Mackerel is no longer a sustainable fish to eat because of overfishing, an environmental charity has said.
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which grades the sustainability of fish through a traffic light system called the Good Fish Guide, said it has downgraded northeast Atlantic mackerel from green to amber – best choice to OK choice.
Countries that catch mackerel, including the UK, Norway, Iceland and the EU, have agreed not to overfish beyond the scientifically recommended allowances, but they cannot agree on how to divide the catch between themselves, the charity said.
As a result, quotas have been exceeding the recommended amount since 2009 by between 5% and 80%, and have caused a steady decline in mackerel populations.
Charlotte Coombes, good fish guide manager at the MCS, said: “The northeast Atlantic mackerel population has been declining since 2015, which is concerning.
“Fishing communities and wildlife depend on this species, but continued overfishing is putting both at risk.
“International co-operation is the only way to fix this problem, and UK Governments must lead by example. We need to see countries agree on quotas.”
The UK takes about 17% of the total mackerel catch mostly through Scottish boats, the MCS said. Fishing vessels catch more mackerel than any other fish.
In 2021, more than 220,000 tonnes of mackerel were caught, 32% of the total UK catch and worth about £240 million.
The MCS said climate change is already placing stress on mackerel populations by warming the oceans and overfishing is an “unwanted” additional pressure.
George Clark of the Marine Stewardship Council, which runs the blue MSC ecolabel, said: “The Marine Conservation Society’s new rating for northeast Atlantic mackerel to amber recognises the ongoing issues facing the sustainability of this important species and critical food source.
“Northeast Atlantic mackerel lost its MSC certification in 2019 because fishing states have been setting their quotas in line with national interests, instead of following internationally set limits that are in line with the scientific advice.
“Now is an absolutely critical time for the Governments of these states, including the UK, to come to a lasting agreement over quotas that is in line with the science, to protect this valuable and historically important stock, and we urgently call on them to do so.”
Mackerel had been on the MCS’s green list since 2011 because its populations were large enough to withstand the pressure of fishing, and an amber rating now means that better management is required to end overfishing.
The MCS said one small fishery in the UK is leading the way in the UK’s south west, by handling catching, which still receives a green rating.
It is a low-impact method of fishing, the charity said, and catches are strictly controlled.
The MCS’s lowest rating, the red list, details fish to avoid and includes the European eel and Celtic cod.
Jack Clarke, sustainable seafood advocate at the MCS, said: “Eel is still appearing on menus across the country, despite being more endangered than the Bengal tiger.
“Populations have declined by as much as 95% in the past decade and recent scientific advice couldn’t be clearer – it’s time to stop eating eel.
“It’s the most trafficked animal on the planet, with an illegal eel trade estimated to be worth £2.5 billion every year.”