Time to eat the ugly ones…

(As appeared on The Ecologist)



Last week, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to end the wasteful practice of fish “discards”. While a victory for those concerned about the future of our fisheries, what to do with the fish currently thrown overboard remains unknown.

But a food distribution system taking North America by storm, championing collaborative communities and sustainable fresh food, may be part of the answer – Community Supported Fisheries.

The practice of discarding has witnessed fishermen throwing between a quarter and a third of all catches back into the sea, usually dead; in some cases this figure may have risen to 90% according to the Fish Fight campaign.

Happily, last Wednesday, 502 MEPs voted to ban discards, representing a major step in ending this wasteful practice. But while the vote has been welcomed by many, “the real issue concerns the practical issues of applying such a policy at the level of each individual fishery”, as highlighted by Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO).



Government can help, as shown by the diversity of policy solutions proposed by NGOs alone. But we, as consumers, citizens and members of a community, play a much bigger role.

Simply put – we need to eat different fish. Over 80% of what we eat comprises the ‘big five’: cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns. We now need to diversify, to eat those “ugly fish”, which although previously discarded, are of good quality but just don’t feature on UK dinner tables. Such fish (including cuttlefish, mullet and herring) represent about 17% of the total English catch, but are an untapped source of fresh, local fish, often caught by small-scale fishermen using responsible methods.

But, with consumer choice limited by what’s on supermarket shelves, how can we change our shopping habits to include these under-utilised gems?

Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) may be part of the answer. Similar to the Community Supported Agriculture schemes that are increasingly popular across the UK, CSFs join fishermen and consumers together within cooperatives, wherein fishermen can supply their fish directly to local residents.

John Dory

John Dory

While each CSF is slightly different, they essentially work like this: members pay in advance for a share of a fisherman’s catch and each week they receive a set weight of fish which they collect or have delivered to their door.  Because members are buying a direct share of the entire season’s catch, they’re buying both mainstream fish, as well as those less fashionable species. Of course, this means that a member won’t always know what will turn up in their “fish box”, but they do know that it will be fresh and caught locally.

And the benefits are three-fold – to the community, to the environment and to everyone’s pockets.

First, community. Cooperatives are non-profit enterprises: they are run by the people, for the people, and so bring people together in a long-lasting way. Not only do local residents get to know more about their neighbours, but they interact with the fishermen too, better understanding the challenges and opportunities faced by industries where they live.

At the same time, fishermen can connect with their customers. Beau Gillis, a fishermen involved in Nova Scotia CSF “Off the Hook” explains – “We have 200 subscribers and I know a lot of them by name – they certainly all know me by name… In the beginning, we thought that the customer-fishermen relationship wasn’t all that attractive, but now it’s our favourite part of what we do. Selling our fish to customers who enjoy it”.

CSFs also reduce our environmental footprint. As mentioned, CSFs can open up markets for under-utilised species, providing an answer to the thorny problem of what to do with discards. Fishermen involved in cooperatives are usually small scale, using responsible fishing methods. And because the fish are locally sourced, food miles are kept to a minimum. As shown by the recent horsemeat scandal, knowing where your food comes from is more valuable than ever.

And lastly, let’s deal with money. Contrary to popular perception, buying fish like this can be cheaper than the supermarket. Because the middleman has been cut out, both fishermen and consumers are better off financially. Such wide benefits accruing to everyone involved are proven by the rapid rise of CSFs acrossNorth America. In 2007, there were none, but today, Community Supported Fisheries operate in over 120 locations across the continent, and continue to grow every season.

So what’s the catch?

Well, of course there are some challenges with this approach in addressing the issue of discards.

Firstly, some would argue that the CSFs may harm local supply chains. Fisheries are often very tight knit, with fishermen supplying to only a handful of processors, suppliers and retailers.  So creating a new method of distribution could compete with this established chain, including independent fishmongers.



However, CSFs are part of the community, and are normally only set up following consultation with suppliers. Moreover, they help condition the community to eat a wider and more diverse range of fish species, as well as more fish in general. In the long-term, this in fact could help bolster the market for local, responsibly caught fish.

Secondly, CSFs sometimes supply fish from fisheries not certified under the Marine Stewardship Council – the recognised standard for sustainable seafood. This, in part, is because the majority of today’s MSC fisheries are large scale. CSFs normally deal with small-scale fishermen, who traditionally, have found it difficult to finance the MSC accreditation process.

On the other hand, while not certified, small-scale, inshore fishermen are usually more responsible in the way they fish. Having fished the same patch of water their whole life, using low impact gear, they tend to take more care than the super trawlers roaming the seas. The MSC are now aware of this issue, and time will tell how the relationship between MSC and CSFs will evolve.

Red Gurnard

Red Gurnard

One last challenge is that consumers may not know what to do with their new fish species. While it can be initially exciting to open a fishbox, not knowing what’s inside, it may also be somewhat daunting when you simply want to cook the family mid-week supper. But with the help of recipe cards, online tutorials and general support from the cooperative, CSFs are a learning experience for the consumer and community: how to eat without throwing good food back into the sea.

In conclusion, if we’re to capitalize upon the progress made by our MEPs last Wednesday, we need to be innovative in thinking how we’re going to deal with the fish we previously threw away. While some answers lie in policy, many reside in our own fridges. We need to eat a wider range of fish, and Community Supported Fisheries provide a proven way of doing that.

Caroline Bennett, a sustainable fish restaurateur commented: “The future of fish is vital for the health of both the oceans and our own well-being, not to mention our culinary delight and invention. Community Supported Fisheries provide real alternatives to the established supply chains, connecting people with their food and diversifying the type of fish we eat”.

Catchbox CoopFor British fish lovers, the good news is that the UK’s first ever Community Supported Fishery is about to start trading fish in March this year. Covering the towns of Brighton, Horsham and Chichester, Catchbox (www.catchbox.coop) is connecting the people of these towns to each other, to their local fishermen and to a wider range of fish.


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