New data about the sustainability of coastal fisheries could mean more seasonal, local produce on menus and shelves.
Sustainability reassures, provenance sells. That is the thinking behind Project Inshore, an ambitious plan to map the sustainability of English coastal fisheries and revive the fortunes of small-scale fishermen, by stimulating local markets.
Led by Seafish, the UK industry authority, and drawing on the expertise of the Marine Stewardship Council [MSC], retailers and other partners, it aims to produce tailored sustainability reports for every fishery, representing 7,000 small boats. “Not much in the way of science is dedicated to the inshore fleet”, says Matt Watson, English Fisheries Outreach Officer at the MSC. If more were known about the species being caught, local fishing methods, seasonality and the true impact of these fisheries when taken as a whole, it could transform the way retailers and others source their fish sustainably.
In November, baseline reports were published for every fishery, detailing what is being caught where, and the seasonality of the catch. “If you’re a restaurant in Brixham”, Watson says – referring to a small fishing town in the county of Devon, “you can pick up these reports, see what’s happening nationally and at your local port, and say, ‘I can see a trend in landings of John Dory in summer and autumn, dropping off in January’. You can then think seasonally and locally about what you are buying.”
This could introduce new, locally caught species to our shelves
The same goes for big retailers, too. “Project Inshore will provide us with much greater insight into our local inshore fisheries, enabling us to understand whether they meet our [existing] sustainable seafood policy,” says Hannah Macintyre, Wild and Farmed Fish Sourcing Manager at Marks and Spencer. “For those that don’t [meet our standards], it will identify and inform improvement projects to address current barriers to procurement. It would be fantastic if this led to the introduction of new, locally caught and locally processed species to our shelves.” The key is the MSC’s “preassessment” tool, by which certifiers evaluate a fishery’s performance, provisionally,
against the MSC standard. This identifies any potential problems and enables a fishery to prepare accordingly for “full” assessment, which leads to certification. Project Inshore will use the preassesssment template to show what is working well, but also to highlight what additional information is needed to be able to say a fishery is on the right track to sustainability. Between now and the summer, an independent certifier will score each fishery and give it a colour-coded grading.
“It gives a recommendation to the fishery on whether it’s ready to go for full assessment, or if perhaps it has a bit more work to do”, Watson explains. Findings will be shared with Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, with the aim of improving local management strategies. Thereafter, fisheries will be helped as much as possible to ‘buff up’ to full certification.
Smaller inshore vessels comprise nearly three-quarters of the English fleet, yet the EU allocates them just 4% of the national quota for lucrative species such as cod. If they harvest more than this small share, they have to discard it, meaning the day’s catch can sometimes be just a few boxes of mixed fish, such as gurnard and John Dory, which are difficult to sell into mainstream markets.
“Chefs are very excited to know where their fish is coming from, and this also satisfies a growing need among consumers for locally sourced fish”, says Laky Zervudachi, Group Sustainability Director of Direct Seafoods, which buys from inshore fishermen for restaurants and caterers, and is a funder of Project Inshore. “The food service sector is terribly important in changing attitudes. With a species like gurnard, if people get to try it in a restaurant, beautifully cooked, they are more likely to say, ‘Actually, it was delicious’.”
The hope is that, in the wake of Project Inshore, fisheries from different regions will join together to share information and spread the cost of full MSC certification. They may even form “super-cooperatives” which would sell direct to buyers, helping to maintain livelihoods in fishing communities. Fisheries as far afield as Western Australia and California have already shown an interest. – Andrew Purvis
The Marine Stewardship Council is a Forum for the Future partner.
Photo: MSC / M Watson