The plight of the mackerel was well documented in January when the advice of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) changed from ‘Best Choice’ to a ‘Fish to eat occasionally’ throwing previously written sustainable menus into turmoil. This decision was influenced by the actions of the Icelandic and Faroese fishery councils who implemented a substantial increase of catch volume (+23%) well beyond the previous agreed with Norway and the EU. Initial predicted stock volumes and set Total allowable catches were calculated without consideration of this additional fishing effort which when exceeded the Total Allowable Catch by 200,000 tonnes and beyond the safe Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) of the total stock. Although at the time the decision by the MCS was heavily criticised by industry and woefully misreported in the press (on many occasions mackerel were suggested to be endangered) I was in total agreement with the precautionary approach as to continue to promote a stock as sustainable whilst being heavily over fished would have been disastrous long term for the stock status.
A couple of weeks ago it was announced by the MCS that after lengthy consultation a further re grade of the mackerel rating had taken place and was being implemented with immediate effect. Initial press reports, namely by the Daily Telegraph, and then used by numerous agencies and wholesalers, was yet again misleading. First reporting has suggested Mackerel caught from the UK is the only sustainable option. The concise re grade has set a 2 (still a good choice, although some aspects of its production or management could be improved) for the Cornish hand line fishery, a 3 (based on available information these species should probably not be considered sustainable at this time. Areas requiring improvement in the current production methods may be significant, or there is significant uncertainty associated with its management or stock status) for the remaining fisheries within the EU which includes all of the Scottish and Norwegian pelagic trawl fisheries and a 4 (should not be considered sustainable, and the fish is likely to have significant environmental issues associated with its production. While it may be from a deteriorating fishery, it may be one that has improved from a 5 rating, and positive actions are being taken. However, MCS would not usually recommend choosing this fish) for Icelandic and Faroes caughtstock.
So the key question is “even though all these fisheries still pull from the same stock how can they now all be rated differently? Unlike the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) whom certify fisheries sustainable by the status of the stock alone the MCS use a number of weighted factors. Although heavily influenced by spawning stock biomass they also consider management, capture methods and ecological effects. Hand line catch methods result in almost zero impact to the environment and yield minute by catch levels thus the Cornish fishery is now considered ‘Best Choice’. The Cornish hand line fishery quota allocation is currently set at 1750 tonnes per year or 0.83% of the UK quota. However, one must be cautious when purchasing hand line mackerel as this premium priced product will now continue to increase in value. A volume of trawled South West mackerel are landed onto Plymouth and Brixham markets each week and there will undoubtedly be increased volumes finding its way into kitchens sold as a premium line caught fish! Unfortunately there are rogue seafood traders who are happy to trade hand to mouth instead of applying honesty and integrity.
Conversely, the Scottish and Norwegian pelagic trawl fisheries, although not as selective as hand line, have excellent management systems in place which consider by catch, total allowable catches and closed seasons to coincide with spawning periods resulting in it being the ‘Best Alternative’ option.
Unfortunately the Icelandic and Faroese fisheries have been shown to produce high levels of herring by catch alongside a disregard of previously set stock quotas by other parties within the fishery and a refusal to enter a long-term international management plan. As mentioned their actions may result in the mackerel stocks potentially be over fished by 200,000 tonnes per year.
So where does this leave us as wholesalers, purchasers and chefs? We would all love to have true Cornish hand line mackerel on our menus throughout the year, but in reality this is impossible. When the initial January ratings were announced one of the UK’s largest seafood wholesalers announced its “fresh Mackerel is predominantly sourced from the Cornish hand line fishery or from the ring net fishery off Chesil Beach in Dorset”. If you consider the volume of these fisheries it’s not hard to realise the claim in this statement was simply unachievable. Sadly as chefs drive to hit ever increasing GPs the cost price of Cornish Hand line mackerel may well be moving further out of reach for many. For comparison the wholesale sell price of Scottish mackerel the week of the announcement was around £5.80kg whereas the auction price of Cornish hand line mackerel on Newlyn market hit £6.60kg!! Fortunately the MCS have re classified the vast majority of the mackerel finding its way onto our markets as a yellow 3 rating ‘Best Alternative’ giving license to return them to the menu.
The unfortunate fall out from this whole fiasco will be convincing diners, who three months ago were being told the species was endangered and should not be eaten. My key piece of advice as always is be sure your supplier is providing you with exactly what you think you are receiving and always advertise it correctly on your menu.