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Ecological and economically vital fish stocks in the North East Atlantic are under pressure and have been fished by 4.8 million tonnes above sustainable limits since 2015.

mackerel largeMackerel on ice © Clive Streeter / MSC

The combined catch of mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting have exceeded sustainable levels by 34% during this period because some of the richest nations in the world have failed to agree to limit their catch quotas.

The figures, analysed by the MSC, are based on new data released by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which provides scientific advice on sustainable catch levels.

ICES found that the combined quotas of coastal nations for mackerel, herring and blue whiting for 2021 were again set above scientifically advised limits for the year -- by 41%, 35% and 25% respectively.

These limits are set to ensure the long-term viability of these fish stocks and consistent overshooting puts the health of the ocean, economies and livelihoods in jeopardy.

The new ICES data sends a clear warning that history could be repeating itself as the health of all three fish stocks have worsened over recent years. In particular, Atlanto-Scandian herring stock has declined by 36% over the last decade. If overfished for a long time, fish stocks can collapse. The Atlanto-Scandian herring which collapsed in the 1960s took 20 years to recover.

Urgent action is now required by the nations fishing these stocks to prevent it from happening again and to safeguard the stocks for future generations. Yet there has been no quota sharing agreement for mackerel for over a decade, nor for herring since 2012 or for blue whiting since 2014.

Instead, these shared natural resources are being fished according to quotas that are set unilaterally by individual nations and which, when combined, consistently exceed scientifically advised catch limits for these stocks.

The MSC is calling on policy makers from the fishing nations of the North East Atlantic to reach a shared agreement for managing these important stocks at upcoming meetings of the Coastal States between 19-27 October 2021. This agreement must be in line with the new scientific advice on 2022 catch levels released by ICES on 30th September. Otherwise, there could be devastating consequences for these iconic species, local ocean biodiversity and the fishing communities that depend on them, it warns.

Erin Priddle, MSC Regional Director, North Europe said: “Fish populations span numerous international fishing zones and as such quota sharing agreements among the key political players are crucial to ensuring enough fish are left in the sea so stocks can replenish. Climate change only makes this task all the more urgent, with stocks shifting in response to warming oceans. We therefore urge fishing nations to set aside national interests and commit to sustainable management measures for these stocks at the upcoming Coastal States meeting.”

“Sustainable, well managed fisheries not only safeguard ocean biodiversity, they are also more resilient to climate change, providing greater economic certainty. Although individual fisheries have a role to play, international cooperation is essential to secure adequate protection of these stocks.”

This call is supported by major retailers and seafood brands. In an open letter to Coastal States ministers, sent on 27 September, a collective of over 40 retailers, food service companies and suppliers, including Tesco, Aldi, Princes, Youngs, Co-op and Sainsbury’s, called for concrete action to deliver long term management strategies for these species. Many of the signatories said they would re-evaluate their sourcing policies if the current unsustainable situation continues.

Download our NEA Pelagic stocks factsheet (PDF)

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International action needed on shifting stocks