So last night at about 11.30 I go off to bed after having finished writing a bit about mackerel and obliquely mentioning how on a good day you can haul out a few hundred over a couple of hours in Dunmannus Bay and I wake up this morning to hear on the news we have all been catching too many of them and we were not to eat them again.
Having woken up and listened more carefully and then read down the article on the BBC webpage it was not quite that bad. There are still plenty of mackerel left but if we (and that is a very big we) carry on hoovering them out of the water as some are doing on the moment then all of a sudden we could find ourselves with considerably less mackerel in the sea.
It was only a few days ago I was writing on the fecundity of mackerel and on a shoal that was measured some five miles by two. How could it be possible to diminish such plenty.
Then I go onto the Marine Conservation Society website (the organisation responsible for this morning’s story) and read about the purse seine nets that can be operated from one boat and in a week can take up to 1,800 tonnes which is the equivalent to the take of the entire handline fleet in the southwest of England in one year.
Purse seines are the nets used by the boats from Iceland and the Faroe Islands who are taking advantage of the fact that the mackerel stock has moved west and into their waters.The MCS are concerned that if the Icelandic and Faroese fleets continue with these aggressive methods then the stocks sustainability will suffer.
All of which begs the question, who eats all this mackerel. I am fairly sure that the good people of the Faroe Islands (population 49,000) and Iceland (population 320,000) won’t be eating it all. Between them they caught about 300,000 tonnes during 2012 which would be almost a tonne for each man woman and child. I suspect that a lot of it is frozen and then shipped off to Africa and the Eastern European countries.
Whilst I am sure it is cheap it won’t be that good to eat. A mackerel needs to be eaten fresh out of the sea. At best you should be eating it an hour or so after it has come out of the water. Its ability to deteriorate meant that it was the only fish that could be sold on a Sunday. It is the abundance of oils that are supposed to help with your brain power that start to break down as soon as they are out of the water. After a day or so they become like cardboard or a wet pin cushion in the mouth.
I am sure that Wards and other good fishmongers can get them onto the slab within 24 hours but if you see them on the fish counter in the supermarket they are always a sad sight, skin tight and dry and colours dim, they are not worth eating. The same oils mean they don’t freeze well.
The MCS recommend that if you are going to eat mackerel then you should be ensuring that they have been fished locally using traditional methods including handlines, ringnets and drift nets.
What is interesting is that as an alternative they suggest you should eat herring or sardine. I am fairly sure that the stocks of both these fish have crashed over recent years.
If you want to read more there a couple of good articles on The Guardian website
For myself I won’t be eating them again until I am back fishing for them in Ireland in the summer.
A couple of further thoughts, Jonathan Couch, a Victorian naturalist from Polperro in Cornwall described mackerel as: ‘an ever wandering race, which in addition to the habit of periodic movement, are ever led by impulse to be continually shifting their ground and thus render the pursuit after them one of the most uncertain that can be imagined.’
Lets hope that when the fisherman of Iceland and The Faroe Islands pull up their nets empty it is because the mackerel have shifted their ground again and not because they have gone altogether.
Finally I was stood at the bar in Arundel’s one evening drinking a pint and trying to follow the conversation of the men sat in the corner. The talk was so fast and the accents so thick the only word I could make out was the oft repeated “feck” every time a point had to be made, which was often.
There was a taciturn looking man with a black beard stood next to me. He turned to face me and asked, ‘Can you follow them talking?’
‘Not a thing,’ I said.
‘You were out fishing this afternoon did you get anything?’
‘Not a thing,’ I said again.
‘Well there’s nothing so scarce as mackerel when they are not there. You can go anywhere to fish for them but if they are not in the water you’ll not get a thing. And they go sometimes in the summer. Most years there will be a week in August and there will be no-one who will catch a thing. But then the shrimp start to come at the end of the month and the fish come back. Just following their stomachs they are. Greedy feks.’
We both stared down at our pints for a minute before he continued.
‘But when they are back in August you can fish for them through to November if you want them. Most men I know have had their fill by then. But if you want there will be plenty there. Come November they are big as well, all that food, but then there’ll come day and they will be gone off to the dark waters to sleep of their food before they come back in the Spring. Now I heard that one of Napoleon’s generals found where they go in the winter. He was sailing off Greenland and they came near these shallow waters and there was a strange shimmer in the mud. Well his men got out and they waded through the waters and that colour in the water was mackerel tails and they had buried their heads in the mud. Do you believe that?’
He poked me with a thick finger and then shook my hand. ‘Look I’ll get you a pint. Mary can you get Ralph a pint.’ He pushed handful of change across the bar as Mary started to pour.
‘There’s nothing to that of course, that story, but they go to deep waters in the Winter and they’ll be back again when its warm. And when you are catching them and they’re thick in the water you’ll always have too many of them.’
Mary put the two pints in front of us and took the change from the bar. We picked up our glasses and drank at the black liquid and we thought about mackerel