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Urgent government action needed to protect vital fish stocks in the North East Atlantic

Concern raised as the combined catch of mackerel, herring and blue whiting overshoots sustainable limits by 4.8 million tonnes since 2015.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is calling for urgent action as ecologically and economically vital fish stocks in the North East Atlantic are being overexploited due to years of failure by governments to agree to allocate catch quotas in way which safeguards the future of these stocks.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which provides scientific advice on sustainable catch levels, has published new data which shows that the combined quotas for mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring, and blue whiting for 2021 were again set above scientifically advised limits for the year, and by 41%, 35% and 25% respectively (1). These limits are set to ensure the long-term viability of these fish stocks and consistently overshooting them puts the health of the ocean, economies and livelihoods in jeopardy.    

MSC analysis of the data shows that in the last six years alone, total combined catches of mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting have exceeded sustainable levels by  34%: this is more than 4.8 million tonnes of fish which, if the scientific advice had been followed, should have been left in the sea (2).  

Fish stocks can collapse if overexploited for a long period, as was the case with Atlanto-Scandian herring which collapsed in the 1960s and took 20 years to recover (3). Concerningly the data released by ICES also indicates an overall downward trend for all three of these pelagic stocks over recent years. Atlanto-Scandian herring stock in particular has declined in stock size by 36% over the last decade (4).

Combined, these North East Atlantic pelagic fish stocks represent one of the largest fish populations in Europe, and are fished by some of the richest nations in the world. However, there has been no quota sharing agreement for mackerel for over a decade, nor for herring since 2012 or for blue whiting since 2014 (5). 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 and 27 October 2021 (6). This agreement must be in line with the new scientific advice on 2022 catch levels released by ICES on 30 September.  Otherwise, it warns, there could be devastating consequences for these iconic species, local ocean biodiversity and the fishing communities that depend on them. 

Erin Priddle, Regional Director, North Europe said: “Fish populations span numerous international fishing zones, and as such, quota sharing agreements amongst 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. Governments have a responsibility on behalf of the public to safeguard our oceans for current and future generations.” 

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. 


Notes to editors

Mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring stocks in the North-East-Atlantic are shared by the European Union (EU), Norway, Iceland, Russia, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and most recently the United Kingdom (UK), which claimed independent Coastal State status in 2020. These states form the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) contracting parties. 

As clear harvest regulations, science-based catch quotas and cooperation between all states are such important components of an effective and sustainable fisheries management framework, they are key requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard. As such, although many fisheries targeting pelagic species in the region were once certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard, each has been suspended in recent years until international agreement on long-term management measures can be agreed. 


1. Calculated based on new data released by ICES 30 September 2021 for:

2. Between 2015 and 2020, actual catch totals have exceeded scientifically recommended catch levels recommended by ICES by 4,781,470 tonnes - made up of 988,875 tonnes for herring, 1,584,574 for mackerel, and 2,208,021 for blue whiting (MSC calculation based on six years (2015 – 2020) of advised catch and actual catch data from ICES).

3. Researchgate: The Collapse of the Atlanto-Scandian Herring Fishery: Effects on the Icelandic Economy 

4. ICES Advice on fishing opportunities, catch, and effort Ecoregions in the Northeast Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean Published 30 September 2021: Herring (Clupea harengus) in subareas 1, 2, and 5, and in divisions 4.a and 14.a, Norwegian spring-spawning: Herring spawning stock biomass in 2021 (3765000 tonnes) is only 64% of what it used to be in 2011 (5883000 tonnes). This is a decline by 36% in ten years.

5. The European Commission (05/11/2020) 

MSC North-East Atlantic Pelagics quota factsheet April 2022
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