Mackerel sector confident MSC suspension will be lifted by fall season
Mackerel sector sources are confident the suspension of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of the northeast Atlantic mackerel fisheries, announced on Jan. 31, will not have the chance to impact the market.
Mackerel caught on or after March 2 cannot be sold as ‘MSC certified’ or bear the blue MSC label. The suspension affects all four certificates, for fisheries across eight countries, the MSC has said.
The suspension comes after the mackerel stock in the northeast Atlantic dropped below the precautionary threshold level of 1.25 million metric tons, while catches remain far higher than advised by scientists, said the MSC. The drop in stock triggered an expedited audit by the independent certifiers in November 2018, and the report from that audit was published on Jan. 31.
However, as January ends the vast majority of vessels utilizing the fisheries have finished their mackerel focus for the winter, several sources pointed out to Undercurrent News
“Definitely, the season is over,” said Magnus Strand, COO for human consumption pelagics with processing giant Pelagia. “I think most of the UK, Norwegian, and other vessels now have finished with the winter season of mackerel, and that's MSC approved.”
“It's too early to say what the market impact of the MSC loss could be. It will for sure have some impact, but how much it's too early to say,” he said.
Mackerel landings have been fast and furious at the start of 2019 – pelagic sales body Sildelaget's data shows 47,858t had been registered landed to Norway as of Jan. 29, compared to just 29,111t at the same time in 2018.
“I'm not sure there will be much more for now,” Jan Otto Hoddevik, owner of pelagic processor Global Fish, told Undercurrent just a few days ago. “I think vessels have caught what they want to so far, and will take the rest of the quota in the autumn.”
That six-month break – from March to roughly September – is where the hopes of this fishery are pinned.
The Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) told Undercurrent it was informed the suspension “may be of a temporary nature, and that there is a chance that the certificate is reinstated before the main fishing season begins”.
“In such a scenario, the market effects of the suspension may be negligible,” said joint marketing manager Jan Eirik Johnsen. The fall season begins again in September, though it is October and November which are the key catching months, he said.
Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group – one of eleven fishery groups hit by the suspension – told Undercurrent he is hopeful the suspension can be lifted before the fall season.
“If things come to pass as we anticipate them [more on that below], then [MSC] could then lift the suspension,” he said. “So, we are hoping that would happen pretty quickly, and certainly before the fishery begins again in – well, for us it would be October, but for our Norwegian colleagues they could be starting in late August or at the beginning of September.”
“But we would be hoping to have that suspension lifted long before it would have any impact on the fishery. That’s what we’re hoping will happen.”
Gatt is hoping the process works in the industry's favor, and that the market impact of this suspension is “effectively zero”, he said.
He explained the ongoing debate and process around the stock assessment in the northeast Atlantic, as he sees it.
“When the news broke last year on the ICES [International Council for the Exploration of the Sea] advice in mackerel, it was accepted by ICES that there was an issue with the assessment, largely due to the index that’s going on in mackerel tagging data,” he said.
ICES then instigated a process called an inter-benchmark, which is looking at the assessment, and in particular this tagging data. That process kicked off in December, when ICES agreed to terms of reference, and “identified there was a lot of issues that need to be addressed”.
Sean O'Donoghue, head of the Killybegs Fisherman's Organization (KFO) in Ireland, took issue with the MSC suspension, as he feels waiting until the announcement of the inter-benchmark results would have been a more logical choice.
"It seems to be a bit of an irony that they’re suspending it from March 2, and then two days later ICES is meeting to try and rectify the issues that there are with the lateral advice, which I can tell you without question isn’t correct," O'Donoghue told Undercurrent.
"We are disappointed that the MSC [certifying body] did not listen to the stakeholders who asked, all of them, that they at least wait for the outcome of ICES' internal investigation."
There are almost 20 people working on different aspects of the assessment, with the strands due to be pulled together at a meeting on March 7, Gatt said.
“After that there will be a report, and we are hopeful that at the end of that, there will be new advice released which will show the stock to be in a more positive situation than the current ICES advice.”
“We fully anticipate that there’ll be new advice coming out, that’s what we’re hoping will happen. Because the fishermen themselves – and this isn’t only Scottish fishermen, but all the fishermen who are fishing on the mackerel stock – do not think that the stock is in bad shape. So we’re pretty confident that through this process they’ll show the biomass of this stock is above the MSY [maximum sustainable yield] Btrigger level [the value of spawning stock biomass that triggers a specific management action point].”
O'Donoghue shared Gatt's belief that the Atlantic's mackerel stocks would be found to be above the MSY threshold, stating that the true issue was with ICES' own measurement systems.
"We’re confident that the electronic mackerel tagging that went into the assessment is flawed in our view, it makes a difference of 1m tons to the stock size. You don’t have to be a stock assessment biologist to know that if that changes, it changes the whole dynamic," the KFO chief said.
"My issue with ICES on this is that they do not have a fit for purpose quality assurance system in place, and if they did, we wouldn’t be having these huge revisions both upwards and downwards," he added.
While Gatt feels the above process will resolve the situation sooner rather than later, he noted that were the certificate to remain suspended, “retailers won't stop selling mackerel”.
“Obviously retailers would be looking at it. I’m assuming they won’t stop selling mackerel, and if they want MSC-certified mackerel, there isn’t any, because everybody has stopped; whether it’s in Iceland, whether it’s in the Faroes, the European Union.”
“So I would be hoping that the impact would be zero.”
The NSC's Johnsen told Undercurrent the importance of the MSC-certificate varies greatly between markets.
“In some European countries the MSC-certificate is important, especially for retailers. For exporters in Norway, and in the other mackerel catching countries around the northeast Atlantic, selling to European some markets, this suspension might have some effects.”
At the same time, the majority of Norwegian mackerel is exported to Asian markets, where MSC – at this stage – does not have the same importance, he said.
“Norwegian mackerel has a strong position in our important Asian markets, and this is a position that has been built over decades independently of the MSC certificate. We do not think that this suspension will greatly challenge this position, particularly since the suspension seems to affects all northeast Atlantic fisheries.”
He did accept that some Asian retailers have started to utilize the certification, so he said the NSC, like others, would be watching the process with interest.
Meanwhile Finn-Arne Egeness, seafood analyst with Nordea, told Undercurrent the bank was concerned about the suspension. Nordea finances "several ocean-going fishing vessels in the North Atlantic", he said.
"It is unfortunate that the coastal states are not able to set a [total allowable catch] equal to what is recommended by the scientists. In the long run, sustainability is vital and it will be of increasing importance going forward."
"If the suspension continues until the Norwegian catch season starts in September, it might have a small negative price impact," he added.