IT HAS been top of the menu for meals made with sustainable fish in British homes and restaurants for decades.
But, in a potential major blow for Scotland’s fishing fleet, the humble mackerel has been removed from the coveted list of “Fish to Eat” recommended by environmental watchdog the Marine Conservation Society (MSC).
The popular oily fish, which is packed with healthy omega 3, has been downgraded as a “fish to eat only occasionally” by the conservation charity as a dispute continues to rage between the European Union and Faroe and Iceland over the decision of the two Nordic nations to set their own catch quotas for the stock, which is worth £116 million a year to the Scottish pelagic fleet.
Last summer, three of Britain’s major supermarkets, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op, imposed a boycott on mackerel landings after Iceland and the Faroe Islands increased their quotas in the north-east Atlantic and the MSC, which certifies fishing is sustainable, suspended certification for the stock.
But the MSC has now announced: “After years of being a popular sustainable choice, mackerel should no longer be appearing so regularly on your dinner plate. The oily fish has been removed from the society’s Fish to Eat list and is now rated by the charity as a fish to eat only occasionally.
“The change is the result of overfishing and the subsequent suspension of the north-east Atlantic stock’s Marine Stewardship Council certification, meaning it is no longer considered a sustainable fishery.”
Bernadette Clarke, the organisation’s fisheries officer, said shoals of mackerel had increasingly been found further north-west in the Atlantic.
She said: “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.”
She stressed that herring and sardines could be used as a sustainable alternative.
Ms Clarke said: “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 the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance.”
But Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association, urged consumers to continue to eat mackerel. He said: “The housewife can still consume mackerel with a clear conscience because the stock is still very healthy. The pelagic skippers think the stock is increasing and they have said they can come across a single shoal of mackerel 12 miles long.”
Another casualty of the MCS Fish to Eat list is the gurnard, which has become a restaurant favourite in recent years after its sustainable virtues were extolled by a number of celebrity chefs.
But Ms Clarke said a lack of data on stock levels and concerns about fisheries management had led the charity to remove gurnard on to its cautionary listing.