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AS herring quota-sharing

Absence of international agreement on AS herring quota-sharing risks loss of MSC certificates 

Four MSC-certified Atlanto-Scandian herring fisheries operating in the Northeast Atlantic are at a high risk of losing their MSC certificates on 30 December 2020, due to lack of an international agreement on how to manage catch levels between different nations. 

These MSC-certified fisheries land between 600,000 to 700,000 tonnes of Atlanto-Scandian herring per year, this is around 50% of the total MSC-certified herring catches landed annually. MSC labelled herring is sold to consumers via supermarkets and fishmongers throughout Europe. 

However, the absence of effective management – in particular, the quota sharing agreement between the coastal and fishing nations (EU, UK, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Norway, Russia and Greenland) – has led to the combined catch exceeding the recommended catch levels for a number of years. In 2019 fisheries collectively caught 777,165 tonnes, 32% more than the scientific advice for the year. 

In 2020, following the catch quotas announced by the individual states, total Atlanto-Scandian herring catches are expected to exceed scientific advice by almost a third (32% or 168,312 tonnes) [1]. This means fisheries are now exceeding sustainability thresholds. If states are to align with the 2021 scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) announced on 30 September, they will have to reduce their catches. 

Independent assessors identified that the absence of a quota-sharing system could threaten the health of the stock and set a condition that nations must reach an agreement by 2020 for continued MSC certification. This was stipulated in 2015, giving fisheries a five-year time frame to work towards. Due to a lack of progress on this condition, the fisheries are now at risk of losing their current MSC certificates.  

The MSC is focused on securing and maintaining the long-term health of fish stocks. Avoiding the boom-bust cycle of overfishing and recovery is a fundamental principle of the MSC Standard for sustainable fishing. This is even more important in the context of climate change which is already impacting on the productivity and distribution of fish stocks [2].

The annual meeting of the Northeast Atlantic Coastal States, which starts on 5 October 2020 and where international management measures are agreed, presents an opportunity for governments to solve the quota-sharing problem and ensure the long-term sustainability of the Atlanto-Scandian herring stock.  

The Atlanto-Scandian stock has already experienced the impacts of over-fishing. In the 1960s, the herring stock, which had been one of the biggest in the world, crashed due to over-fishing: it took 20 years to recover. 

The MSC’s Northern Europe Director, Erin Priddle, said:

“We urge the nations meeting in October to commit to a quota-sharing agreement in line with the scientific advice. Only this approach will help ensure the health of the herring stock in short, medium and long term. While individual fisheries often make great efforts to improve their sustainability, ultimately, they cannot do it alone. Migratory species like Atlanto-Scandian Herring don’t observe national boundaries, so we need international agreements to manage whole ecosystems in an adaptive, scientific way, rather than managing fish resources on a national basis.”

The independent assessors that have determined the Atlanto-Scandian herring fisheries likely suspension have also agreed that four MSC-certified blue whiting fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic should be suspended in December due to the lack of a quota sharing agreement.

For the same reason MSC certified mackerel fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic were suspended in 2019 and have not yet been reinstated due to ongoing concern about how catch is managed in response to scientific data on stock levels. 

This figure is obtained by relating the catch amount advice by ICES for 2020 (525,594 tonnes) to the total amount of intended catch 2020 (693,915 tonnes): ICES advice on fishing opportunities, catch and effort for Northeast Atlantic and Arctic Ocean ecoregions (2020) (p.3, Table 4) 

IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, 2019, Chapter 5