after".

But a recent fall in the island's herring catch means it has been "like a Godsend to us".

Seafish, a UK state and industry-funded body which promotes sustainability across all stages of seafood production, acknowledges that something needs to change.

Concerns persist about illegal fishing and discarding of dead undersized fish.

But it says including Iceland in future agreements would bring the overall catch back into manageable levels.

Whether there is political will elsewhere in Europe to agree the quota cuts necessary to allow this to happen, will become clear in the coming months.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Only remedy which would allow fish stocks a chance to survive at commercial levels, is complete ban on factory trawlers. Limit the size of nets (incl length) with strict enforced shortened-seasons, but extend the season for those who use lines. Result will be: reduced frozen fish, but increased year round freshly caught fish. Would actually bring back some regular year-round JOBS. The frenzy to process fish for freezers generate more WASTE than anything else.

Natty, Nomad

This will go the same way as all fisheries, mismanaged and unsustainable. This same story was probably written 20 years ago about Monkfish or Orange Roughy...look whats happened there. Like all fishing stocks there just isn't the desire or will by fisherman to protect. Its open seas and therefore the mentality is I may as well take it before they do. You can see this with Yellowfin and Bluefin Tuna. Its not until the stock collapse (like Newfoundalnd Cod) that anything will really be done or maybe just before this..but then it will be too little too late. Then fisherman will do what they have consistently done for the last 50 years. Target another generally less desired species that is still abundant (pollock instead of Cod) until that one is decimated or move to a new ground for fishing (west Africa - where EU aid is attached to requirements to open up fishing grounds) and repeat. Its not all fishermans fault as the Government props them up financially and provides them with (sometimes) weak scientific support. Furthermore Government just wont bite the bullet and protect a stock as the long term benefits of this are outweighed by a short term political loss.

Dave, Melbourne, Australia

Having worked as a fisherman for 12 yrs and as technician for a well known marine mammal reasearch team i can only conclude iceland's and faroe's action to be disgraceful, mackeral is one of the few areas which at the moment is stable and sustainable, these fish are part of the staple diet of seals and dolphins, not to menton a multi million pound industry.... taking this amount of of a fisheries stock cannot be healthy for industry or enviroment and must be stopped with imediate effect.

Alexander Cargill, Arbroath, Scotland

The article by mr McFarlane fails to address the main point of this argument. The set quotas are overwhelmingly given to EU and Norway. They refuse to acknowledge the right of the Iceland and the Faroes to a larger share of the quota due to the mackrel stocks having altered their migratory route further west. Both the EU and Norway are refusing to discuss this issue.Both Iceland and the Faroes must be entitled to fish for a species, which is now spawning in their waters, at least in Faroe waters, and also "grazing" there. The fact is that mackrel could be very damaging for Iceland and the Faroes as they are a predatory fish and it is estimated that they will eat a substantial part of all the other fish juveniles and eggs suspended in the water column. Their foraging will also diminish the food availabil for other species, in particular cod and haddock.

Johan MacDonald, Torshavn, Faroe Islands

I am one of those people who leisurely go on mackerel fishing trips and enjoy cooking what I catch. On the one hand it is good to see the popularity of a very healthy fish rising, but my main concern is that with other EU countries trying to overfish our stocks, the supplies we have could become limited and what is a relatively cheap, healthy food will suddenly experience a price hike.

R Winter, London

The history of fishing in the last 40 years in the north sea and other waters reads like a disaster novel. How can buisnessmen be so ignorant and selfish? Here on the west coast of Norway though there are plenty of fish - right now the mackrel have come in and there are good catches all over. I go fishing about 2 times a week - cod, coalfish, pollock, haddock, halibut amongst others are the usual catch. When i lived in the uk i tried fishing but they seemed to have dissapeared.

Bertram Somme, Molde Norway

This is an reversal from the 1970's Cod War in which Great Britain, in particular, tried to deny Iceland the right to terrotorial waters consistent with other countries. Iceland's economy in those days was almost exclusively based on fishing and they were at the forefront of managing fishing stocks. Although fishing is a smaller component of their economy these days, it is still extremely important. They have strict limits in place to manage their stock and to imply that their increased mackeral quotas are done without careful forethought makes no sense to me. It was overfishing by other countries that lead to declines in cod and other fish in the North Atlantic. It seems odd to hear some of these same countries now complain about Iceland.

Paul Griggs, Albany, NY, USA

A shortage of mackerel would be terrible. To eat a really fresh mackerel that still has the rainbow effect on its skin is a pleasure, the taste is tremendous. I urge any fish lover who has not yet tried this wonderfully cheap and nutritious delight to go and buy one and bake it whole gutted obviously. Even filleted and shallow fried is nice.

Judy Soffe, Waterlooville

Excluding Iceland and Faroes from negotiating a quota on mackerel has shown itself to be blatantly wrong and they have fought back by just getting out there, in their own waters and doing it. Solution...get them round the table and start a dialogue. Yes, some fishermen will have to accept smaller quotas as a result, but at least it will be a fairer situation than at present. After all, these fish are in their waters, it's not like some countries fleets that wander all over decimating other nations fish stocks.

Col, Bristol

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