According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), mackerel is no longer a sustainable food choice due to declining populations caused by overfishing. The MCS has included mackerel on its “fish to avoid” list in its new UK guide to sustainable seafood. Previously considered an environmentally-friendly choice, mackerel from the North-east Atlantic has become increasingly scarce, prompting experts to call for stricter regulations on fishing practices.

The MCS evaluates 186 environmental ratings for seafood, and in this year’s spring update to its Good Fish Guide, 20 species have been moved to the “fish to avoid” list. The charity is urging UK governments to improve stock management and data collection, including the use of monitoring cameras.

Charlotte Coombes, the Good Fish Guide manager at the MCS, expressed concern over the declining population of North-east Atlantic mackerel since 2015. Fishing communities and wildlife depend on this species, but continued overfishing puts both at risk.

Mackerel is caught by various countries, including Norway, Iceland, the UK, and EU nations. The charity highlights that these countries are not currently working together to address the issue of overfishing. Coombes emphasized the need for countries to agree on quotas to protect the stocks.

In October 2021, the main fishing states agreed not to exceed the scientific advice on total mackerel catches in 2022 (794,920 tonnes). However, they did not reach an agreement on how the catches should be divided. The combined catch limits set by all countries for 2022 exceeded the advice by 42%, totaling 1,131,416 tonnes. Discussions to determine the allocation of quotas for the next period have been ongoing since March 2023, with no decisions reached thus far.

The UK accounts for approximately 17% of the total mackerel catch, primarily from Scottish boats. In 2021, over 220,000 tonnes of mackerel were caught in the UK, representing 32% of the total catch and valued at around £240 million.

The MCS emphasizes the importance of mackerel as prey for whales, dolphins, and tuna. Removing too much of this species could have wider environmental effects.

In the spring update, only 15 ratings have been added to the green-rated “best choice” list. The MCS employs a traffic light system—green, red, and amber—to indicate the status of fish species. Mackerel has been moved to the amber list, indicating the need for improvements, particularly in better stock management to address overfishing.

Despite the overall negative outlook for international mackerel fishing, mackerel caught by hand line in south-west England remains green-rated. This fishing method has low environmental impact, and catches are strictly regulated. Protections are also in place to ensure that juvenile mackerel have the opportunity to reproduce before they are caught.

Among the ratings that have not changed, the European eel and Celtic cod remain on the red-rated “fish to avoid” list.

Jack Clarke, sustainable seafood advocate at the MCS, said: “Eel is still appearing on menus across the country, despite being more endangered than the Bengal tiger. Populations have declined by as much as 95% in the past decade and recent scientific advice couldn’t be clearer – it’s time to stop eating eel. It’s the most trafficked animal on the planet, with an illegal eel trade estimated to be worth £2.5bn every year.”

Celtic cod is often caught by boats catching haddock and whiting, as they are often found together in the marine environment.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK is working intensively with its partners to agree a range of management measures designed to improve the long-term sustainability of mackerel stock, in addition to a new quota sharing arrangement.

“We will continue to work with those partners, in consultation with stakeholders, to establish the most effective range of measures to ensure the long-term health of the stock.”



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