The ‘Margret’ EA landing a test catch at the Síldarvinnslan hf processing plant ahead of the Icelandic Mackerel Fishery 2020. Photo: Síldarvinnslan hf
The 2020 Icelandic mackerel fishery is set to start in earnest on Wednesday, 1 July, with the government setting a quota 152,141 tonnes to be caught by the pelagic fleet.
Today, mackerel is an essential stock to the Icelandic pelagic fishing industry along with Blue Whiting and Norwegian-Atlantic Herring. Fish processors rely heavily on the summer mackerel to keep employment in their plants and the government rely on exports with 2019 figures equating to approximately €123 million (£112m) making it the second largest fish export after Cod which earned Iceland €762 million (£693m).
In 2019, the fleet landed just over 128,000 tonnes but with a quota of over 152,000 tonnes it is expected to be a big year for the pelagic fleet who have seen their fisheries reduced after a temporary ban placed on the Capelin fishery last year and this year after Icelandic ocean researchers have recommended a zero capelin quota.
Mackerel has gone from being one of the most rarely caught stocks to one of the country’s most important pelagic stocks since the start of the 21st Century.
It was in 2006 that mackerel began to catch as a bycatch in herring trawls east of the country, 4,000 tonnes were caught. The following year, direct mackerel fishing began and 37,000 tonnes were landed.
It was believed that mackerel had undergone a considerable degree of change and was becoming a regular pelagic stock of Icelandic jurisdiction, and it was considered important to utilize this new resource and show clearly that the pattern of the mackerel was changing.
From 2008 to 2011, mackerel catches in Iceland increased from 113,000 tonnes to 159,000 tonnes and this was highlighted by the fact that the new fish species were beginning to be of significant importance to many fisheries companies and the economy as a whole.
In 2012, Icelandic vessels fished over 149,000 tonnes of mackerel, and in 2013 the Icelandic government decided on a mackerel quota of 120,000 tonnes, which was granted.
The main fishing areas of the mackerel fleet in the Icelandic waters front were to the east and south-east of the country, but since then the catch in the western waters have also increased since 2010 and from that time mackerel fishing has been practiced in all these waters.
It is thought that the reason mackerel began turning-up in Icelandic waters was due to the warming of the seas. Similarly, the explanation for the mackerel can be a decrease in food supply in traditional feeding grounds.
The mackerel season in Iceland usually runs from June to September but the traditional starting date for the fishery is annually 1 July.
Mackerel has been recorded making several temporary appearances on the Icelandic coast in the 20th Century but none as significant and as enduring as the current spell since 2006.
In the late 1990s, mackerel was observed out of the West and the North, and in the summer of 1904, 1906 and 1908, sources also report mackerel migrations around the country. After warming the sea in 1926, mackerel returned and in 1928 mackerel was caught north and east of the country in 1930. During the Republic year 1944 (when Iceland declared itself a complete Republic from Denmark on 17 June 1944), significant mackerel abundance was observed from the West Fjords and the North.
In previous years, mackerel had not been caught in an organised manner but was obtained as a bycatch in herring ring-nets and drift-nets during the period from 1926 to 1960.
After 1960, the mackerel stopped appearing as bycatch and little or no shoals were spotted around Iceland. This was due to the temperature of the sea remaining relatively low until 2000, with the exception of a brief warming period around 1970, when Icelandic vessels hunted to a very small extent.
It is worth noting that in the years 1967-1976, Icelandic herring boats hunted mackerel in the North Sea, and several mackerel species landed in Neskaupstaður.
In the summer of 1998, the trawler Sjóli from Hafnarfjörður also landed some quantities of mackerel in Neskaupstaður, and attempts were made first to freeze the catch, but until then the mackerel had been processed in the fishmeal factory.
When the pelagic fleet began fishing for mackerel in 2006, the Icelandic companies were unprepared to receive it and catches were sent for fish meal and fish oil processing.
In the summer of 2008, Icelandic processing vessels began to freeze mackerel on board, but the following summer, Síldarvinnslan hf, began attempts to freeze mackerel in their fish processing plant in Neskaupstaður.
Quota caps had been issued for the mackerel fishery, but otherwise they continued with aggressive targets but in many ways the freezers were not suitable for freezing the largest mackerel.
2010 signalled a fundamental change in the fishing and processing of mackerel.
Quotas were then issued on each vessel and the emphasis was naturally placed on making the most value from the catch that landed.
As a result of this, the focus on fishing for human consumption was extremely high and serious investments were made in relation to both ships and processing equipment.
It was necessary to upgrade the processing and invest in expensive equipment and also had to make great improvements to the ships to ensure the best handling of the catch.
Although companies had specialised in the processing of pelagic fish, both herring and capelin, a great deal of additional investment had to be made in order for the mackerel to be processed.
Since 2011, almost all mackerel that Síldarvinnslan has received has been processed for human consumption.
Source: Síldarvinnslan hf – Icelandic Mackerel Fishery 2020 by Editor