Should we eat mackerel? Fish2fork offers guidance
June 20 2012 Lewis Smith
Until recently, anyone asking if mackerel was a sustainable choice would have been given a resounding ‘yes’. The position, however, has changed rapidly.
The changing circumstances have left consumers struggling to know whether mackerel can be eaten with a clear conscience or not.
Under most circumstances Fish2fork would rely on information from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) but it has recently withdrawn its advice on the fish, classifying it as “under review”. In the absence of an MCS rating for the fish, which it previously recommended as a “to eat” species, Fish2fork has decided to offer its own, temporary guidance that mackerel should be eaten only occasionally.
Doubts over the sustainability of mackerel from the North East Atlantic has been caused by the dispute between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which want a greater share of the mackerel catch, and the European Union and Norway, which want to protect their stake in the £1 billion fishery has led to unsustainable quota levels being declared.
Scientists calculate that the maximum catch that can be landed in 2012 without damaging future stock levels is 639,000 tonnes. Quotas, however, have already been set at more than 870,000 tonnes.
A decade ago Iceland and the Faroe Islands caught only small quantities of mackerel but the fish has been moving into their waters in greater quantities and the two nations determined that they should catch more. This year their combined self-declared quota is just under 300,000 tonnes.
Talks between the four sides have repeatedly failed to resolve the issue and with none willing to back down the quota levels are now, as they were last year, well above what is considered sustainable.
Fisheries that had been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, the gold standard of eco-labels, have already been casualties of the so-called ‘mackerel war’. All seven fisheries boasting the blue label were told earlier this year that certification had been withdrawn.
Fresh MSC certified mackerel, therefore, has been off the menu for a couple of months, though frozen supplies should be available until the end of the year and MSC canned mackerel is similarly likely to be available for several more months and well into 2013.
Until the international row over quotas mackerel was one of the most plentiful fish in European seas and was widely regarded as a sustainable choice for chefs, diners and shoppers with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) recommending it as a fish “to eat”.
In recent weeks, however, the MCS has withdrawn its recommendation and now officially classifies the species as “under review”.
The MCS bases all its recommendations on scientific evidence but it finds itself in a quandary because fresh scientific evidence won’t be available to it until later this summer when the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) issues its latest annual assessment of mackerel.
But with quota levels seemingly unsustainable the MCS was uncomfortable about continuing to recommend it as a fish to eat. The MCS expects to be able to offer fresh advice, having reviewed the new scientific advice, in September, or perhaps even in August, but until then it considers the species to be under review.
While this decision makes sense for the MCS, which relies on scientific evidence for its ratings, it leaves consumers in the dark so Fish2fork has decided in the meantime to recommend that the fish be treated as one to eat occasionally.
There is no reason why frozen and canned mackerel with MCS certification shouldn’t continue to be eaten frequently while stocks last in the shops.
For fresh mackerel Fish2fork takes the view that being eaten occasionally should be justifiable, at least until fresh scientific evidence becomes available. It should, however, be taken off restaurant menus as a staple dish, but can be served from time to time as a special.
While the quota levels are too high, mackerel is nevertheless available in large quantities – even at sustainable levels it could be caught in its hundreds of thousands of tonnes rather than tens of thousands - and there are reports from some fishermen that stocks this year are especially plentiful.
Moreover, when the new scientific advice is analysed it is thought that the MCS is more likely to classify mackerel as an occasional eat, with a rating score not of 5 which would make it a species consumers are urged to avoid eating, but of either 3 or 4 in place of the 2 it had earlier this year when it was categorised as a “fish to eat”.
Good alternatives to mackerel , according to MCS advice, include herring, anchovy from the Bay of Biscay, and sardine.
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