Small Pelgics

Promising mackerel season, but uncertain outlook for 2019

In Iceland the autumn mackerel season was off to a promising start. However, the outlook for 2019 may not be that good. Several herring fisheries are looking uncertain, and catches may be reduced next year, with prices rising.


The mackerel population in the North Atlantic has increased sharply in recent decades. The population is estimated to have reached at least 57 billion individuals, more than six times a previous estimate by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The abundance of mackerel is becoming problematic for other species, though. In the area around Scotland, observers are concerned about the future for wild salmon, as large shoals of mackerel are outcompeting young salmon for food.

ICES seems to contradict this statement, as in late September, ICES advised a catch of no more than 318?403 tonnes, which represented a 42 percent reduction from the recommended limit for 2018. However, fishing nations have not announced any quotas by mid-October. The stock index for mackerel in the Norwegian Sea was down 40 percent in biomass and 30 percent in total number of individuals. Norwegian Sildelaget (the pelagic sales organization) expects quotas for next year to be dramatically reduced. Landings in 2018 are expected to fall by about 200?000 tonnes compared to 2017.

Icelandic fishers reported in late July that the mackerel season looked promising this year. The mackerel arrived in Icelandic waters a little later than usual, and the season started a bit slow, but it picked up later, despite the lower than usual sea temperatures. In Icelandic waters mackerel catches were strong in September. According to Icelandic processors the mackerel is of good quality with an average weight of 450–470 g. In Norway, the beginning of the mackerel fishery in mid-September was off to a slow start. Norwegian and foreign vessels fishing in Norwegian waters reported small catches.

In 2017, the Nigerian government introduced imports restrictions to boost local fish production, after assessing that imports of mackerel, sardinella, hake, croaker and herring were increasing rapidly. Nigeria has been importing more mackerel than before the import restrictions were introduced in 2017, with estimated imports reaching over 700?000 tonnes per year. Demand for fish in Nigeria is estimated to be around 3.2 million tonnes per year, with a domestic production of about 1.1 million tonnes and a deficit of 2.1 million tonnes that has to be imported to satisfy demand.


The Norwegian herring fishery neared the end of the season in mid-September, with relatively good catches and an average weight of about 210–215 g per fish. Foreign vessels in Norwegian waters approached the end of their quotas. Norwegian vessels started to prepare for mackerel fishing. As of mid-September around 75 percent of the Norwegian herring quota was caught, totalling 134?000 tonnes.

In New England, herring catch has been declining since 2013, and it’s set to decline further in 2018 and 2019. In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cut the New England herring quota to 110 million pounds (49?895 tonnes), severely below the original 240 million pounds (108?862 tonnes) set at the beginning of the year. The purpose for this massive cut in the quota was to reduce the probability of overfishing in 2018, and to give the resource a chance to recover in 2019–2021. NOAA has stated that further reductions will be necessary. In the face of this development, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) decided on 25 September to introduce new management rules for the herring fishery.

Recent assessments of this fishery have concluded that the resource could be on the brink of a collapse and drastic measures are needed to save it. NEFMC introduced the allowable biological catch (ABC) control rule as a guiding principle to set the quotas. By introducing this rule, the total allowable catch (TAC) for Atlantic herring in New England should be reduced from 49?895 tonnes to 21?266 tonnes in 2019. Each year, the ABC can be different and should be set on the basis of the most recent herring stock assessment and short-term projections for the stock. Herring and lobster fishers are strongly protesting. Most of the catch is used as bait in the lobster industry, and such a cut would have a dire effect on the bait availability. Herring fishers claim that such cuts would make it impossible for them to make a living from this fishery.

Catches of North Sea herring picked up in August and September as the herring returned to Norwegian and EU28 waters. Most of the herring caught in Norwegian waters was used for reduction purposes, while herring caught in EU28 waters was mostly directed to human consumption, due to its higher content of high quality roe.


The General Secretariat of Fisheries in Spain announced in July that the Iberian sardine fishery would be open from 1 August to 30 September, with a combined catch limit of 4?728 tonnes for Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese Minister of Marine Affairs motioned quota reductions for sardine in 2019, but assured the fishery would not completely close. The quota for 2018 is 14?600 tonnes and even though next year’s quota will be lower it is not yet decided by how much. According to the Portuguese Minister, the stock is improving but it needs time to fully recover.

Mexico has 98 sardine vessels and more than 3?500 individuals directly or indirectly employed in this industry. Sardine fishing is now the most important fishery in Mexico, with annual landings of about 720?000 tonnes, according to the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries (CONAPESCA). The Mexican sardine fishery in Baja California is important to the economy and the state government is now supporting the development of an export industry. There are 24 active vessels participating in this fishery, but landings have been going fluctuating due to effects of El Niño. In 2013, landings were down to 38?100 tonnes, jumped to 90?400 tonnes in 2014, then dropped to 37?500 tonnes in 2015, and increased to 51?100 tonnes in 2016. Landings peaked at 98?600 tonnes in 2017.

The sardine fishery of Guaymas in northern Mexico has also been good this year, with landings reaching 403?800 tonnes, around 26 percent more than the previous season. This sardine fishery is now larger than the mackerel or anchovy fisheries in the region. On 10 August, the Peruvian Ministry of Production (PRODUCE) ordered the closure of the first anchovy fishery in the north-central area. Earlier on 30 July, around 3.14 million tonnes of anchovy or 95 percent of the catch limit had already been landed. Of this total, about 81 percent was caught by the industrial steel fleet and 19 percent was caught by the industrial wood fleet.


The small pelagics industry may be facing a supply shortage in 2019. Mackerel and herring quotas will be reduced, and the sardine and anchovy fisheries are also uncertain. Consequently, prices are bound increase.

The mackerel market in Asia is growing, and once the Chinese consumers acquire a taste for Atlantic mackerel, demand will probably grow very rapidly. Rather than being reprocessed and exported, more imported mackerel will go to the domestic Chinese market and prices are likely to go up.

The European Commission has proposed to cut catches of Baltic Sea herring dramatically in 2019, by 18 percent to 296?511 tonnes if this proposal is approved. The Western herring catches are proposed to be cut by 63 percent to 6?404 tonnes, and the central herring catches by 26 percent to 170?360 tonnes.

ICES advised a reduction by almost 40 percent in the 2019 quota for North Sea herring. The recommendation included a direct catch quota of 291?040 tonnes and a by-catch quota of 20?532 tonnes, a total of 311?572 tonnes for 2019. For the current year, ICES advised a total quota that included by-catch of 517?891 tonnes, but the final agreedupon quota was set at 600?588 tonnes. It is expected that the assessment of the Norwegian springspawning herring will be rather disappointing, too.

These pessimistic expectations may lead to a surge in herring prices, in spite of the fact that at the moment, it is a buyer’s market with plenty of herring available. But this might change in 2019.