The Marine Conservation Society has moved to flag up its sustainability concerns over Icelandic and Faroese-caught mackerel to shoppers as tensions in Europe over the nations’ alleged overfishing of the fish begin to rise.

In January, the marine NGO downgraded all mackerel from its ‘fish to eat’ status to ‘fish to eat only occasionally’.

It followed the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the north east Atlantic mackerel stock’s MSC certification because Iceland and the Faroes had significantly – and unilaterally – increased their fishing of mackerel in the area in recent years.

The MCS has now split its advice on mackerel to reflect the different countries’ attitudes to the stock.

Mackerel caught by the South West hand-line fishery has been ranked as a ‘fish to eat’ and the ‘best choice’. Mackerel caught by EU and Norwegian vessels in the north east Atlantic will remain a ‘fish to eat with caution’ and the ‘best alternative’. Icelandic and Faroese-caught mackerel has been branded the ‘least sustainable’ option – and a fish which the MCS would “not usually recommend choosing”.

The new ratings better reflected the damaging effect the political stand-off was having on mackerel stocks and the wider marine environment, said Jim Masters, MCS fisheries and aquaculture programme manager. “The political impasse is playing a dangerous game with fish stocks, resulting in the twin perils of poor fisheries management and increasing levels of by-catch.”

‘Unreasonable move’

On Thursday afternoon, the Icelandic government criticised what it called the MCS’ “one-sided decision”.

“We are disappointed by the Marine Conservation Society’s decision to re-list Icelandic mackerel as ‘fish to avoid’ for consumers while upgrading European mackerel. This unreasonable move toward Icelandic mackerel does not consider the scientific facts of the debate and Iceland’s repeated efforts to find a fair solution to mackerel fishing quotas,” said Iceland’s minister of industries and innovation, Steingrímur J Sigfússon.

“Because the Marine Conservation Society did not engage with Iceland’s government or Iceland Responsible Fisheries prior to issuing its ratings, we hope to meet with the organisation as soon as possible to explain how Iceland is protecting the mackerel stock by reducing our catch and fishing using sustainable practices, and to explore opportunities to collaborate on research and fisheries management policy.”

Earlier this week, the UK government called on the European Commission to consider sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands for their alleged overfishing of north east Atlantic mackerel.