No MSC-label without sustainable fisheries management

18 November 2020

In the North-Eastern Atlantic, three large pelagic stocks are being overfished because states cannot agree on a quota sharing in line with scientifically advised catch amounts. This contradicts the MSC standard for sustainable fishing and risks threatening the future health of the stocks. A solution of the problem is still possible.

Effective fisheries management is one of the key requirements of the MSC, along with the prevention of overfishing and the protection of the marine ecosystem. Important components of robust management are clear fishing regulations, scientifically backed catch quota allocations and a cooperation among all states involved. This is particularly critical for large or migratory stocks that are fished by several nations, as is the case for Atlanto-Scandian herring, mackerel and blue whiting in the North East Atlantic.

The problem

Currently there is no robust management in place for those three key pelagic stocks: Coastal States did not agree on how the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for these species will be shared amongst them. A quota sharing agreement is vital to ensure catch stays in line with the biologically sustainable limits advised by International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Without this management protocol in place, the combined catch of Atlanto-Scandian herring, for example, has been more than 30% above the scientific advice in 2019 and 2020. Negotiations in October 2020, disappointingly, did not reach a solution to this stock management problem.


Implementation of effective stock management is a condition of certification for the eight MSC certified fisheries that catch these stocks. As these fisheries will be unable to meet this condition, most are facing the suspension of their MSC certificates by the end of the year. Poor stock management and the subsequent loss of sustainability credentials are regrettable and worrying for the fishers and communities who depend on sustainable fishing, for retailers, manufacturers and consumers that rely on sustainable seafood, and, of course, for our oceans’ health.

Looking ahead

Additional negotiations between Coastal States on 25 November 2020 (mackerel) and in January 2021 (Atlanto-Scandian herring) present a further opportunity for the involved nations to agree on a binding quota sharing allocation in line with scientific advice. While the stocks are not yet in the "red zone" according to current stock estimates by ICES, the history of Atlanto-Scandian herring itself shows that stocks can collapse if continuously overfished. One of the largest stocks in the world, Atlanto-Scandian herring stock collapsed in the 1960s due to poor management, and it took a full 20 years for it to recover. Today, it is important to avoid history repeating and to ensure the future protection of these ecologically and economically important stocks in the North-East Atlantic.

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