Governments are sleepwalking into a potential repeat of the 1960s herring crash by failing to prevent overfishing of Atlanto-Scandian herring (AS herring), one of Europe’s most iconic and economically important fish stocks, new figures reveal today.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the science organisation responsible for advising governments on sustainable catch limits, has advised today that a steep cut of 44% in AS herring catches – equivalent to 302,932 metric tonnes, is required. But ICES predicts that even if that figure is adhered to, herring stock levels will still fall below a significant critical level by 2025, risking the long-term sustainability of the stock.
The release of the new data today shows that the AS herring stock has dropped from 7 million metric tonnes in 2008 to 3,7 million metric tonnes with catches in 2022 exceeding ICES advice by 36%, according to an analysis by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Erin Priddle, Regional Director for the Marine Stewardship Council in North Europe said: “The declining health of AS herring and the latest alarming forecast should send a sharp reminder to governments that stocks are at risk of collapse when they are overexploited year on year. We only need to look back to recent history when overfishing and mismanagement led to the collapse of AS herring stock in the 1960s, and subsequent 5-year closure of fishing activities, to allow the stock to recover. Many fisheries and herring processors went bankrupt as a result, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.”
At the heart of these worrying developments lies the inability of fishing nations to agree on quota sharing in line with scientific advice. Instead, AS herring, as well as Atlantic mackerel and blue whiting, are being fished according to quotas that are set unilaterally by individual nations, resulting in ongoing overexploitation of these resources.
The MSC is calling on governments from the fishing nations of the North East Atlantic to reach a quota sharing agreement in line with scientific advice. The upcoming Coastal States meetings in October 2023, will be a critical opportunity to move beyond the current deadlock and agree a quota share allocation that aligns with ICES advice, helping safeguard the future health of these stocks for future generations.
Priddle continued: “The governments involved need to recognise this latest scientific data as an urgent warning that AS herring, as well as Atlantic mackerel, are in critical need of joined up management that keeps the overall shared catch within safe scientific limits.
“The North-East Atlantic pelagic stocks represent one of the largest fish populations in Europe and are fished by some of the richest nations in the world. It would be an indictment of all governments involved if they continue to exceed the scientific advice by setting unilateral TACs. Setting quotas within safe biological limits is the bedrock of good fisheries management, and will be a key factor in safeguarding the long-term health of these important pelagic stocks. When so much is at stake, it is unacceptable that political failure is standing in the way of a long-term and lasting solution for these fisheries.”
The MSC’s analysis of the data reveals that in the last six years alone, total combined catches of Atlanto-Scandian herring, mackerel and blue whiting have exceeded the catch amount advised by scientists by 31%. This equates to almost 4.5 million tonnes of fish which, if the scientific advice had been followed, should have been left in the sea.
The continued failure of fishing states to agree sustainable quota levels and the subsequent suspension of the fisheries´ MSC certificates has resulted in significant falls in sustainable seafood available to consumers. In Germany, the share of sustainable (MSC-certified) mackerel and herring in retail sales has fallen from 83% to 53% between 2020 and 2022  with further decline expected in 2023.
Solutions are within reach. A recent MSC report, North-East Atlantic Pelagic Fisheries – Management Challenges for Straddling Fish Stocks, outlined different management tools that governments could consider to successfully reach a deal, such as majority voting, dispute resolution procedures, and adaptive allocation principles. These management tools are already used in other parts of the world – such as the Chilean jack mackerel fishery - which has enabled negotiators to arrive at a compromised outcome and find solutions to secure the future sustainably of this stock.