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Small Pelagics - June 2013


Could mackerel stocks also be in danger, just as herring stocks are said to be? Scientists warn against overfishing of the North Sea mackerel resource.

The mackerel dispute between the EU and Iceland/Faroe Islands has come to an apparent impasse. Iceland has reduced its self-imposed quota by 15%, but the EU is not satisfied. Meanwhile, scientists are warning that the North Sea mackerel stocks may be in danger of becoming overfished. 

The British Marine Conservation Society (MCS) goes so far as to say that we should no longer be eating mackerel. They are of the opinion that the present mackerel fishery is not sustainable. Instead of eating mackerel, herring and sardines should be eaten, according to MCS. 

To some extent, scientists are supporting MCS. Norwegian oceanographers are admitting that too much mackerel has been harvested since 2009, basically because the countries involved have failed to agree on responsible quotas. The mackerel has also changed its migration pattern slightly over the past few years. First it entered Iceland waters, and last year Greenland. This caused Iceland to claim a larger share of the total quota and acted accordingly, which forms the basis for the present dispute between Iceland and the Faroes on the one hand and EU and Norway on the other. 

It is no secret that there is a huge over-capacity in the Norwegian pelagic fleet, and this may be an underlying reason for high quotas. For example, in 2011 scientists recommended a total quota of 672 000 tonnes, but 940 000 tonnes were landed (+40%). Recognizing this, the Norwegian authorities have reduced the quotas for 2013 by between 15% (for mackerel) and 46% (for capelin). 

The blue whiting season in the North Sea and North Atlantic is doing well. Good catches are reported, and most of the landed volume goes for fishmeal and fish oil production. In Norway, 31 000 tonnes of blue whiting were landed during the last week of February, and as much as 28 200 tonnes went for reduction. Total landings so far this year amounted to about 41 300 tonnes by the end of February. 


In February, Iceland announced that it had cut its mackerel quota by 15%, to 123 182 tonnes. According to the Icelandic Ministry of Industry and Innovation, this cut was in line with ICES’s recommendation. However this action did not satisfy the EU. According to the EU (and Norway), Iceland has set its own mackerel quota unilaterally yet again, and this is an irresponsible act, according to the EU. The Icelandic quota equals about 90% of the total maximum catches recommended by ICES. 

Demand for mackerel was low in December 2012, but since then it has picked up. Apparently, some buyers were waiting for even lower prices, but this has not happened. Since December, prices have increased. Norwegian export prices (FOB Norway) for frozen mackerel over 600 gr went from NOK 18.78 per kg in December 2012 to NOK 28.72 per kg in February. 

In February, the Ministry of Production in Peru announced that it had set the jack mackerel quota for 2013 at 80 000 tonnes. The quota for chub mackerel was set at 24 000 tonnes. According to the Ministry, these allocations were in line with the advice from scientists at Instituto del Mar del Peru (IMARPE). 

In the South Pacific, the jack mackerel quota was set at 438 000 tonnes, against the advice of the EU, which recommended only 300 000 tonnes. Of the total quota, 250 000 tonnes were allocated to Chile, with 90 000 tonnes to be taken on the high seas and the rest by Ecuador and Peru. 

Attempts to regulate one of the world’s largest fisheries, the South Pacific jack mackerel fishery, appear to have failed. The most directly involved countries – Chile, Peru and New Zealand – sought to reach an agreement in Auckland in January, but failed. Thus, this unregulated fishery is open to fleets from South American countries, from Russia, China, the Republic of Korea, the EU, the Faroe Islands and Pacific island states, and such uncontrolled harvesting is sure to lead to overfishing and depletion of the stock, according scientists. 

The newly established South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) is trying to bring some order and control to this fishery, but the meeting in Auckland failed to reach any agreement between the participating countries. Many countries are reluctant to reduce their jack mackerel catches for the coming year in spite of the present low levels of the stock.

International trade

Norwegian exports of frozen mackerel increased by over 10% in 2012, to 263 300 tonnes. This is the highest volume exported since 2008. The largest importer of frozen Norwegian mackerel is now China, which overtook Japan in 2012. Japan, which used to be the main market, reduced imports from Norway by 43% in 2012, to just 42 300 tonnes. The Netherlands has steadily grown as an important market for Norwegian mackerel and in 2012 became the fourth largest importer of this product, with 24 300 tonnes. Norway seems to be holding its own on the Russian market, but is losing market share in Ukraine. New markets are opening up, though; exports to “Others” increased by over 150% in 2012. 

Germany’s imports of frozen mackerel declined by about 14% in 2012 to 28 000 tonnes. The main suppliers (UK and Faroes) increased shipments to Germany, as did Norway, while the Netherlands just barely held the same level as in 2011, while Ireland saw a decline of 28%. 

Mackerel prices have been very variable over the past year, and the general trend has been downward. Norwegian export prices dropped severely in the middle of 2012, and then recovered towards the end of the year. The drop in prices stimulated demand, and prices recovered during the last four months of 2012. The outlook for mackerel prices now is one of gradual increase, according to observers. 


In Iceland, a huge herring die off was registered in February. Approximately 25 000 to 30 000 tonnes of herring was found floating dead in the Kolggrafafjordur in the northern part of Iceland. It is not yet known what caused this mass mortality, but it is thought to be the result of lack of oxygen in the fjord caused by a landfill and bridge that were constructed across the fjord in 2004. 

