Our ratings on haddock in the North Sea, West of Scotland and Skagerrak explained

Sandy Luk By: Sandy Luk
Date posted: 23 March 2017

Fisheries management has actually been improving a lot over the last decade, and the UK industry has helped a huge amount by developing new ways to fish more selectively and record more data. The Scottish industry has played a leading role in such work.

We try to reflect these improvements in our seafood ratings as well, but sometimes these changes in management and practice take time to be reflected in the health of a fish population. In Europe, the health of most fish stocks are assessed each year by scientists, so whenever there is a new assessment, MCS updates its ratings in the following months.

Haddock

We publicised our latest changes to our Good Fish Guide ratings last week, with news of changes to several species and stocks including haddock, Nephrops (scampi or ‘prawns’), undulate ray and tunas. We received criticism from some quarters for highlighting the fact that our rating for haddock in the North Sea, West of Scotland and Skagerrak had changed, so we thought we’d elaborate.

The fisheries & aquaculture team at MCS works to reduce the environmental impacts that fisheries and aquaculture can have on the marine environment. We do this because we love the sea, and we want it to be as healthy as possible so that it can keep providing us all with employment, food and enjoyment long into the future.

To achieve this we try to get environmental considerations firmly incorporated into legislation, and we also encourage consumers and the commercial marketplace to ask for and support environmental improvements in the way seafood is harvested and produced.

Underpinning much of this work is our Good Fish Guide where we maintain sustainability ratings for hundreds of the most popular seafood sources. These ratings compare the relative sustainability of different fisheries and farming methods using a traffic light system, so the public can see where improvements are most needed. We have many green ratings, which promote well managed fisheries and farming methods (eg. coley, hake, herring, mussels, mackerel) as well as yellow, amber and red ratings.

Fisheries management has actually been improving a lot over the last decade, and the UK industry has helped a huge amount by developing new ways to fish more selectively and record more data. The Scottish industry has played a leading role in such work. We try to reflect these improvements in our seafood ratings as well, but sometimes these changes in management and practice take time to be reflected in the health of a fish population. In Europe, the health of most fish stocks are assessed each year by scientists, so whenever there is a new assessment, MCS updates its ratings in the following months.

Haddock

In November last year, new scientific advice was released for haddock in the North Sea, West of Scotland and Skagerrak area. This advice revealed that a mistake had been made in previous scientific assessments and also incorporated new information that showed the haddock fishery wasn’t as healthy as thought over the last few years, and was now ‘overfished’ and subject to ‘overfishing’. It is of crucial importance to highlight that this wasn’t due to the fishers not following the rules or the scientific advice. Actually, as a result of this new advice, quotas were significantly cut for 2017 - 47% lower than originally advised for in 2016. This is a key sign of good management and is considered and reflected in our rating. If the haddock stock was in this condition without good management, it would likely rate worse.

For any fishery, if overfishing is occurring (fishing rate is too high) and the population is ‘overfished’ (it is smaller than predetermined reference points) the outlook is generally not good and represents a high risk that the population could be further depleted. As a result, most fisheries assessed on the Good Fish Guide do not rate well when in this situation.

This haddock population though is prone to rapid fluctuations and can increase and decrease rapidly, depending on the number of juvenile fish entering the fishery. Currently, scientists are actually expecting the population to increase because of a ‘strong year class’ of juvenile fish in 2014 which are expected to grow up and become commercially fishable in 2017. So whilst the scientific status is currently ‘overfished’ and subject to ‘overfishing’, this may well change for the next assessment. However, sometimes expected changes do not materialise, so we cannot incorporate this information into our ratings at this moment but as soon as there is new scientific advice out for this fishery, we will be updating our ratings.

An ongoing consideration for this haddock population and many other UK fisheries is the large amount of juvenile fish still being caught,where further improvement is needed. Whilst a huge amount of work has been undertaken to try and reduce the catch of juvenile fish, such as through the welcome Scottish Conservation Credits Scheme, scientists still say that reducing the catch of juveniles would really help increase the size and productivity of our fish populations.

Why highlight this now?

MCS undertakes ratings updates two times a year, and we normally accompany these events with a press release to highlight changes to ratings. In its press release, MCS drew attention to several ratings changes, including improvements to fisheries including North Sea (Farn Deeps) Nephrops (scampi or ’prawns’) and Atlantic albacore. We chose to highlight the haddock ratings change in the headline because we deemed this of most public interest, given its popularity in the UK. This was not intended to lay blame or to undermine recent efforts to remedy the situation by the UK, Scottish and Norwegian governments.

We support the MSC

MCS widely advocates Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified seafood as one of the best - and fully traceable - seafood choices available, and we still do this for the MSC certified haddock fishery with a rating of 3. As our assessments are different to the MSC standard though, and often working to different time scales, our green ratings do not always perfectly align with MSC certifications, but it is extremely rare for there to be larger differences.

Latest changes to ratings for haddock from the North Sea, West of Scotland and Skagerrak

If the haddock stock was not being well managed, it would likely rate worse. MCS has not called for haddock to be avoided. We only advise this when a rating is rated 5 (red).

Yellow, and then amber ratings reflect fisheries or farming methods where improvements to the management, stock status or impact on other species (or a combination of these) is needed in order for them to secure a green MCS rating (1 or 2).

We have enormous respect for our commercial fishers, and we truly want them to have profitable businesses, built on healthy and well managed fish stocks, that can sustain thriving coastal communities. Larger fish populations mean greater catches. They also mean our fish stocks can better fulfil their natural ecosystem role as both predators and prey in our marine environment, which is under enormous pressure. These fish stocks are not just food for us, and not just income for business; they are native species in our waters which all play an important part in keeping our seas healthy, so they can continue to provide the many benefits we all enjoy.