Herring stocks on brink of collapse in North Atlantic, says advocacy group

Recent research by the North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA) says Atlanto-Scandian herring stock faces repeat of 1960s collapse if overfishing continues.
North East Atlantic pelagic fishing boat.

North East Atlantic pelagic fishing boat.

Photo by: MSC.

Recent research by the North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA) underscores a pressing environmental and economic issue: the potential collapse of Atlanto-Scandian herring populations in the Northeast Atlantic.

This situation not only threatens marine biodiversity but also poses substantial risks to the European fishing industry, NAPA warns.

The study, which was undertaken in collaboration with fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn, indicates that if overfishing persists, herring populations may hit a critical biomass limit by 2026, endangering their reproductive sustainability.

Adopt sustainable fisheries management or face herring collapse, says NAPA

NAPA, an alliance of major global retailers, food processors, and other stakeholders in the supply chain, is advocating for urgent adoption of sustainable fisheries management to avert a crisis reminiscent of the 1960s herring collapse. The group has initiated fishery improvement projects (FIPs) targeting herring, mackerel, and blue whiting, aiming to promote responsible fishing practices.

Despite these initiatives, NAPA says the response from coastal state governments has been disappointing to say the least.

According to NAPA, the governments in question have yet to implement quota sharing agreements that reflect scientific advice, often setting unilateral quotas that contribute to overfishing.

Explainer: what happened in the 1960s herring collapse?
The Atlanto-Scandian herring collapse is described as "one of the best known and most spectacular fish stock collapses" in history. In the span of just a few years in the late 1960s, catches fell from 600,000 tonnes to almost zero. The collapse is attributed to a combination of factors: first and foremost, the introduction of new "power block" technology dramatically increased the power of fishing boats, but this coincided with adverse environmental factors and a lack of regulation by coastal states - which at the time, had no jurisdiction further than 12 nautical miles out to sea. It took around twenty years for the herring stock to recover. Source: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eap.2022.01.007

Coastal states urgently need to comply with scientific recommendations

From 2020 to 2022, fishing pressures exceeded recommended limits by up to 37%, signaling a disregard for expert guidance, NAPA says. Although there was a 24% reduction in the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for 2024, the organisation says further actions are necessary to ensure sustainable fishing practices.

As FIPs near their end, and with market stakeholders threatening to halt purchases if sustainability is not prioritized, the pressure on coastal states to comply with scientific recommendations is intensifying.

The upcoming period is critical for these governments to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable fisheries management, NAPA says.

The choices made now could determine the future of herring populations and, by extension, the stability of related economic sectors, the organisation warns.

"This critical juncture presents coastal states with a stark choice: adopt sustainable, science-based fisheries management or face the consequences of market withdrawal and the potential collapse of vital fish stocks. As negotiations for quota sharing continue, the global market, represented by NAPA and its affiliates, stands ready to enforce change should governments fail to act responsibly," NAPA said.

International pressure mounts on governments over risk of herring collapse

NAPA is not the only international organisation to ring the alarm bells over herring stocks.

In September last year, the Marine Stewardship Council said new data showed that the Atlanto-Scandian herring stock dropped from 7 million metric tonnes in 2008 to 3,7 million metric tonnes, with catches in 2022 exceeding ICES advice by 36%. 

“The declining health of AS herring and the latest alarming forecast should send a sharp reminder to governments that stocks are at risk of collapse when they are overexploited year on year," said Erin Priddle, Regional Director for the Marine Stewardship Council in North Europe.

“The North-East Atlantic pelagic stocks represent one of the largest fish populations in Europe and are fished by some of the richest nations in the world. It would be an indictment of all governments involved if they continue to exceed the scientific advice by setting unilateral TACs [total allowable catch]. Setting quotas within safe biological limits is the bedrock of good fisheries management," Priddle said.

According to the MSC analysis published in September 2023, in the preceding six years, the total combined catches of Atlanto-Scandian herring, mackerel and blue whiting exceeded the catch amount advised by scientists by 31%.

"This equates to almost 4.5 million tonnes of fish which, if the scientific advice had been followed, should have been left in the sea," the MSC stated.

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