By James Simpson, UK Communications Manager, Marine Stewardship Council

Mackerel. Whether hot-smoked for tea or straight out of the sea, I’ve always had a soft spot for this small oily fish. So when the Scottish mackerel fishery got MSC certified in 2009, I was delighted. Even more so to be part of the MSC team. For a while, all was good. My favourite fish was certified sustainable with some awe-inspiringly-detailed fisheries science to back it up.

So what happened?

Before the ink was even dry on the certificate, mackerel started appearing further north. Traditionally, they migrated clockwise around the north east Atlantic in a huge circle centred on the UK, up the coast of Ireland and down through the North Sea. Mackerel’s migration route reads like the shipping forecast: “Fair Isle, Viking, Forties…”

But, with warmer seas, mackerel could move further north, migrating as far as Iceland where the hungry little mackerel gorged on sandeels, reducing puffin populations. The Icelandic fleet responded by catching the invading mackerel, increasing their catch up to the 100,000 tonnes mark in a few years.

The traditional mackerel fishing nations reacted with understandable fury. Iceland had relatively little history of fishing mackerel and fishing quotas are normally based on a solid history of catches. Yet Iceland also had a strong case for catching the mackerel in their territorial waters. The ‘Mackerel War’ had begun. Over the next few years, the Coastal States Agreement between the EU, Norway and Faroe Islands collapsed, leaving mackerel’s management in a difficult position. The mackerel stock was growing fast in its new waters but more fish were being caught overall than the scientists recommended. The stock was healthy but the outlook was bleak. In 2012, all of the MSC certificates for mackerel in the North East Atlantic were suspended.

Fortunately, the fishermen of the North East Atlantic are made of tough stuff. Early on in the process, they grouped together forming the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance, an unprecedented international powerhouse of mackerel fishermen, dedicated to keeping mackerel sustainable and on our plates. They sat down for round after round of negotiations, lobbying governments and even sacrificing their percentage of the total quotas to try and bring the total catch in line with scientific advice.

Their work has paid off. This week – after a long battle – the combined ‘MINSA’ mackerel fishery was MSC certified. 700 boats from a total of 11 nations, all working together for the sustainability of the stock. Of course, there’s still work to do – there always is with sustainability. We still need a mechanism to resolve disputes and, while there’s a new coastal states agreement, it doesn’t yet include Iceland, Russia and Greenland. But, with commitments from the industry and a highly-experienced group in MINSA, it’s looking like a positive future for mackerel.

If you’d like to get MSC certified and include MINSA MSC mackerel on your menu, please call 0207 246 8917 to find out more.