As a charity MCS relies on your generous support


MCS Home

Good Fish Guide

return to search Return to search results


Click to enlarge


Scomber scombrus

Method of production - Caught at sea
Capture method - Handline
Capture area - North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area - Southern, Western & North Sea
Stock detail - South West
Certification - None
Fish type - Oily fish

Sustainability rating Click for explaination of rating

This fish, caught by the methods and in the area listed above, is a good sustainable fish to eat. Click on the rating icon above to read more and on the alternatives tab below to find similar fish to eat.

Sustainability overview

The best choice for mackerel remains fish caught locally using traditional hand lining methods.


Mackerel is a fast swimming species belonging to a group of fish known as the scombrid family, which are related to the tuna. They are found in brackish marine waters in depths of up to 1000 m (though more normally in depths of 0-200 m). Abundant in cold and temperate shelf areas, they form large schools near the surface. They overwinter in deeper waters but move closer to shore in spring when water temperatures range between 11 degrees and 14 degrees C. Mainly diurnal, they feed on zooplankton and small fish. Mackerel are batch spawners, they spawn mainly in March to July; the eggs and larvae are pelagic. After spawning, the adults feed very actively, moving around in small shoals. By 3 years old, most mackerel are mature (at a length of approximately 28 cm). Females shed their eggs in about twenty separate batches over the course of the spawning season. Juvenile mackerel grow quickly and can reach 22 cm after one year, and 30cm after 2 years. Mackerel can attain a maximum length of about 70 cm and weight of 3.4 kg.They may live for more than 20 years.

Stock information

Stock area
Southern, Western & North Sea

View map areas

Stock information
Northeast Atlantic (NEA) mackerel is assessed as one stock, but comprises three spawning components: the combined southern and western components and a separate North Sea spawning component. Only the North Sea component is sufficiently distinct to be clearly identified as a separate spawning component. Catch and survey data from recent years indicate that the stock has expanded northwestwards during spawning and the summer feeding migration. This distributional change may reflect changes in food availability and may be linked to increased water temperature, and/or increased stock size.

The spawning component of the stock has increased considerably since 2002 and remains high, above all required levels of sustainability. The results of the most recent egg survey (Spring 2013) indicate the stock has increased substantially, showing a doubling of the stock since 2004 and a 30% increase between 2010 and 2013. The North Sea component, however, has been long depleted and requires maximum possible protection and the recommendation is that measures to protect this component remain in place.

Based on the most recent scientific advice (September 2016), the stock is assessed as having full reproductive capacity. Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) is estimated to have increased since the early 2000s and has been above MSY-Btrigger since 2009. The fishing mortality (F) has been declining from high levels in the mid-2000s but remains above FMSY. There has been a succession of large year classes since the early 2000s and all year classes since 2005 (except for the 2013 year class) are estimated to be above average.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2017 should be no more than 857 185 tonnes (667 385 tonnes in 2016; between 831 000 tonnes and 906 000 tonnes in 2015; 927 000 tonnes and 1,011,000 tonnes in 2014; 497,000 and 542,000 t in 2013).


Since the introduction of the coastal states agreement in the mid 90's between the EU, Norway and Faroe Islands, the management of this stock has evolved into a successful, science-based plan with fishing effort set at a sustainable level.
The management plan for the NEA mackerel stock, evaluated by ICES as precautionary, was agreed by Norway, Faroe Islands, and the EU in October 2008.

Until recently much of the commercial mackerel fishery in the northeast Atlantic was certified as an environmentally responsible fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, since 2009, there has been no international agreement on Total Allowable Catch.
The stock has been targeted by Icelandic and Faroese fleets who have set autonomous quotas outside any agreement. More recently Greenland has established an experimental fishery with no management measures in place. As a result the MSC certification was suspended in 2012 when agreement on international fishing effort could not be reached.
An action plan, aimed at solving the ongoing dispute in the North East Atlantic, was submitted to the MSC by the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance (MINSA), a group of the 7 MSC certified mackerel fisheries, whose certificates were suspended as a result of the impasse. In March 2014 a 5-year agreement was reached between the coastal states, EU, Norway and Faroes. This agreement will re-establish a long-term management plan for the fishery based on scientific advice from ICES to ensure its sustainable exploitation. The agreement includes sharing arrangements for North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) for Russia and the High Seas, along with provisions for Iceland in 2014.

More recently in July 2014 over 700 mackerel fishing vessels from Scotland, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden, have joined together under the MINSA umbrella to enter MSC reassessment, the largest ever international collaborative approach for such certification this side of the Atlantic.
The MINSA North East Atlantic mackerel fishery, formed of 7 fisheries previously engaged in the MSC programme independently, was certified in May 2016 as a well managed and sustainable fishery in accordance with the MSCs Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing. The handline fishery in southwest England was one of the first fisheries to be certified as an environmentally responsible fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 2001. Due to the cost of maintaining it a decision not to renew its certification was made in February 2012.

Capture information

The fishery is located off the southwest coast of England, from Start Point to Hartland Point within UK territorial waters; this falls within the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) areas VIIe,f,g & h. Most of the fishing occurs within 6-8 nautical miles of shore and targets mackerel from the western component of the stock. The main ports are Newlyn and Looe, with landings also taking place in Plymouth, St Ives, Mevagissey and other ports. The handline method uses either braided twine or strong nylon lines to which hooks are attached. Coloured plastic or feathers are attached to these hooks to attract fish and the line is weighted with lead. Each handline has 25-30 hooks. Since 1998 the fishery has been granted special quota allocation under authority of the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). Allocation is set at 1,750 tonnes or 0.83% of the UK quota, whichever is the larger. Up to 150 vessels can be fishing in winter. Most of these are under 10m. Many are 5-8 m single-handed open boats. The minimum landing size for mackerel in EU waters is 20cm (30cm in the North Sea). Juvenile mackerel are protected within an area known as the Mackerel Box, an area off the Cornish coast in the South Western Approaches, created in 1981 and extended in 1989, in which there is a ban on targeted fishing for mackerel by trawlers and purse seiners and where handliners are the only fishermen allowed to target mackerel.

Read more about capture methods

ICES Advice 2015, Book 9;

Return to top Return to top

Sign up to get the latest marine information from the Marine Conservation Society


Sign up to get all the latest marine related news from MCS

The UK charity for the protection of our seas, shores and wildlife.

Read more about MCS

The MCS website uses 'Cookies' to enhance your web experience. Please read our data and cookie policy.
If you do not wish to use cookies please read how to disable cookies. Don't show this message again