Skip to main content

By Will Little

There are just months before the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) gathers to negotiate a crucial quota sharing agreement among the seven contracting parties of the region. 

This annual negotiation is a critical opportunity to break a political impasse and reach an agreement on quota allocations within scientific limits and ensure the long-term health of key pelagic stocks. 

Years of broken agreements on quota sharing for blue whiting, herring and mackerel have resulted in quotas set above sustainable limits. Consequently, fisheries for these stocks have had their MSC certificates suspended, and many have withdrawn from the MSC’s program for sustainable fisheries.


The MSC recently brought together experts from science, management, and the seafood sector to offer a platform for stakeholder-led discussions outside of the political process to address new and creative ways to unlock the current negotiation impasse.

While coastal states agree on the scientific advice to limit sustainable catches, they are unable to agree how to share the quota amongst themselves. This has resulted in total annual catches exceeding scientific advice.

Speaking at the MSC’s event in London, marine scientists outlined the environmental changes, and the challenges of collecting and interpreting data to inform effective management for these key pelagic stocks.

Market representatives, such as processors and retailers, stated the importance of the stocks remaining at sustainable levels and that they are “not afraid to walk away” and seek alternative sustainable supplies if agreements are not reached.

Speakers outlined their concern with the current management structure, the lack of tools to find a quota sharing agreement, and questions related to role of NEAFC, the region’s regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) that is responsible for management beyond national jurisdictions within international waters.

The future of North East Atlantic pelagic fish stocks

The future of North East Atlantic pelagic fish stocks

Climate change

“We are seeing every day how climate change impacts are increasing, changing pelagic [fish] distributions, their spawning and their survival rates,” explained Verena Trenkel, head of research at Ifremer, French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

As the seas warm, pelagic fish stocks move north where they prefer the colder waters. This not only makes it harder to make stock assessments but will “profoundly change the marine ecosystem”, said Trenkel.

ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, was trying to “take environmental variability into account – without it you cannot understand what is going on with the stock and can’t provide scientific advice”, Trenkel added. 

But more needs to be done in creating an ecosystem assessment model to take account of the full impact of climate change, she argued. 

More information is what Martin Pastoors, an independent consultant and scientist, thinks is needed. “It's really important for the science to provide more focus on spatial distributions of fish species in the North East Atlantic Ocean. Given the rapid pace of climate change that we are experiencing now, we can expect that these changes will become greater and bigger.”

Kristin Kleisner, of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), presented on climate change along the US East Coast and its implications for regional allocation policies. 

Kleisner, who is Senior Director for ocean sciences at EDF, highlighted how stock shifts on the east coast of the US are creating similar challenges to the North East Atlantic pelagic stocks. This is particularly prevalent where stocks move across jurisdictional boundaries, which can create conflict over access and a sense of ‘unfairness’. 

“As we know, renegotiating access to fish stock allocation is a complex process. Where stocks have moved out of an area where they have been historically, there’s a sense of ‘holding onto’ what once was,” she said. 

“The challenge is finding solutions to stop these jurisdictional conflicts from occurring. This is the primary goal of the ‘Managing Across Boundaries’ project funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program. Its purpose is to develop and evaluate a model for developing policy options for managing fish stocks across jurisdictional borders and assessing the socio-economic benefits and trade offs of these policy options,” she explained. 

She said that the project is based on a hypothesis that would have lessons for issues currently taking place in the North East Atlantic. By examining adaptive allocation options based on empirical changes in species distribution (as well as catch history), conflict can be reduced by replacing  contentious relocation processes using a non-subjective formula that controls reallocation in an automatic way in response to observed shifts in biomass distribution.      

North East Atlantic Pelagic Stakeholder Symposium 2023 report
Date of issue: 29 September 2023
Download download file PDF - 2 MB

The politics of agreeing to disagree

As nations agree on scientific limits, the real driver for change will be political, suggested Pastoors.

Political agreements elsewhere over similar issues could offer a template for success.

Professor Gier Honneland, from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, described the success of a quota share agreement between Norway and Russia. In this example, Norwegian politicians agreed a deal with Russia over quota-sharing of cod in the Barents Sea in the late 1970s. Despite political difficulties, “Russia and Norway agreed to manage the cod as a joint stock and split it 50/50,” he said, with the Norwegians compromising and taking a lower share of the stock than was in their waters.

Another example of successful sharing arrangements is “the Chilean jack mackerel fishery in the South Pacific Ocean where 15 nations reached an agreement on sharing sustainable catch quotas, said Susannah Walmsley, a marine and fisheries expert at marine consultancy ABPmer and author of the MSC commissioned report, North-East Atlantic Pelagic Fisheries – Management Challenges for Straddling Fish Stocks.

Majority voting and dispute resolutions enabled agreements to be made and adjusted without a complete breakdown of negotiations. As a result, the jack mackerel fishery has maintained its MSC certification.

As North East Atlantic pelagic stocks are shifting location, “so the agreements really need to be able to address and deal with shifting stocks by having mechanisms for reviewing quota shares,” she added.

Views from market players

The loss of the MSC ecolabel was bad for business as well as the environment, argued Julius Palm, Head of Strategy and Brand at German food processing company, Followfood.

The company refused to source uncertified mackerel from the North East Atlantic, opting instead for MSC certified jack mackerel from Chile, which is now sold in Kaufland, one of Germany’s leading supermarkets.

Followfood took a short term hit from changing suppliers, but it can now meet customer demand for sustainable mackerel. As a result, the company’s market share is increasing.

Krishan Kent, Chairman, Swedish Seafood Association, highlighted the risk of consumer demands.

"We know that retailers have the highest policies on sustainable fish because their consumers expect that what is on the shelf [is] sustainable,” he said.

"Fish in relation to the supermarket is quite a small category so having a situation where you have unsustainable fish on your shelves would also mean you would lose a lot of value if you lose just one customer,” he added.

“Unless the coastal states make an agreement there will be economic consequences for the industry,” said Leif Kjetil Skjaeveland, Manager of Sustainability and Public Affairs at Aquafeed company Skretting, the world’s largest producer of feed for the aquaculture industry.

If there is no agreement, “we will all walk away, and we will stop purchasing blue whiting. Period.” he said.

 “People are concerned about the oceans, and they do not want to buy any products that could cause overfishing to continue,” he added.

Time is running out

“The fishing pressure is too high,” said Walmsley. “The stocks have been able to withstand that, but there is the danger that that won't continue. And the ultimate outcome can be stock collapse.

“We saw that in the 1960s with the collapse of the herring stock and that had huge economic and social impacts.”

The event ended on a positive note, however, with many hoping the coastal states would finally agree to sharing quotas in line with scientific advice and avoid this worst-case scenario.

“It’s not the fishermen that need to change. It's the different governments in the different countries that need to sit down and agree on how much of the cake they're going to have,” stated Kjetil Skjaeveland.

“But I am optimistic that the coastal states will reach an agreement,” he concluded.

The MSC hopes that the autumn negotiations bring renewed vision and clarity on how to break the current negotiation impasse to reach a lasting agreement, that will benefit the stocks, the industry and the nations that rely on these important resources for economic security.

Only through agreeing long-term management plans, with Harvest Control Rules and Harvest Strategies in place, will nations be able to secure a lasting quota share agreement in line with scientific advice.


Quota sharing agreement in urgent need

Get the full background on the issue of overexploitation in the North East Atlantic.
Quota sharing agreement in urgent need