Scomber scombrus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Pelagic trawl, Purse seine
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Northeast Atlantic and adjacent waters
Stock detail — Coastal States
Picture of Mackerel

Sustainability rating two info

Sustainability overview

Updated: October 2019

Owing to changes in ICES assessment methodology and data, the North East Atlantic mackerel fishery now appears to be in a much better state than in October 2018. As of October 2019, the stock is in a healthy state and fishing pressure is a little above sustainable limits (above FMSY but below Fpa). However, management is not cohesive, with major states unable to reach agreement on long term strategies or catch limits. As a result, MCS has decided to rate some of the major states separately, to highlight where differences in approach by some states are of significant concern. This stock has been subjected to overfishing (above MSY) since 1985 and recent catches have been in excess of recommended limits. The main capture methods for this fishery (pelagic trawl and purse seining) are well targeted thanks to the use of high-resolution sonar to locate single-species mackerel shoals. This rating is for states fishing for mackerel under the Coastal States Arrangement: the EU, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. These states have agreed a long term management strategy for the stock and work together to agree quotas.


Mackerel is a fast swimming species belonging to a group of fish known as the scombrid family, which are related to the tuna. They are found in brackish marine waters in depths of up to 1000 m (though more normally in depths of 0-200 m). Abundant in cold and temperate shelf areas, they form large schools near the surface. They overwinter in deeper waters but move closer to shore in spring when water temperatures range between 11 degrees and 14 degrees C. Mainly diurnal, they feed on zooplankton and small fish. Mackerel are batch spawners, they spawn mainly in March to July; the eggs and larvae are pelagic. After spawning, the adults feed very actively, moving around in small shoals. By 3 years old, most mackerel are mature (at a length of approximately 28 cm). Females shed their eggs in about twenty separate batches over the course of the spawning season. Juvenile mackerel grow quickly and can reach 22 cm after one year, and 30cm after 2 years. Mackerel can attain a maximum length of about 70 cm and weight of 3.4 may live for more than 20 years.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0 info

Stock Area

Northeast Atlantic and adjacent waters

Stock information

Northeast Atlantic (NEA) mackerel is in a good state, but fishing pressure is slightly above sustainable levels. The stock assessment of mackerel changed regularly during 2018 and 2019, and the following is based on the most recent scientific advice (October 2019).

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) is estimated to have increased in the late 2000s to reach a peak of 5,229,726 tonnes in 2014 and has been declining since then, but has remained above MSY Btrigger (2,500,000 t) since 2008. The estimated SSB in 2018 was 4,279,185t. The fishing mortality (F) has declined from high levels in the mid-2000s, and is now only just above FMSY (0.23): in 2018 it was 0.24. Recent recruitment has been strong: there has been a succession of large year classes since the early 2000s, with year classes since 2011 estimated to be above average.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2020 should be no more than 922,064 tonnes. This is a 20% increase in the advice given in May 2019, which was itself a 40% increase in the advice given for 2018. The most recent two stock assessments (May 2019 and October 2018) have included:
a re-benchmarking of the stock,
an upward revision of the stock size, which in 2018 was thought to be below MSY Btrigger,
a downward revision of F, now closer to FMSY,
and a new FMSY value (0.23), slightly higher than the previous one from 2018 (0.21), based on changes in methodology and the time-series of the data.
In addition, the highest ever recruitment of young fish into the fishery is expected in 2020.
The assessment is very sensitive to input data and model settings so there is some uncertainty and instability in it.

NEA mackerel is assessed as one stock but comprises three spawning components: the combined southern and western components and a separate North Sea spawning component. Only the North Sea component is sufficiently distinct to be clearly identified as a separate spawning component. The results of recent egg surveys indicate a decrease in the relative importance of the southern component (from 24% of the mackerel stock in 2013 to 10% in 2017). While the biomass of the western component estimated by the 2016 egg survey also decreased in the same period, its relative contribution to the mackerel stock increased from 73% to 83%. The biomass of the North Sea component, as estimated by the egg survey, increased in 2017, and this component is now estimated to represent 7% of the spawning stock. The triennial egg survey will provide new data for the 2020 assessment.

Catch and survey data from recent years indicate that the stock has expanded north-westwards during spawning and the summer feeding migration. This distributional change may reflect changes in food availability and may be linked to increased water temperature, and/or increased stock size.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

There is no long-term management strategy for Northeast Atlantic (NEA) mackerel agreed by all international parties involved in the fishery, there is no internationally agreed quota, recent catches have been substantially above scientific advice, and fishing mortality has been above FMSY since 1985.

