The EU has threatened trade sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Isles over what the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine has called the "illegal" plunder of mackerel stocks in the North Atlantic.

The European Commission has agreed to fasttrack sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Islands after Ireland and the UK raised the issue during today's meeting of fisheries ministers in Brussels.

According to Simon Coveney, mackerel is Ireland's most valuable resource, and a collapse of the stock due to alleged overfishing by Icelandic and Faroese fishermen could cut the highly lucrative industry in Ireland in half.

He said that last year Iceland had caught 150,000 tonnes of mackerel and had plans for a similar catch this year.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels Mr Coveney said the EU could not "in good faith" begin negotiating elements of Iceland's accession negotiations if both sides were unable to reach agreement on how to fish mackerel stocks.

As part of Iceland's application to join the EU, talks are due to begin in April on the "chapter" involving fisheries.

Accession to the EU normally requires applicant countries to open and close some 35 "chapters" to ensure their laws are compatible with the body of EU law.

The Irish mackerel fleet catches up to 70,000 tonnes of fish annually.

At present each tonne is worth between €1,400 and €1,800 to fishermen, before ancillary services such as processing, grading and packaging are taken into account.

Ireland has the second highest share of the EU quota at 10.5% next to Scotland. The overall mackerel industry is worth some €1bn annually, of which 60% is held by the EU. The rest is fished by Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

Mackerel stocks have been historically fished in EU waters, but in the past number of years stocks have drifted into Icelandic and Faroese waters.

Until recently the agreed distribution of quotas has seen Iceland being given a quota of 0.3% and the Faroe Islands getting a quota of 4.8%.

Negotiations to give both countries a greater share of mackerel stocks have broken down in the past 12 months.

The Irish Government and the EU now accuse Iceland of unilaterally abandoning the existing quotas in order to catch "as much fish as they can."

According to figures presented by Minister Coveney, the Faroe Islands and Iceland are now catching just under 50% of the entire mackerel stocks when they migrate into iceland waters in the summer months.

Before 2008, he said, the Icelandic mackerel catch was "negligible."

"This amounts to plunder and is arguably illegal," Minister Coveney told reporters today.

Mr Coveney said that Icelandic and Faroese fleets were catching so much mackerel that they were now having to process the fish at sea.

The European Commission last year introduced a regulation that would allow for trade sanctions against Iceland and the Faroe Isles.

The issue is currently being discussed between the European Council, which represents member states, and the European Parliament.

After the issue was raised today by Ireland the Commission said it would agree to speed up the sanctions process, which would target Icelandic and Faroese mackerel products, and the sale of fishing technology to the EU.

This would be the first time trade sanctions will ever have been applied against third countries over a dispute involving fisheries.

According to the Minister the EU had offered to increase the Icelandic and Faroese quotas to 7% and 8% respectively, and to give them access to EU waters.

However, he said, this offer had been rejected outright by both countries. According to an information note put forward at today's council meeting by Ireland and the UK, Iceland and the Faroe Isles were looking for a quota of around 15pc each.

Mr Coveney said Ireland supported Icelandic accession to the EU and that both Ireland and Iceland had much in common.

But he said he could not see how the EU could negotiate the fisheries chapter, as part of the accession process, "in good faith."

Officials say that seven member states supported Ireland's move for action to be taken against Iceland and the Faroe Islands at today's meeting.

EU ministers meet over fish discarding

EU fisheries ministers are also meeting to decide whether or not to ban the controversial practice of discards, the throwing back of fish which are not part of a quota or not as valuable as other fish.

The European Commission has tabled a proposal to ban the practice of discards, which campaigners say results in as many as two thirds of edible fish being thrown back into the sea.

Under plans to reform the Common Fisheries Policy fishermen would have to land all the fish they catch in return for compensation.

However France and Spain are spearheading a move to block the ban saying it is unworkable.