Mackerel isn’t sustainable -here’s what to eat instead

You may have seen in the news recently that British mackerel has been stripped of its sustainable status by the MSC. All fisheries in the North East Atlantic area have been suspended due to falling stocks, fish being fished above levels recommended by fisheries scientists alongside low numbers of new fish making it into adulthood each year. You’ll still be able to buy mackerel, but it won’t have the MSC blue tick eco label, and close to a 70% reduction in the amount of mackerel caught has been recommended for the foreseeable future.

Credit: Pongstorn Karnunghead/

Oily fish in your diet

Mackerel is an easy-to-buy oily fish, being one of the main options alongside salmon on supermarket shelves. Most fresh or smoked salmon sold in the UK comes from farmed Scottish fish, with wild-caught salmon typically imported from Alaska. Still healthy and delicious, but if you’re looking for wild-caught oily fish harvested closer to home then you might want to diversify your plate.

What actually is an oily fish? Oily fish are typically pelagic, which means they can be found in the open ocean, swimming constantly. The high energy expenditure of swimming around the clock means that these fish store oil in their tissues. This oil is rich in EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, which is why public health guidelines recommend oily fish consumption weekly.

Finding an alternative to mackerel

Oily fish found around the north-east Atlantic includes whiting, sardines/pilchards and herring. Sardines and pilchards are actually the same species -sardines is the name given to younger fish under 15cm in length. Note however, that not all tinned sardines are actually sardines! Sadly there’s a lot of mislabelling like this in the seafood industry. You can get MSC-certified sardines from Cornwall. Try sardines with tomatoes on toast, in pasta or even in a curry. Herring has a several certified fisheries, including some in the English Channel and Irish Sea. Not all herring is sustainably sourced, so keep an eye out for that blue tick! If you can get really fresh herring, then it is best enjoyed simply grilled with fresh herbs. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, go Scandi with pickled herring -try this Jamie Oliver recipe. Alternatively, crab and certain shellfish (oysters and mussels for example) contain a reasonable level of omega 3’s.

Still not sure? You can also get ALA omega 3s from vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Flaxseed (linseed), walnuts, chia seeds and hemp are all sources, alongside rapeseed oil. Seaweed, or an algae-based food supplement can also be a source of EPA and DHA omega 3 -this is where fish and seafood obtain their omega 3 from!

Getting the blue tick

The MSC is a global governing body that assesses the sustainability of fisheries on several categories, including the size of the fish stock and impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Its blue tick eco label is considered the gold standard for ensuring that seafood is sustainably sourced. In the UK, we are lucky in that the blue tick is widely used; in other countries it is less commonplace. 

See more Enlivening Elle articles on seafood sustainability, including farmed fish and seafood nutrition here.


I have a first class degree in Marine Biology, with international experience, and focussed my dissertation in assessing the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability reports.

Sustainable fish information: MSC Track a Fishery and MCS Good Fish Guide

Omega 3 dietary guidelines: see here and here.