by Casson Trenor
Mackerel is a fantastic fish. Not only is it healthy and nutritious, but it reproduces quickly, breeds in large numbers, and often benefits from effective and precautionary management. In fact, saba has been a sushi staple of mine for years, and I encourage you to give it a shot in the place of other more sustainably troubling sushi items (like unagi or hamachi, for instance) next time you visit a sushi bar.
That being said, some troubling news from the Atlantic has forced me to revisit my standard double-fisted endorsement.
The mackerel fishery off the coast of the British Isles has been growing in popularity, because the more traditional seafood options – haddock, for example – have been depleted. One would hope that we could learn from our previous mistakes, and manage this fishery in a way that will prevent us from repeating the depressing boom-and-crash pattern that we’ve seen with cod, plaice, and other North Atlantic species.
Everything looked positive at first. A pole-and-line mackerel fishery in Cornwall, as well as several midwater trawl fisheries elsewhere in the British Isles, sought and received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. Management seemed to be sound and bycatch was low. Now, however, climate change has reared its head, and a new set of challenges is looming on the horizon.
As the surface waters of certain areas of the Northeastern Atlantic warm slightly, mackerel stocks have been driven further north. Their migration has taken them into Icelandic and Faeroese waters, and that means trouble.
The mackerel stock in the Northeast Atlantic is managed under a joint quota of just over 500,000 metric tons, split between the European Union, Norway, and Russia. Iceland, which has never taken mackerel in the past, has now unilaterally declared that it will take over 100,000 metric tons annually, an increase of 20%, despite international management efforts. The Faeroes have also announced that they will be substantially ramping up their mackerel fishery, which may compound the problem even further.
These international tugs-of-war are never good, and can lead to overfishing, increasing pirate fishing activity, and even — especially in the case of Iceland and the UK — direct confrontation. A few decades back, these two countries had a prolonged series of naval skirmishes over fishing rights. The “Cod Wars,” as they came to be known, included ramming, net cutting, and even shots being fired. Luckily no one was harmed, but the importance of this issue to the Icelanders and the British was underscored several times over.
It remains to be seen how the EU will respond to Iceland’s actions, but until we know more, we should exercise a bit of caution with our consumption of fish from that area… or, even better, buy domestic. I hear the mackerel they’re catching in Boston is as delicious as ever. (Photo: Mackerel (saba)served nigiri-style at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco. Image ©2010 Sustainablesushi.net)