North Atlantic mackerel mayhem by Quentin Bates

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A rare excursion into the wild world of fish, for a change. Mackerel, those oily little beasties who range across the North Atlantic, are at the centre of an international row between Norway and the European Union on the one side (even though those two are no strangers to being at loggerheads) and Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the other.

Considering the amount of marine research that the nations around the North Atlantic carry out, for some reason it seemed to take everyone by surprise that the ocean was bursting with mackerel. This migratory species has been fished, carefully and largely responsibly for a good few years by Norway, the Faroes and some EU countries as it migrated back and forth, spending much of its time in Norwegian waters.

While there wasn’t a particularly amicable division of quotas, there was an agreement that everyone kept to most of the time. But then a mackerel population explosion expanded north and west search of lebensraum, taking it into Icelandic waters where there had been no mackerel in living memory – which in political terms means never.

Icelanders started catching mackerel in large quantities, quota-free, while their neighbours who had lived with strict control and tight quotas watched enviously and with increasing fury. By the time Iceland’s new mackerel fishery comfortably topped 100,000 tonnes, the lid couldn’t be kept on the pot any longer. The Faroe Islands left the agreement with Norway and the EU and also set their own, larger, quotas.

So let’s put things into perspective here. Prior to everything being turned upside down, the mackerel fishery overall was something in the region of 650,000 tonnes and worth, at a very conservative estimate, €1 per kilo. That’s a stack of money by anyone’s standards. Let’s also remember that mackerel aren’t by even a vast stretch of the imagination endangered – quite the reverse. There are mackerel everywhere from North Africa to Greenland, and mackerel are being seen in shoals and in every harbour, as well as on barbecues, around Iceland and the Faroes. Iceland’s 100,000+ tonne fishery and the bigger Faroese quotas aren’t endangering the stock – at least, not yet. It’ll be a few years before anything is likely to go haywire, and when it does it’ll be more likely for climatic reasons.

Yet tempers are running high. There is anger and fury. Icelandic and Faroese fishermen are being branded criminals for their ‘irresponsible’ fishery. Sanctions are being called for by Norwegian, Scottish and Irish fishermen who are still being kept on a tight leash by their governments and still have only a few precious trips on mackerel every year. So let’s backtrack a little. A dozen years ago the mackerel club of Norway, the Faroes and the EU snootily told Iceland several times to get lost when it asked for a small mackerel quota. Back then, mackerel were watched carefully. Illegal fishing had been painfully curtailed. Fines and penalties hit coastal communities hard. Prices were also high – and still are – making mackerel the critical main money earner that fishing vessels relied on to keep the books in the black.

So when Icelanders started fishing fat summer mackerel at a time of year when they are not at their peak value, antennae began to twitch. The international process of negotiation lumbered into action – and nothing happened. Some of us could be forgiven for a feeling of déjà-vu. There are three big stocks of pelagic (high-swimming, shoaling) species in the North Atlantic, blue whiting, the Atlanto-Scandian herring, and mackerel. Negotiations over blue whiting dragged on for the best part of twenty years, on and off, until a crisis forced agreements. When the Atlanto-Scandian herring reappeared in vast amounts in the 1990s (having all but vanished at the end of the 960s), it took a good few years for grudging agreements to be reached, and even then there was a rogue year when one nation decided it deserved a larger slice of the pie.

The present furore is nothing new. We’ve been here before and one would imagine the headaches could have been foreseen, and maybe even averted. But, no. Negotiations between the various coastal states take place at regular intervals between teams of negotiators who have precious little common ground to work on. Eventually there will be an agreement that nobody is happy with, but it’s going to take a while.

The established mackerel club members are anxious to get things back on an even keel. Iceland and the Faroes, with mackerel in their waters, are in no great hurry. The longer things drag on, the more opportunity to build up track records that strengthen their positions.

The problem is also that all sides have rational, plausible arguments. There is no doubt that the mackerel have shifted into Icelandic and Faroese waters in serious amounts. The fish are there and they can’t seriously be expected not to catch what’s on their doorsteps. In reality, the abundance of mackerel is such that they can hardly be avoided. On the other hand, the mackerel club’s members have track records going back decades. These are the people who went through the pain of the lean years when quotas were seriously tight, and were at the centre of building up some of the markets that the newcomers are supplying.

At the heart of the matter is that these aren’t Norwegian mackerel any more than they are Irish, Danish  or Dutch mackerel. The fish go where the feed is and don’t respect arbitrary lines dreamed up by humans. After a few years the mackerel stock will start to decline, as the herring is already doing now, and the blue whiting stock, already growing after hitting a recent historical low point, will again be the big species. There’s evidence that these three have fluctuated in turn in the past, as natural populations always do, while humans trying to impose their will on nature and make it sit up and beg is a pretty futile exercise at the best of times, as is the antiquated concept of managing an unpredictable migratory species on the basis of flags and boundaries.

Not that this is going to reassure the Icelandic and Faroese fishermen who are being called criminals by their European counterparts, or the EU and Norwegian fishermen being kept on a short rein, let alone the Scottish groundfish catchers who traditionally had fishing grounds in the Faroese zone but who have now been kicked out as a bargaining chip in this bizarre squabble over some high stakes.

It’s an argument in which every side is right – and at the same time everyone’s wrong.

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