Main course

Grilled mackerel

There may have been three Cod Wars, but to date, there has only been one Mackerel War.

Countries only tend to go to war over resources that are desirable. Expanded empires, increased religious congregations, oil, gold, nutmeg and football results have all sparked international conflicts. But, thirty years ago, mackerel, as an unloved fish, oily of flesh, spiny of bone, and meaty of taste, looked like it would never be a thing to fight over.

The 1990s changed all that.

Scientists and governments started to push the idea that omega-3 fatty acids can lower plasma triglyceride levels, improve mobility in rheumatoid arthritis, and elevate mood in those suffering from depression. Chefs and cooks responded by putting herring and mackerel back on the menu. Hipsters rejoiced.

Mackerel was cool. Mackerel was in sushi. Mackerel was sustainable. Mackerel was ethical. Mackerel was at BBQs wearing SuperDry. This pressed all the buttons of of 90s foodies and the mackerel boom began.

At the same time that mackerel was putting on Ray-Bans and going to parties, blue whiting was being over-fished by ‘pelagic‘ trawlers. These are the big, £5m fishing vessels that catch with a dragged net, and stay at sea for as long as it takes to fill their colossal refrigerated seawater holds with live fish – which can be weeks at a time. In the 90s, blue whiting was being landed by the Icelandic and Faroe fleets, both of which were now looking for a new catch to sell to justify their hugely expensive sea-going investments.

Jupiter – the Faroese pelagic trawler at the centre of the Mackerel War. Photo Roar Jensen.

Both the Faroes and Iceland cynically increased their own mackerel quotas by almost ten-fold, taking the total mackerel catch landed by all countries beyond the Marine Sustainability Council’s (MSC) recognised limit for stock maintenance, and far beyond the principles of all EEZ agreements. This was the epitome of state-supported greed, and was not unexpected given that Iceland had been completely fucked by the 2007 global financial crash.

The problem for the British was that if Iceland and Faroe began to fish at this level, then the MSC would be required downgrade the sustainability score for mackerel and thereby force British fleets to fish less of it. The Scots responded in style by closing all ports to Icelandic and Faroe ships, thereby preventing them from landing fish anywhere other than on home turf. The whole thing came to a head in 2010 when Jupiter (pictured above) was turned away from Peterhead harbour in Aberdeenshire by a line of Scottish trawlers blockading the harbour entrance. This single action cost Jupiter’s skipper £400,000.

Emil Pederson, skipper of Jupiter

In the end, Iceland upped its mackerel allowance again, and the MSC went ahead and downgraded mackerel. The EU held the axe of EU membership over the head of Iceland, and negotiations convinced the country to decrease its preposterously self-inflated quota. Proportions were agreed between the EU/Norway, Iceland/Russia and Faroe. The MSC re-instated mackerel sustainability as ‘of no concern,’ and the whole affair largely fizzled out. Although it has to be said that if there was one winner in the Mackerel War, it was Faroe. It walked away with 12% of the whole landing allocation.

But this story is not over. Greenland has a modest pelagic trawler fleet, but it is owned by offshore interests keen to see a return on their investment. Greenland, naturally, has its eye on Atlantic mackerel.

Grilled mackerel

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Serves: 1
Cooking Time: 20 mins


  • 1 whole mackerel, gutted
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 3 slices of lemon
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper



Season the cavity of the fish and stuff with the herbs and lemon.


Heat a charcoal or gas grill to very hot.


Clamp the fish in a grill basket if you have one. Place the fish on the grill and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the fish over and cook for a further 10 minutes.


Serve with tomatoes and mushrooms seasoned and grilled directly on the grill bars.

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