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MCS Downgrades Mackerel As Catch Argument Continues

Lucy Towers
22 January 2013, at 12:00am

UK - The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has downgraded its rating mackerel as arguments over whos catching what in the north east Atlantic continue.

After years of being a popular sustainable choice, mackerel should no longer be appearing so regularly on your dinner plate.

The oily fish, which is packed with Omega 3, has been removed from the MCSs latest Fish to Eat list and is now rated by the charity as a fish to eat only occasionally.

The change in fortunes for the species is the result of overfishing of the stock and the subsequent suspension of the north east Atlantic stocks Marine Stewardship Council certification, meaning it is no longer considered a sustainable fishery.

MCS Fisheries Officer, Bernadette Clarke, says numbers of mackerel have increasingly been found further north west in the Atlantic. The stock has moved into Icelandic and Faroese waters, probably following their prey of small fish, crustaceans and squid. As a result both countries have begun to fish more mackerel than was previously agreed. The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries. Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.

MCS says good alternatives to mackerel are herring and sardine both of which are on the charitys Fish to Eat List.

If people want to continue eating mackerel they should ensure they buy it from as sustainable a source as possible. That means fish caught locally using traditional methods - including handlines, ringnets and drift nets - or from suppliers who are signatories to the principles of the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance, says Bernadette Clarke.

Another casualty of the MCS Fish to Eat list is gurnard. Perhaps not the prettiest fish in the sea, gurnard has become a restaurant favourite in recent years, its sustainable virtues extolled by a number of celebrity chefs. However, Bernadette Clarke, says a lack of data on stock levels, scientific advice to reduce catches and concerns about the fisheries management has led the charity to move gurnard off its Fish to Eat list and on to its cautionary listing.

Gurnard, specifically red and grey are now classified by scientists as data-limited stocks meaning there is little information available on stock levels and how much is being fished. Because gurnard have historically been taken as bycatch - accidentally caught when fishing for other species and are not targeted by commercial fishing interests - there are no catch restrictions or minimum landing sizes. If the species is to become commercially targeted sustainably, we need to understand the biology of the stocks and manage them appropriately.

Bernadette Clarke says red gurnard, like many other species is also a victim of high rates of discarding, which is when fish that are not required are thrown back dead. Discarding is common due to low market demand. A preliminary analysis by ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) scientists has shown that over half of red gurnard caught in the English Channel are discarded. We had hoped that increased consumption and demand for the species would have alleviated the need to waste fish like this but that has clearly not happened.

One of the roles of the MCS Fish to Eat and Avoid lists, which can be found at www.fishonline.org, is to ensure currently healthy fisheries dont become the next overfished problem. By changing its ratings in line with the latest ICES stock advice, MCS tries to ensure that popular species dont drop to worryingly low levels.

Despite the downgrading of mackerel and gurnard, there is some good news for other species. Many herring stocks and coley can now be eaten with a clear conscience and Dover sole from the English Channel also appears on the Fish to Eat list. Whiting, from the Celtic Sea, appears on the list for the first time.

Levels of long-standing fish shop favourite cod in the North Sea are still below recommended levels, but North Sea coley, otter trawled or seine netted dab, gillnetted Dover sole, haddock and lemon sole all appear on the MCS Fish to Eat list.

A number of farmed species are new to the Fish to Eat List including organically farmed Arctic charr and Gilthead bream; sturgeon caviar and seabass from closed systems fish farming method; tilapia from Zimbabwe thats Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified and ASC certified Pangasius. The Fish to Eat List also includes farmed mussel, tiger prawn, Atlantic halibut and salmon, turbot and rainbow trout.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified species on the Fish to Eat List include cockles from the Dee and Bury Inlet and Shetland brown crab.

Bernadette Clarke says its vital that consumers, chefs and seafood buyers use MCS lists to make the right decision when it comes to buying fish.

As world population, fish consumption and reliance on fish imports from outside of the European Union increases, the importance of knowing what we are eating, as well as where and how it is caught is essential to allow consumers to make the most sustainable choice for the future of our fish.

Consumers can get the very latest sustainable seafood advice by logging on to www.fishonline.org where the latest Pocket Good Fish Guide can also be downloaded allowing shoppers to take the most up-to-date advice with them to the fish counter.