The fishing of mackerel in the North Atlantic is a contested international issue as experts believe the fish is at danger of overfishing. Chris Davies, head of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, stated that a “mackerel war” could threaten the future of Scottish fishermen after Icelandic authorities increased the mackerel quota in the country. Iceland is kept away from negotiations as Icelandic authorities’ attempts to reach an agreement have been unsuccessful, according to Icelandic authorities. The decision to increase the mackerel quote has raised attention in the Shetland Islands, where local news outlets Shetland Times and Shetland News have covered the issue. Icelandic authorities have been accused of putting the valuable mackerel stock at risk in order to solve their financial problems in the short term.
Mackerel fishing has been hotly contested in the last near-decade or so, as Norway and the European Union have been unhappy with Iceland’s magnitude of mackerel fishing. Mackerel started appearing within Iceland’s territorial waters in large numbers in recent years, which is largely attributed to the warming of the seas in connection with global warming. The mackerel fishing quota in Icelandic fishing territory was increased from 108,000 tons to 140,000 tons this past June, in a decision by Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Kristján Þór Júlíusson. The decision was a unilateral one by the Icelandic government as Iceland has not been admitted to the negotiations regarding the division of the mackerel quota in the North-Atlantic. The increase from 108,000 to 140,000 tons takes heed of the total catch of mackerel fishing nations in the North Atlantic rather than the total quota attributed to the nations. All of the mackerel fishing nations, including Norway and European Union nations which hunt in the North-Atlantic, have exceeded their share of the quota in recent years.
Decision irks Shetlanders
The Shetland Islands is a Scottish archipelago which relies heavily on the fishing industry. The aforementioned Davies met with representatives from the Shetland Fishermen’s Associations last week and spoke after the meeting. “Partnership is essential if shared fish stocks are to be managed sustainably. Iceland’s actions are greedy and irresponsible. They are not those of a friendly nation, let alone of a country that is part of the European economic area. I welcome the fact that, despite all the talk of Brexit, the European Commission is acting strongly in defence of Scottish fishermen, and I will ensure that this issue is debated as soon as the European Parliament meets again.”
Beatrice Wishart, the Shetland’s Liberal Democrat candidate for the Scottish Parliament, stressed the importance of mackerel fishing for Shetlanders. “It was good to have the chair of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee in Shetland to hear about the relationship with Iceland over mackerel stocks. His determination that the Commission follows through on their strong rhetoric when it comes to Iceland is exactly the reassurances our fishing community needs. This is enormously important to Shetland. We already know all too well the consequences of a deal done badly, not least because we have had to live with consequences of the last one.”
Icelandic news outlet RÚV reached out to the Ministry of Industries and Innovation for comments regarding Davies’ statement. The ministry’s press officer stated that Icelandic authorities and the European Union had been in contact regarding mackerel fishing, most recently in early August. “Iceland has been kept from the negotiation table. Repeated settlement proceedings and Icelanders’ willingness to reach an agreement have been unsuccessful,” part of the statement read. The way the ministry sees it, Iceland’s share of the mackerel quota is both legitimate and responsible. “Hunting beyond scientific advice is a serious issue, but it is not right to lay the burden solely on Iceland’s shoulders. It is an unfair demand for one state to unilaterally decrease fishing,”
Mackerel in the North-Atlantic
In 2011, Norway and the European Union reached a conclusion about mackerel quota in the North Atlantic, placing the figure at 646,000 tons to be divided between fishing nations in the area. At the time, it was decided that Iceland should receive 4% of the total quota, numbering 26,000 tons. However, Icelandic authorities had already released a permit for the fishing of a total of 147,000 tons, which was 22.75% of the total North Atlantic quota rather than the aforementioned 4%. In the past, mackerel only wandered into Iceland’s territorial waters from time to time. In the 90s, mackerel started appearing more regularly before whole swathes started appearing after 2005. In 2010, it is believed that over a 1,000,000 tons of mackerel entered Iceland’s territorial waters. Icelandic authorities first released an official mackerel quota in 2006, to the tune of 4,200 tons. Iceland’s mackerel fishing took a jump year to year, from 36,000 tons in 2007 to 112,000 tons in 2008. Since then, Icelanders have fished mackerel in similar numbers, reaching a high point of 170,000 tons in 2014. As Iceland increased its mackerel quota from year to year, the European Union placed sanctions on its fishing industry as it barred Icelandic vessels from landing mackerel catch in EU ports.
Mackerel quota of Norway, 2019: 164,000 tons
Mackerel fishing in Scotland, 2018: 153,000 tons
No conclusive agreement has been reached regarding mackerel fishing, as mackerel fishing nations continue to fish at a rate higher than suggested by The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). ICES concluded in September 2018 that mackerel was being overfished. Therefore, the ICES suggested that mackerel quota should not exceed 318,000 tons for 2019, for all mackerel fishing nations. This number was 42% lower than the 2018 quota, which was 550,948 tons. The total suggested quota had previously stood at 857,000 tons in 2017. However, all of the mackerel fishing nations unilaterally set their own quotas in 2018, totalling more than 1,000,000 tons of mackerel in total.
The ICES later revised the number for 2019, and the set total mackerel quota at 770,000 tons, more than double the original amount they suggested. This was, however, a 20% reduction from 2018. The revised number is due to miscalculated projections, and the mackerel stock in the North Atlantic has a better standing than originally thought. However, an Icelandic specialist at the Marine Research Institute has warned of the future if mackerel fishing in the North Atlantic continues at a similar rate. “We have been warning authorities about the overfishing which has taken place in the last decade or so. We’ve been lucky with replenishment rates. It is clear, however, that the stocks are diminishing. By these actions, not only those of Icelanders but also other fishing nations, where we are overfishing exceeding recommendations, the stock will diminish and fishing will have to be reduced significantly,” said Þorsteinn Sigurðsson, director of the pelagic ecosystem department of the Icelandic Marine Research Institute.
Right now, it appears mackerel fishing nations will continue to decide their mackerel quota unilaterally. Meanwhile, specialists warn of the dangers of overfishing. It appears that mackerel grounds are shifting due to the warming of the ocean, and the number of mackerel within Iceland’s territorial waters has increased significantly in recent years. The right to fish a migratory species such as the mackerel will always be hotly contested. It is one of the most valuable quota species landed in the EU economic zone, as the total value of mackerel fishing in the North Atlantic is estimated at one billion €. Therefore, it’s not likely that any party will give in anytime soon. It’s clear a bi-lateral mackerel agreement needs to be agreed to as soon as possible, in order to protect the valuable stock. The question remains: Who does the mackerel belong to?