by Heather Grant.
Many people are surprised to hear that there is reason to be worried about the humble mackerel. The concern most folks have for marine life in this region is usually reserved for cod or sharks or whales – these species’ stories have been told many times and in some cases have had lasting impacts. Perhaps mackerel seem like staple to anyone who has lived near the ocean; their spring arrival and fall departure has always been a part of life for many Nova Scotians, and it seems like it always will.
Unfortunately, that may not be the case – especially if serious action isn’t taken soon. Atlantic mackerel are in a dire situation. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), mackerel are in the “critical zone” – this means that not only has the population been seriously depleted by past fishing, but also that current fishing levels are still well above what could be considered sustainable and will result in continued declines. Shockingly, 2015 saw the lowest landings of Atlantic mackerel in recorded history, with fishers able to catch less than half than the Total Allowable Catch (TAC).
This is particularly alarming for a forage fish species like mackerel – they are important to many of the ecosystem’s top predators as well as an important bait source for lobster, crab and many other commercial fishermen. If mackerel were to disappear from our waters, there could be some serious and widespread impacts on the health of the entire ecosystem, as well as the viability of a number of fisheries.
It’s not as though Canadian fisheries management hasn’t taken some action to curb the collapse of the mackerel fishery. In 2009, the TAC was 75,000 tonnes, and has since been reduced several times to a current TAC of only 8,000t. But so far, sadly, this doesn’t appear to be enough – recent stock assessments haven’t shown any improvement in the stock’s health.
Small fish like mackerel are fairly resilient, they reproduce quickly and do have the ability to bounce back from fishing pressure under the right circumstances, but they are also influenced heavily by complex, external factors like temperature (and therefore climate change) and predation by other species – while the potential is there to recover mackerel, we need to understand these factors and how they affect the population much better than we currently do.
The most recent DFO stock assessments have recommended that landings of mackerel should not exceed 800t – this means that the current TAC is set at ten times what science has recommended. This also doesn’t account for the fact that large quantities of mackerel are removed from the ecosystem for bait or by recreational fishers, without being recorded or limited. While there is some debate about the validity of the 800t recommendation, the fact remains that the stock is in a critical state and we have a lot of work to do to really understand the forces that influence the health of our Atlantic mackerel population.
We, at the Ecology Action Centre recently published a report on that importance of forage fish like mackerel, and made some recommendations for actions that should be taken to ensure that the species can recover and continue to support our marine ecosystem. A new stock assessment is slated for 2017, and while the scientific recommendations that come out of that may be different, it is unlikely to paint a rosy picture of the stock. We need to be prepared to make some hard decisions and protect this humble yet important species.
Heather Grant is the Marine Communication Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre. She loves all fish big and small, and hopes to see the little ones better protected in the near future.