Blue whiting are being overfished in the Northeast Atlantic, say feed producers.

Salmon feed makers threaten to boycott Northeast Atlantic blue whiting

Politicians urged to seize chance to reach agreement on quotas without reducing this year’s catch

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Major salmon feed manufacturers have warned they will walk away from the market for Northeast Atlantic blue whiting unless politicians in Europe’s coastal states seize a golden opportunity to cut catch quota allocations without reducing the number of fish caught.

Blue whiting is a prized, pelagic quota species of the Northeast Atlantic, predominantly used for fish oil and feed for salmon aquaculture.

But after more than a decade of mismanagement caused by a failure of countries to agree on a total catch quota, principal buyers Cargill, Skretting, and Biomar have issued an ultimatum ahead of quota talks in London this week.

Agreement needed

The companies, part of the North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy Group (NAPA) that also includes major retailers and salmon farmer and feed producer Mowi, say they will turn their back on blue whiting from the fishery unless a quota deal is reached, and point out that high stocks of the fish mean that now is an ideal time for an agreement to be reached without impacting fishers.

Seven coastal states (the European Union negotiates as one state) are involved in the negotiations: the EU, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom.

In recent years, each state has allocated itself a share of the catch – or a slice of the blue whiting “pie” – because they were unable to collectively agree on sustainable allocations, explained NAPA.

Unfortunately, the sum of the allocations in 2021 was 130% – 30 percentage points above scientific advice. In 2022, this increased to 147%. In simple terms, said NAPA, the states are taking more slices than the pie has to offer.

High stock

In October 2022, the latest scientific advice for blue whiting was that stock numbers have boomed and are now estimated to be at a historical high. Consequently, the scientific advice for the catch in 2023 was 81% higher than in 2022.

Dr Tom Pickerell, NAPA project lead, said: “Should the states continue to take the same size slice of pie, they will continue their overfishing. We have calculated that each state could lower their allocation (their pie slice) by 23% to ensure that the sum of all allocations is 100% – or to put it another way, to stop overfishing. Because of the increase in the scientific advice, such a reduction would still actually result in an increase in catch for each state of approximately 12%. It’s a win-win.”

Northeast Atlantic blue whiting was stripped of its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in 2020, and no longer boasts the widely recognised blue tick that consumers have come to know and trust as a symbol of sustainability assurance.

This triggered a domino effect, and the loss of its MarinTrust certification – a unique certification authenticating the sustainability of marine ingredients, including blue whiting.

Fishery Improvement Programme

A Fishery Improvement Programme (FIP) has been established through NAPA to ensure sustainable management of shared stocks, but regulators, fishing associations and fishers must be on board for it to succeed.

“If the FIP should fail, we will stop purchasing blue whiting as we, our customers, and stakeholders follow the highest ethical and sustainability standards,” said BioMar. “It is vital that an agreement on the distribution of quotas can be achieved, and we urge the coastal states to find a resolution promptly to avoid any potential risks of overfishing and therefore failure of the current FIP.”

Dr Dave Robb, sustainability programme lead at Cargill, said: “For companies sourcing from this fishery, the lack of political cooperation poses an unacceptable threat to their wider commitments to responsible business practices.

“Blue whiting has been a key part of the development of a sustainable aquaculture sector in Europe – especially the salmon sector in Norway. But Norwegian fish farmers have already shown that they would not buy fishmeal from blue whiting which is not responsibly managed across the fishery. Now is the time for the governments from the coastal states to act and show leadership for sustainable fishing.”

An excellent ingredient

Leif Kjetil Skjæveland, manager of sustainability and public affairs at Skretting, said: “We want to continue to use blue whiting as a raw material. It is an excellent and sustainable marine ingredient, but only if the fishery is well managed.

“The lack of progress among the coastal states might cause us to stop using blue whiting, and this is in a time where locally sourced food and sustainable raw materials are more important than ever. So, to the governments in the coastal states: please start talking to each other and work out an allocation! This ball is too important to drop.”