ICES presents scientific stock assessment

Pelagic Fisheries

ICES presents scientific advice for pelagic stocks

On 30 September the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) published the scientific advice on fishing opportunities, catch and effort for pelagic fish stocks. The advice plays an important role in maintaining sustainable (pelagic) fish stocks.

Managers (the national administrations) use the scientific advice as a basis for determining how much can be fished sustainably: the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each stock for the next calendar year.

Unfortunately, for some stocks there is no agreement among Coastal States on the shares of the TACs for each Coastal State. As a result, some Coastal States like Norway and the Faroe Islands choose to unilaterally increase their quotas, putting more pressure on certain stocks.

Tim Heddema, president of the PFA and also Chair of the EU pelagic fishing industry, highlights that the advice for 2023 is a ‘mixed bag with both positive and challenging outcomes. “The PFA welcomes the advice to significantly increase the TAC for blue whiting. Fishers should be able to profit from the historic highs and very positive development of the stock, especially in light of other, more disappointing recommendations.”

For western horse mackerel, ICES advises to catch nothing in 2023, but Heddema stresses that the situation is more nuanced than an ‘zero-TAC’ advice would suggest: “It is true that recruitment has been low for a long time. On the other hand, western horse mackerel still has an estimated biomass of 700,000 to 800,000 tonnes, with catches in line with the TAC. Add to this the fact that, according to all concerned, the scientific model is in serious need of revision, and it quickly becomes obvious that we should look to the logical alternative: the Pelagic Advisory Council’s recovery plan that was previously approved by ICES. That would provide a TAC of 15,513 tonnes, which with a view to a real recovery could slowly increase to around 45,000 tonnes over the next 6 to 7 years.”

Heddema concluded that as far as mackerel is concerned, the excessive unilateral quotas of Norway and Faroe Islands have probably had their effect on the assessment and the advice: “The EU does its best to colour within the lines of the TAC, but is disadvantaged by irresponsible behaviour of others. Without these excesses, the advice would undoubtedly have been positive.”

Read more about the advice for the main pelagic stocks:

North Sea Herring

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2023 should be no more than 414 886 tonnes. This is a 22% decrease compared to the advice of last year, when scientists recommended a TAC increase of 45%. The new advice corresponds with a decrease of 5.6% of the TAC for 2022, which was set lower than advised. The herring fishery has been characterised as sustainable for many years and since 2006, the stock has been MSC-certified.


Mackerel is one of the stocks for which Coastal States, for a number of years now, have not been able to agree on the allocation of the fishing opportunities over all Parties. As a result, Norway and the Faroe Islands have decided to unilaterally increase their quotas for the stock in the past two years. The basis for this decision is the zonal attachment approach. Zonal attachment of a stock refers to the share of the stock residing within a particular country’s economic zone, if necessary weighted by the time it spends in a country’s zone over a year. This approach was recently judged by scientists from all involved Coastal States as highly flawed, since the data on geographic distribution is incomplete and gives room for multiple interpretations. As such, it does not provide a basis for a quota-sharing arrangement.

Because of the current fishing pressure, ICES advised that catches in 2023 should be no more than 782 066 tonnes to fish mackerel sustainable. This is a decrease of 2% of the advice of last year.

But there is also good news: the mackerel stock is still above MSY[1] levels despite the increased fishing activities. This is mainly due to the large recruitment of ‘young’ mackerel last year.

The PFA underscores the importance of the recruitment of mackerel, having executed the first phase of a valuable study into the potential fecundity of female mackerel in the Northeast Atlantic. Fecundity is the natural capability to produce offspring, measured by the number of eggs per female fish.

Western horse mackerel

Together with the EU pelagic industry, the PFA noted with great concern the ICES advice for a zero-TAC (0 tonnes) for western horse mackerel. ICES’s assessment shows a consistently low recruitment, and includes a retrospective adjustment scaling fishing mortality further upward and spawning stock biomass (SSB) further downward.

The PFA wants to highlight that there is a way to continue to fish western horse mackerel in a sustainable and responsible way, which is to follow the ICES-approved Pelagic Advisory Council (PelAC) rebuilding plan. This would result in a TAC for 2023 of 15 513 tonnes (-78%). Further simulations using current data show that with a fishing mortality lower than 0.075, effective rebuilding of the western horse mackerel stock would be possible in a several years.

Atlanto-Scandian Herring

ICES advises that when the long-term management strategy agreed by the European Union, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and the Russian Federation is applied, catches in 2023 should be no more than 511 171 tonnes. This a 15% decrease compared to the advice of last year. This is partly due to higher mortality, fishing pressure and lower recruitment of younger herring. Nevertheless, this stock too is still above the sustainable MSY level.

Blue Whiting

The blue whiting assessment indicated that the stock is on the rise. In fact, the current situation of the fish stock is so positive, that scientists recommend an 81% increase. This means that, when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2023 should be no more than 1 359 629 tonnes. Under the current management plan recruitment and biomass are now at some of the highest levels ever, and likely to remain so for a number of years.

[1] MSY stands for Maximum Sustainable Yield, and can be understood as the largest long-term average catch or yield that can be taken from a stock under prevailing ecological and environmental conditions.

Date Posted: 12th October 2022

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