The Northeast Atlantic: one of the most observed, assessed, understood and "rich" (in every sense of the word) areas for fishing in the world.

The waters of the Northeast Atlantic are home to valuable -- prized -- pelagic species, fished for in multi-million-euro boats, sold all over the world, and obsessed over by scientists who adjust and re-adjust complex models to ascertain exactly how many of these small fish we should catch each year.

Guest Commentary

Tom Pickerell is the Executive Director of The North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA).

Three iconic species in the Northeast Atlantic fishery -- Atlanto-scandian herring, mackerel and blue whiting -- have long been deemed untouchably "sustainable." Abundant without question. Fisheries in all three stocks held Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifications in the recent past -- now none of them do.

Coastal States with an interest in these pelagic fisheries have proved incapable of reaching collaborative agreements over quota setting, leading to unilateral decisions that have derailed sustainability. Total allowable catches (TACs) in these fisheries are currently set at 140 percent of what scientists advise -- a huge red flag for stock health and abundance in the near- and long-term.

So, what’s gone wrong in the Northeast Atlantic, and who is sounding the alarm?

In this picture of overlooked overfishing, a new voice is emerging with a call for pragmatism, collaboration and protection of the environment: the supply chain.

If no improvements are made, NAPA members will review their individual purchasing decisions.

the North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA), a group of nearly 50 large-scale processing, retail and other seafood businesses, was formed in 2019 in response to an ongoing dispute over mackerel quota allocation.

The absence of a long-term management strategy for Northeast Atlantic mackerel resulted in the suspension of all mackerel MSC certificates in this region, greatly impacting supply chain companies that had made public commitments to sourcing sustainable products for their consumers.

In late 2020, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring followed mackerel in losing their MSC certifications -- again due entirely to the emergent trend for unilateral quota setting above the scientific advice.

NAPA’s mission is simple: to work together as a group of businesses that represent the majority of pelagic purchasing power in the region and advocate clearly and unequivocally for long-term sustainable management of Northeast Atlantic mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting.

Since its inception, NAPA has grown and grown, and its reach has become global: we count new members from Japan and Africa among the latest to join the group. NAPA members are directly invested in the responsible, science-driven management of these fisheries, and speak with a clarity that comes from a genuine collective need to see these stocks healthy and secured long into the future.

In June, NAPA launched a new take on a traditional Fishery Improvement Program -- the NAPA policy FIP -- which covers actions to drive sustainable management for Northeast Atlantic mackerel and Atlanto-Scandian herring. NAPA has also applied to MarinTrust to launch an Improver Program to cover blue whiting.

Without political agreement, the sustainability of Northeast pelagic stocks is undermined. Photo: Rune Kvamme

The aim of these FIPs is to provide a time-bound framework to seek improvement in management through our commercial pressure.

The outcome of inaction by coastal states in the face of this clear countdown? If no improvements are made, NAPA members will review their individual purchasing decisions. At present -- in the runup to the crucial coastal states meeting in late October -- members are issuing "sourcing statements" that set out the consequences of failure.

There is an array of factors at play, exacerbating the precarious situation for these three pelagic stocks. It has been argued that climate change may be altering the spatial distribution of the species.

For example, beginning in 2006 there was a westerly migration of mackerel, and both Iceland and the Faroe Islands increased their quotas of mackerel due to the increasing availability in their waters.

Iceland increased its national quota from 2,000 metric tons in the mid-2000s to 130,000 metric tons in 2010. The Faroese increased its quota from 25,000 metric tons to 150,000 metric tons in the same period. As a result, there has been no multilateral quota agreement for mackerel since 2009.

Similar moves were made on herring, with Iceland and the Faroese calling for a larger share, and the EU and Norway unwilling to forfeit a share of the fish they have come to depend on catching. As a result, there has been no multilateral quota agreement for herring since 2012.

In 2006, the EU, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway agreed a long-term management plan, including catch limits and allocations, for blue whiting. The arrangement continued until 2014 when an "ad hoc arrangement" was reached that deviated from the agreed-upon management plan. No agreement has been reached since then.

This succession of failures -- years and years passing since coastal states have been able to reach an agreement on how much to fish, and how closely to respect the scientific advice -- has led to today: fishing at 140 percent of scientific advice, and a supply chain that is desperate to see positive action.

Not only does sustainable fishing provide business security, but it ensures these stocks can feed people all over the world for decades to come. It protects the stocks themselves from becoming dangerously depleted, and protects the delicate balance of the incredibly productive and valuable Northeast Atlantic ecosystem.

There are environmental factors at play, complicating the allocation picture here, but we have the science, we have the data; these are well-understood and thoroughly-modelled stocks.

The issues here are political. With enough political will, coastal states’ ministers can do something they haven’t done since 2018: agree -- €244 billion of purchasing power will be watching with interest.

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