All coastal states participating in the North East Atlantic (NEA) mackerel fishery (the EU Member States, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands) and the other participants in the fishery (Greenland and Russia) are signatories of North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). A Coastal States Arrangement for the management of the NEA mackerel fishery was first introduced in the mid 1990s between the EU, Norway and Faroe Islands. A management plan for the NEA mackerel stock, evaluated by ICES as precautionary, was agreed by Norway, Faroe Islands, and the EU in 2008. Iceland and Greenland operate outside of the agreement and the long-term management plan for the stock, but in the past Iceland, Greenland, Russia and the Coastal States have worked together to agree catch limits. However, Iceland recently (in 2019) failed to attend joint meetings and unilaterally increased its mackerel quota by more than 30%. These unilateral actions are of concern as they undermine long-term management strategies and therefore threaten the sustainability of the fishery. <br
Fishing mortality has been above FMSY since 1985. ICES states that current catches would not be sustainable if recruitment were to return to the levels of 1985-2000. There is no internationally agreed quota for the NE Atlantic mackerel stock: only unilateral quotas are in place. Agreed Total Allowable Catches (TACs) were substantially above scientific advice in 2018 (83%); 2017 (39%); 2016 (36%).

ICES recommends that the existing measures to protect the North Sea spawning component should remain in place. Prior to the late 1960s, the spawning biomass of the North Sea component (i.e. mackerel with an affinity for spawning in the North Sea) was estimated to be above 2.5 million tonnes. Overexploitation reduced the size of the North Sea component and it has not recovered despite decades of protection. A recent study has indicated that the lack of recovery is related to unfavourable environmental conditions. Management measures to protect North Sea component include: Closed areas (no mackerel fishing in divisions 3.a and 4.b-c); seasonal closures (no mackerel fishing Division 4.a from 15 February - 31 July); Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS) of 30cm; catches recommended to be at the lowest practical level (LPL).

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

In 2017, landings were 80.4% by pelagic trawl; 19.3% purse seine; and 0.3% others, such as handlines. As a result of high resolution electronic sonar equipment used to locate schools of mackerel, the fisheries for mackerel (all gears) are highly selective - specifically targeting what are predominantly single-species shoals. Ongoing developments in gear technology (especially discrimination of acoustic signals) further increase selectivity. As a result, bycatch of any non-target species are extremely low in relation to overall mackerel catches.

Slippage (opening the net and releasing fish before they are pumped out of the water) is not a significant issue in the mackerel pelagic trawl fishery. However, there remains an opportunity for slippage, as vessels are keen to only land mackerel, rather than mixed landings of mackerel and other species (such as mixed shoals with horse mackerel). In addition, there may be a market price benefit to landing larger fish, which could be interpreted as an incentive to slip hauls with large numbers of small fish (high-grading). Both slipping and highgrading are illegal under the Landing Obligation, which has been in force in this fishery since January 2015. Delegates to the Coastal States Arrangement (see Management tab) agreed on a number of control measures to be applied to slipping, high-grading and discarding for pelagic species, including mackerel, herring and horse mackerel. These include: banning high-grading and slipping throughout the migratory range of the species in the NE Atlantic; move-on rule if the catch contains more than 10% of undersized fish; prohibition of discharging fish from tanks under the water line; no fish grading on-board unless the fish is immediately frozen. Discards and slipping 2,832 t in 2017 was negligible, at 0.2% of the total catch.

Juvenile mackerel are protected within the Mackerel Box off the Cornish coast and in the South Western Approaches, in which there is a ban on targeted fishing for mackerel by trawlers and purse seiners and where a handline fishery operates with a separate quota allocation.

Pelagic fisheries have little or no contact with the seabed, and therefore habitat impacts are low.


Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.

Anchovy, anchovies
Arctic char
Herring or sild
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chinook, King Salmon
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Coho , Silver, White
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Trout, Rainbow
Tuna, albacore
Tuna, bigeye
Tuna, skipjack
Tuna, yellowfin


Anon. 2017. Agreed record of conclusions of fisheries consultations between Norway, the European Union and the Faroe Islands on the management of mackerel in the Northeast Atlantic for 2018, London, 11 October 2017. 8 pp. Available at: [Accessed on 22.05.2019].

Gaudian, G., Nichols, j., and Cappell, R. 2016. MSC Sustainable Fisheries Certification MINSA North East Atlantic Mackerel Fishery (Europe). Public Certification Report April 2016 Prepared For: MINSA North East Atlantic Mackerel. Prepared By: Acoura Marine Ltd. Available at: [Accessed on 22.05.2019].

ICES. 2019. Norway special request for revised 2019 advice on mackerel (Scomber scombrus) in subareas 1-8 and 14, and in Division 9.a (the Northeast Atlantic and adjacent waters). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, sr.2019.09, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.5252. Available at: [Accessed on 22.05.2019].

ICES. 2019. Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) in subareas 1-8 and 14, and in Division 9.a (the Northeast Atlantic and adjacent waters). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, mac.27.nea, Available at [Acessed on 01.10.2019].

Jansen, T. and Gislason, H., 2013. Population Structure of Atlantic Mackerel (Scomber scombrus). PLoS One, 8: 1-10. [Accessed on 22.05.2019].

Lassen, H., and Midteide, S. 2019. Expedited audit of the Faroese Pelagic Organisation North East Atlantic mackerel fishery Felagi taskip, Faroese Pelagic Organization. Report No.: 2019-001, Rev. Date: 31.01.2019 Certificate number: F-DNV-202426 [Accessed on 22.05.2019].