After a year pushing for trade sanctions against Iceland and the Faroes, the EU appears to be back to square one when it comes to mackerel fishing in the North East Atlantic - following warnings that a ban would be unenforceable.

Just days before the Marine Conservation Society removed mackerel from its ‘fish to eat’ list amid fears of over-fishing, the EU and Norway announced a 2013 catch limit of 489,882 tonnes in the North East Atlantic.

This equates to 90% of the limit advised by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and leaves Iceland, Russia and the Faroes with only 10%.

Although the EU and Norway had taken 90% in previous years, Iceland claimed the level was unacceptably high in a year that the EU had ignored its request for a reallocation of catch and threatened sanctions.

Senior Icelandic industry sources warned that taking 90% would make it difficult for the EU to justify sanctions against Iceland and the Faroes on the basis of overfishing.

The EU/Norway deal would also exacerbate the overfishing problem, claimed chief mackerel negotiator for Iceland, Sigurgeir Thorgeirsson.

“They should be aware that taking 90% and leaving less than 10% is is bound to result in overfishing,” he said, adding that it would not just be those subject to the 10% quota who’d be involved.

The Grocer understands that the European Commission has briefed member states over the ramifications of the 90% limit for any proposed sanctions.

“It makes our position much weaker,” said an EU source close to the negotiations, adding: “You can’t as a polluter go out there and ask someone not to pollute.”

The mackerel dispute will be discussed at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers on Monday 28 January.