Category Archives: Fishing

Fish Fight’s Value: Getting Us to Give a Damn

Fish_FightHugh’s Fish Fight has come in for a bit of a roasting today.  As plastered over the Twittersphere, Dr Ruth Brown, a scientist interviewed in the TV show’s 2nd episode – has accused the producers of “glaring inaccuracies” regarding their portrayal of bias science and the effects of krill fishing in the Southern Oceans. Worse, her comments seem to have been deleted from the Fish Fight website, appearing to many as an attempted “cover-up”.

Thankfully, this mess-up has now been addressed – with Hugh commenting directly on her accusations, as reported by Fish2Fork here.

But the error has fuelled the fire of criticism. So I want to explain why despite this, and despite many of the shortcomings of the movement frequently cited by both individual fishermen and their representative organisations – I think Hugh’s Fish Fight has tremendous value.

Fish Fight’s crowning achievement is that it reminds everyone in the UK, that UK oceans are collectively, ours.

I know that MPAs are not a black and white issue, I know that fishermen need continued livelihoods – I know that many fishermen work hard to protect the seas that they live in.

Lundy Island (c) Mike Deaton

But I also think that the seas are the “commons”. Sure – they are a source of income for fishermen – but they also provide a whole wealth of ecosystem goods and services and INHERENT values for the rest of us.

Urbanised humans are increasingly disconnected from nature. This, combined with growing political apathy and impenetrable bureaucracy, means that it’s becoming difficult for citizens to think about and investigate, let alone care for, much beyond their house and home. The great outdoors is too great for our attention.

The result is that members of the public interviewed on the beach in Lyme Regis believed that as much as 50% of our oceans were protected for conservation reasons, while the sad truth is we protect less than 1%. As consumers, we don’t know about fish – and so 80% of our purchases consist of only five species – meaning fishermen have to throw the rest of delicious, but unknown species back into the sea.  The wonderment of the oceans is buried beneath the waves; out of sight, out of mind.

Because we don’t know it’s there – we don’t know its ours. And because we don’t know its ours, we don’t value it.

So yes, Fish Fight has some problems, some simplification and doesn’t always give progressive fishermen a fair hearing.

Protesters on the MPA March on 25th February, organised by MCS and Fish Fight.

Protesters on the MPA March on 25th February, organised by MCS and Fish Fight.

BUT –  Hugh is leading people, other than fishermen, to value our seas. He’s leading us, from students in Cardiff, to families in Hampshire, from a super-yacht operator from the Western Highlands (just a selection of the people I met on yesterday’s #127march) to give a damn.

And that, is priceless.

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Marine conservation gets political: the FishFight March in Pictures.

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Emma Mclaren behind the Greenpeace folks as we gather in front of the London Eye.

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Myself & Emma with some friendly sea creatures.

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Innovative jellyfish costume.

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Elisabeth Whitebread from Pew as a mackerel!

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Jack Clarke, the coordinator of the UK’s first ever Community Supported Fishery, Catchbox, and a very nice man dressed as a crab.

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Cara Batt from The Wildife Trusts as we wait for Hugh FW.

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And Hugh’s Up!

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The groups behind #127march

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Many dressed the part!

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1500-2000 came to the rally.

Why I’m going on the #FishFight MPA March

Whether you believe that the oceans’ integrity is inherently valuable, or there to serve humanity – MPAs are crucial to healthy oceans, functioning properly. 

As citizens of the UK and an increasingly globalised world, its important that we stand up for our rights to the global commons – the oceans. 

Governments already work to recognise to the rights of fishermen- which are hugely important in deciding the fate of our seas, and indeed, their continued livelihoods. 

But as citizens, consumers and inhabitants of this planet – the rest of us also need to make our rights a priority. We need to support our progressive fisheries minister, Richard Benyon MP, by showing that healthy oceans are important to us, and that he has public support in working to protect a greater number of Marine Protected Areas. 

Time to eat the ugly ones…

(As appeared on The Ecologist)

Crab

Crab

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).

Flounder

Flounder

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.

Pouting

Pouting

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.

Acid Oceans – 30% increase in acidity since Industrial Revolution

I have just read this scary paragraph in the UNCSD’s Rio 2012 Briefing Note on Oceans:

Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification (c) Ove Hoegh-Guiderg/AFP/Getty Images“Studies have shown that since the beginning of the industrial revolution, oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic and predictions show that, by 2050, ocean acidity could even increase by 150 per cent. This would give marine ecosystems a very small period of time or adaptation, as it would represent a rate of increase that is 100 times faster than tat of any ocean acidity change experienced over the last 20 million years”.

The full document is here.

Soft cocks and bananas: gone fishing.

A month ago, I spent the day with a couple of crab fishermen in Salcombe, Devon. And I don’t mean just down the pub.

I was on a boat; their crabbing boat. 14 hours. 3am start and no loo. That’s right – no loo. I was also seasick for 13.5 hours – this may in part have been induced by the no loo situation – who knows. But either way, the day had all the hallmarks of a brief trip to hell.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t…

Now first of all, let me address why I was there. Well, I work for a project called GAP2, which is all about getting fishermen and scientists to work together. Many of you may not have realized that fishermen-scientist relationships are “an issue”– but they are, and they need to improve if we’re to work out how to better manage our often-overfished waters.

