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Nations must safeguard North East Atlantic pelagic stocks

Marine Stewardship Council urges governments to raise their ambition after NEAFC negotiations to ensure they share catch quotas in line with scientific advice  

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is calling on coastal states to agree new total allowable catch (TAC) quotas [1] for Atlanto-Scandian (AS) herring, mackerel and blue whiting in line with scientific advice, otherwise they will risk the long-term sustainability of the stock.  

The new TACs were formally agreed by coastal states delegations for the 2024 fishing season in November's annual meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). However, as in previous years, there was no indication of how this TAC should be divided amongst the individual nations – a situation which has historically led to combined national quotas consistently exceeding scientific advice.   

With the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) advising a steep cut of 44% in AS herring catches – equivalent to 302,932 metric tonnes, time is running out to make an agreement to give this stock the best chance of recovering. Given the important economic and environmental value of herring, it’s essential that measures are introduced to protect this stock into the future, safeguarding marine resources and local economies.   

ICES has predicted that even if that figure is adhered to, the AS herring stock is on a trajectory to fall below a significant critical level [2] in 2024. ICES stock models show that for AS herring stocks to increase beyond this critical level by 2025, fish quotas would need to be cut by 89%.[3] 

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 science was followed, should have been left in the sea.     

MSC certificates were suspended in 2019 for mackerel and 2020 for AS herring and blue whiting due to lack of a quota sharing agreement in line with scientific advice, combined with an overall downward trend in stock health.   

However, solutions are within reach. A recent report commissioned by the MSC, 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 stock management solutions that help secure the future sustainably of this stock.     

Erin Priddle, Regional Director for the Marine Stewardship Council in North Europe said:   

“Despite the commitment made year on year to secure quota shares in line with science, the reality is that nations continue to set their individual quotas at levels that, when combined, far exceed scientific limits. There is now a clear downward trajectory in stock health across the mackerel and AS herring fisheries, which should raise the alarm for fisheries managers to take swift action. Yet repeated failure of governments to secure quota shares in line with science continues to put these stocks at risk.    

“With AS herring moving towards a critical level by 2024, it is not only essential that NEAFC contracting parties agree to TACs in line with science, but that they agree to quota allocations that adhere to the overarching scientific advice. Marine resources are, after all, a public resource that must be managed sustainably by governments on behalf of society. It is not just the industry that lose under mis-managed fisheries, but the environment and society at large.”   

Notes to editors:   



1. Coastal states delegations agreed: 

2. Atlanto-Scandian herring is predicted by ICES to fall below its b-trigger point on 1st January 2024. This means the size of the spawning stock biomass (SSB) has fallen to a point where specific management action is needed to help the stock recover.   

The ICES advice sheet Table 1 has the estimate for SSB in 2024 (3059464, which is lower than the trigger 3184000).  

Full reference: ICES. 2023. Herring (Clupea harengus) in subareas 1, 2, 5 and divisions 4.a and 14.a, Norwegian spring-spawning herring (the Northeast Atlantic and Arctic Ocean). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2023. ICES Advice 2023, her.27.1-24a514a, 

3. ICES advice sheet on AS herring gave official advice for cuts to the fish stock by 44% compared to the estimated amount of stock caught this year. However, this cut will not get the stock back up above the critical Btrigger level. The aim of the management plan harvest control rule is not to ensure that the stock immediately gets above Btrigger once it is below there, but that the fishing mortality used for the advice is lower than the fishing mortality target in the management plan because the stock is forecast to be below the trigger. 

However, the same ICES advice sheet shows scenarios which shows how much catch could be taken while still allowing the stock to recover above Btrigger. This shows the catch would need to reduce by 89 percent for the stock to get above Btrigger in 2025.