By the beginning of March, it looked as if the spring herring fishery in Norway was over. The herring had reached the spawning grounds, and as a result it is not as fat any more, thus less attractive to the market. 

Norway is one of the main suppliers of frozen herring and herring fillets, but over the past four years, the exported volume has declined significantly. In 2012 the export volume fell further, and ended up at just 40% of the volume exported in 2009. Norway has seen reductions in shipments to all major markets. The main markets are still Russia and Ukraine, each accounting for about 29 – 30% of total Norwegian exports of frozen mackerel. Exports to Nigeria, which from 2008 till 2010 imported large amounts of Norwegian mackerel, have all but disappeared. In 2012, Nigeria imported just 6 600 tonnes, compared with 138 500 tonnes in 2008. 

Germany’s imports of frozen herring increased slightly in 2012, to 34 000 tonnes (+2.4%). But there were significant shifts among the suppliers. Norway lost market share, while the UK and particularly Denmark gained. 

Imports of fresh and frozen herring into Japan went down by 22.6% in 2012. Almost all the decline was due to lower imports from the USA, which saw a 25% reduction in its shipments to Japan. Norway also lost market share in Japan. 

There was a decline in herring imports in France, too. Imports of frozen herring fell by 17.2% in 2012, to 6 734 tonnes. The main suppliers were Norway and Iceland, which both maintained their market shares. 

Herring prices were relatively stable during 2012, but a slight downward trend was registered, both for first-hand prices and export prices. For round frozen herring, it is expected that prices will be stable throughout 2013. This is also true for herring fillets.


The Icelandic capelin fishery is well under way, and it looks as if the quality of the capelin is very good this year. Market demand is also very good, according to reports, and prices for consumer capelin are good. The purse seine quota within Iceland’s waters this year is 34 511 tonnes, but fishing has not been the best during the opening days in January and February. Icelandic trawlers have so far landed about 40 000 tonnes since the beginning of the year. 

Capelin prices are expected to remain fairly stable throughout 2013. Supplies will be limited because of the reduced quotas, and consumer products will be under some pressure from the fishmeal industry. 

The quota for Icelandic capelin for the 2012/2013 season was increased by 120 000 tonnes, to a total of 570 000 tonnes. By mid-February, about 156 000 tonnes had been harvested, leaving 414 000 tonnes remaining. The main reason for the quota increase was the fact that research allowed for the estimates of the biomass to be adjusted upwards recently. 

The capelin season in Russia has also started. Usually, the first landings in Murmansk come in February. Russia’s quota for the two-month season is 66 000 tonnes, and according to reports, 13 vessels are active in the fishery this year. 

Market demand for capelin for consumption is currently very good, and at the same time there is strong demand for capelin as a raw material for the fishmeal and fish oil industry. 

Capelin prices have been relatively stable over the past two or three years. Norwegian export prices have varied between NOK 3.46 per kg to NOK 5.12 per kg. The short term trend is slightly upwards. 


The Spanish anchovy quota was recently increased by 1 000 tonnes, to 5 726 tonnes. While this increase was welcomed, the fishermen still complained that it was insufficient. 

In Peru, there is concern about gross overfishing of the anchovy resource in recent years. This is of major concern in the fishmeal industry. The FAO considers this species the most heavily exploited fish in the world. The reason for this is the continued overfishing by the Peruvian fleet. 

It is estimated that as much as 90% of the overfishing of Peruvian anchovy consists of juveniles. According to Peru’s Production Minister, Gladys Triveno, companies that repeat offenses may lose their fishing licences. 

During last summer season, the Peruvian catch of anchovy amounted to about 390 000 tonnes. In January, the catch was 253 000 tonnes, against a total January quota of 400 000 tonnes. Total January harvest was estimated at some 350 000 – 380 000 tonnes. The quota for the winter season (mid-April till July), was expected to be between 1.3 and 1.5 million tonnes. Fishmeal producers are calling for a reduced quota, as they are concerned about the sustainability of this fishery. 


Thai Union, the world’s largest producer of canned tuna, is considering increasing its involvement in the canned sardine and canned mackerel industry. According to a statement from the company, the main reason for this move is that the company wishes to enter the market for lower priced canned products. Canned tuna is still considered a luxury item for consumers in some emerging markets, while canned sardines and canned mackerel are lower priced and therefore better suited for these markets. 

The canned sardine market improved in 2012, with increasing imports into the main European markets. Imports into Germany went up by 16.4%, to France by 32.5%, and to the UK by 23%. Morocco is the main supplier to continental Europe, while Thailand has captured the leading position on the UK market from Portugal. Morocco also increased shipments to the UK.  

US imports of canned sardines have steadily increased over the years. The import volume increased from 23 400 tonnes in 2007 to 30 200 tonnes in 2012. The main suppliers are Thailand, Ecuador, Morocco and Poland, and particularly Ecuador has seen an increase in shipments to the USA over the past three years. 


The outlook for 2013 is one of reduced supplies as a result of major quota reductions. Demand for mackerel is expected to increase, partly as a reaction to reduced prices. Consequently, mackerel prices may be expected to rise somewhat.

For herring, there will be a significant reduction in supplies, which will cause rising prices from an already high level. 

The canned sardine market appears to be improving. Demand in Europe (and in the USA) is up.

Capelin prices will probably remain stable throughout the year, in spite of increased quotas. There is strong demand for capelin as a raw material for the fishmeal and fish oil industries and with the good quality of the fish landed at present, consumer demand for capelin is also strong.

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