Creating a research roadmap for Northeast Atlantic mackerel

ICES workshop gathers policy, science, and industry stakeholders to discuss an improved evidence base for Northeast Atlantic mackerel stock assessment.
Published: 22 August 2019

​​​​​The Northeast Atlantic mackerel fishery is one of the biggest in the North Atlantic, with first sale value over €1 billion and recent catches of approximately 1 million tonnes. ICES is requested to provide annual advice for the management of the fisheries on Northeast Atlantic mackerel.

​Earlier in 2019, an inter-benchmark review of the performance of the Northeast Atlantic mackerel stock assessment model was held, leading to a revision of the 2019 fishing opportunities advice issued for mackerel. In the past six years, there have been five within-year revisions to the mackerel fishing opportunities advice.

The frequent revisions, unstable stock assessments, and unpredictable advice have led stakeholders to the conclusion that the evidence base for ICES advice is not robust enough. To address the ongoing challenges and improve the evidence base for the provision of ICES advice, ICES invited managers, industry representatives, and scientists to a workshop to develop a research roadmap​.

Although there are many issues that challenge the fisheries and management of Northeast Atlantic mackerel (e.g. zonal attachment, marketing, sustainability accreditation, catch sharing), this workshop only focused on evidence needs for ICES advice.


“It was a rare opportunity to discuss matter of mutual importance to, and with, policy, science, and industry stakeholders. It should be done more often." remarked Paul Fernandes, University of Aberdeen.

Ann Kristin Westburg, Norwegian Ministry for Industry, Trade and Fisheries, agreed, stating, “This format gave managers, scientists, and industry representatives the opportunity to discuss research needs in an open and candid manner without the usual noise surrounding most meetings concerning mackerel."    

Participants were asked to consider the trade-offs between resourcing and the quality of science and concluded that either a reapportioning of resources or an increase in resources, along with greater science–industry partnerships were necessary to improve the science evidence base.  

Gerard van Balsfoort, Pelagic Advisory Countil (PELAC) is pleased that the points introduced by industry and the PELAC on the need for thorough quality assurance of the entire ICES process and of more and deepened industry collaboration on mackerel research are reflected in the report. However, he does consider that “the development and implementation of quality assurance means a major investment for ICES. One can only hope that ICES client organizations understand and support this investment."

​Challenges ahead
When asked about any challenges he envisions with the resulting research roadmap, Fernandes pointed to, among others, the lack of investment in the science associated with the stock. “There are a number of competing actions which, given that resources are limited, will need to be effectively evaluated on a cost-benefit basis, which means independently. This will be difficult because to evaluate some options requires expertise that may be biased towards that particular option.  For example, I think the egg surveys are not cost effective, but they represent a massive investment, and have huge inertia given the time series.  To evaluate these would require experts in those surveys who are likely to be sympathetic to its continuation.  

​Like many things in fisheries science there is likely to be a tendency towards the conservative, when what is required here is probably a bit more radical approach given the value of the fishery and the scale of the problem.  I think it is unacceptable that the most valuable single species in Europe can have an assessment that doubles with a mere tweak of one source of data. I can understand why that might drive industry and policy stakeholders pretty crazy, but the fact is that the investment in science​ is not great relative to the value of the stock, and has not been evaluated effectively."​

A concern for W​estburg is getting more value for money from the current survey, stating that, “surveys and research will require a deeper coordination and probably stricter prioritization than is currently the case".       

Reseach roadmap

The key recommendations of the workshop were:

  • Improved research funding
  • Building scientific expertise
  • Evaluate advisory mechanisms
  • Which surveys contribute?
  • Expanding surveys
  • Applying acoustics
  • Incorporating industry data
  • Reconciling stakeholder perceptions
  • Credible industry sampling

To achieve all priorities national research authorities, national fisheries institutes, fisheries managers, fishing industry, fishing industry scientists, academics, and ICES all need to work together.

Fernandes, Westburg, and van Balsfoort all agree that the roadmap can lead to an improved evidence base for ICES advice on North Atlantic mackerel. While the timeline is undecided, an estimation for the proposed research and application of the findings is the next 3–5 years. 

Westburg notes, “The report provides us with a clear list of action points and indicates the responsible party/parties. This kind of systematic analysis and approach should enable us to address the most important issues. For me as a manager, the first step is to take the report to the upcoming Coastal State consultations and identify which issues/action points should be addressed in this forum."

The report is now available online​.


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Creating a research roadmap for Northeast Atlantic mackerel

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