Reaching across Europe, GAP2 is running a project in the UK, where scientists Emma Pearson & Dr Paul Hart (from the University of Leicester) are working closely with crabbers operating out of Salcombe & Dartmouth.

So I was in Devon to make a short film on everyone’s progress.

Thus a day on the boat it was.

The Bed & Breakfast owner thought I was mad and I wasn’t convinced she was wrong. Emma, the hardy scientist I was accompanying, was completely at ease with a prospect of a day onboard, as her work necessitates going out with the fishers often a few times a week. But I was less sure. A land lubber and a wimp, I was harbouring a dark suspicion that not only would breakfast make a swift reappearance, but that a 14 hour day full of fish and waterproofs wouldn’t be “that much fun”.

The night before was filled with trepidation. I spent quite some time wrapping my camera in clingfilm,  I de-spidered the wellies, and I set the alarm clock with care. And I didn’t drink much fluid. All was set.

At 3am, the alarm sounded and I positively leapt out of bed. After negotiating my way into three layers of clothing and becoming a packhorse to a tripod, camera and enough food for a 14th century expedition to France, Emma & I exchanged a sleepy good morning before climbing into the car. We were off. Driving through the darkness, the roads were quiet and we quickly (oh how quickly) arrived at the dock. There we met the skipper, Alan Steer, who had kindly agreed to take us onboard his boat “Superb-us”. Deck hand Paul was also on side and we made our way to the boat.

Arriving onboard, in the 4am gloom I was pleasantly surprised. There was an indoor bit – “the wheelhouse”, and there was even a hob and a kettle! As we chugged out of Dartmouth we all had a cup of tea. Alan put his feet up on the dashboard, we had a chat about crabs and I ate a banana. Perhaps all was going to be well?

It wasn’t. The banana made reappearance swiftly. The travel sickness tablets too. I hung over the back of the boat. Although a beautiful, tranquil day in early June, my worse suspicions had been confirmed. The grey water slopped around the gunwale and I hoped I hadn’t ruined any paintwork.

But then the fishing started. As the morning sun rose in the sky, Paul and Alan made their way out onto deck. The first string of crab pots was going to be pulled. The fishermen were about to start reeling in their livelihood, and there was a buzz in the air.

Paul stood by the bait table, sharpening his knife. While it was a calm day, it still seemed particularly hazardous to be so casually holding such a sharp blade while standing on a slippery, moving deck. But Paul showed no such qualms and started ripping open a box of haddock.

Meanwhile, Alan operated the winch. The winch was hauling a rope, attached to which were the boat’s “crab pots”, laid out in neat rows along the seabed. For the uninitiated, crab pots are traps for the sideways scuttlers. Each weighs between 30kg, is made of a rope-wire mesh, and emerges from the sea covered in brittlestars.

As Alan pulled the pots from the surface of the water, he set them on his table by the side of the boat, opened the trap door and sorted the crabs inside. Underweight crabs, malting crabs and “berried females” (i.e. those carrying eggs) were returned to the water. The rest were sorted into males and females and plopped into blue bins underneath the sorting table.

The emptied pots were then passed along the table to Paul who fitted fish and then returned the empty, re-baited traps to a growing, neatly stacked pile on the opposite side of the boat. Emma the scientist stood close by to record the catch.

Activity settled into a steady, smooth flow of motion. The calm cries of “Cock, hen, soft cock, berried” merged with the chirpy background noise of Radio 1, and life began to look up for the pale and sweaty onlooker.

Having managed to focus on something other than the horizon, I got my camera out. The full film of the day is yet to be edited, but if you want a short glimpse of the activity, you can watch this on minute snapshot of the day here.

Next, once all the pots on the string had been hauled, we sailed back down the route that we’d come, relaying the string clean and empty to catch some crabs afresh.

And then we did it again. And then again. With 11 strings, this took all day. But there’s something about fishing that merely describing “how it works” can’t capture.

It’s a strange mix between factory efficiency and the great outdoors. And not just the outdoors experienced in a field – but the vast expanse of the ocean. Knife blades gleam, machinery whirrs and men in overalls move with smooth efficiency. But the seawater slops over the side of the boat. The rope from the winch swirls into vast snakey coils and the sun shines as a sea urchin rolls across the deck.

There’s a feeling of purposeful busyness, tempered by freedom. Sure – the day was all about work, there was an alarm clock get-up, a production line and uniform – but there was also a vast horizon, ever changing colours of the sea and the odd over-friendly seagull.

This is not to romanticize the occupation of fishermen. Their industry commands the highest death toll in Europe, the hours are long, and you rarely meet a millionaire.

On the other hand, I can see why they do it.

At about 3pm, all the strings had been pulled and re-laid and we began our journey back home. I can’t deny that there was a large part of me that was relieved; mightily relieved. Particularly so that I could find a loo.

Yet as we unloaded the catch in Dartmouth, and took a photo of me holding the biggest cock we could find, I felt like I’d achieved something. I’d made a connection with a food source, I’d witnessed an industry centuries old, and I’d tackled an environment I’m not best suited to. Obviously – I’d only taken some film – and everyone else on board remained of the opinion that I was a city softie. But while the day was characterized by nausea, and everything did pong somewhat of haddock – it transpires that fishers may have the right idea…

Accordingly – I’m going to be blogging more about them in the coming months. Stay tuned for the film in full, an explanation of French nicking, and an interview with Alan the skipper!