iFish, We Fish

The commercial fisheries of the EU stretch for thousands of square miles, from the inhospitable seas of the Arctic North, to the warmer and more favourable climes of the Southern Mediterranean. These communal waters harbour a plethora of commercial species of fish and shellfish, the landings of which form an integral part of the economies of 23 member countries, accounting for a colossal 4.9 million tonne catch, from a fleet of 87,500 vessels, a statistic that indicates a world ranking of 5th largest in terms of total output.

 

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The overall responsibility of regulating and preserving the abundance of the life that teems within these seas, falls to the now decades-old Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a leviathan of a management system, that although recently reformed, still incurs considerable rancour, from those who seek to operate profitably and sustainably within its often challenging remits.

Sustainability is an oft-used word and one that does not always reflect its true meaning. In terms of the management of fisheries, it not only refers to the state of the populations of commercially caught fish, but also to the economic viability and wellbeing of the communities intrinsic to their production and sale.

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Historically, the management of fish stocks via the CFP has been a largely cumbersome and prescriptive “top-down” approach with little recourse to local level interpretation. Back in the 1980’s with maximum fishing effort at its peak, the emphasis, was solely on output with the inevitable consequence, that fish stocks of the more commercially valuable and popular species started to come under increasing pressure, their productive and reproductive “biomass” in danger of dwindling to unsustainable and dangerous levels.

Accordingly, the problems created by fishing effort in excess of capacity were met by a response. Quotas and catch limits were instigated, decommissioning incentives made available, and the less viable and more inefficient vessels encouraged to either embrace the new regime and improve or to quit the industry and make way for more efficient, modern and innovative practice. Fishermen, ever resourceful and ultimately concerned that their livelihoods now hung potentially and precariously in the balance, stepped up swiftly to the challenge.

The resultant reduction in fishing “effort” over the last two decades has therefore manifested itself in very positive and tangible ways:

Firstly it has led to a mini industrial revolution in terms of fishing practice. Fuel efficient engines for vessels, state-of-the-art fish finding technology, net and mesh innovation, improved safety and training and real-time data recording have ensured that not only do vessels throughout the EU operate under conditions of increased efficiency but in an environment conducive to best practice. And it continues, with fisherman of all classes and sectors, constantly responding to the bureaucratic challenges they face, in typically proactive form, designing and trialling new types of gear, and continually seeking to improve on operational efficiency, whilst keeping an ever mindful watch on the welfare of their crews, the investment in which, carries equal importance to that of net function and navigational science.

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Secondly, it has resulted in probably the best outcome of all: that of fish stock recovery and populations of the traditional commercial species (Cod, Haddock and Plaice, Herring and Mackerel) to name but a few, suddenly becoming more visible and available in biomass to fishermen and edging back towards their Maximum Sustainable Yield (the measure of sustainability), from only two species in 2003 to 36 in 2015. Exciting news indeed for an industry that could have so easily have had the tables turned and found itself in the unenviable position of a sharp economic decline, from which there would have been little chance of recovery.

Unfortunately, with the initial demise of once bountiful fish populations, the apportion of blame, was an inevitable consequence of the inertia and momentum built up over the preceding years of maximum fishing effort. Fishermen in all sectors of the EU suddenly found themselves in the firing line of a sustained campaign of increasingly inaccurate and conflicting information, which although erroneous in content and biased in approach, nonetheless fostered a groundswell of public opinion that not only dissuaded a generation that fish was a food group to be avoided, but armed them with falsehoods about how the fishing industry per se, were addressing the problem, leading to much unfounded scaremongering.
The various representative fishermen’s bodies across the EU have met this insidious pressure head on and have put their case across in a forthright and meaningful way with overwhelming evidence both scientific and anecdotal, that change has and is happening, with huge advances being made in terms of the ongoing and resourceful management of numerous fisheries.

Until relatively recently, the different trade federations involved, have remained a little unconnected in their collective ability to counter any negative spin that has built up and therefore place themselves in better stead to meet the arguments and assertions placed in their path. Combine that with a lack of presence in the corridors of the Brussels policy-making echelons, a more cohesive partnership was sought and the embodiment of that has been the advancement of the role of Europêche.

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Europêche is the overarching and singular trade body, which represents the twelve member fishermen’s organisations, across nine of the member countries that fish commercially. Although founded in 1962 with the intention of defending the interests of its members and ensuring productive dialogue between them and the EU, its role has recently been galvanized and rejuvenated by a concerted effort to play an increasingly influential part in the proposal and adoption of policy in an already highly regulated sector. Kathryn Stack, its newly appointed Managing Director and former doyenne of EU Fisheries policy implementation, makes the case:

“For far too long the industry has had to endure the onslaught of NGO and media prevarication. Our industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the world and our members some of the most legislation-compliant. We believe in compliance, but also in innovation, progression and responsibility. One of our foremost aims is to uphold the tenets of sustainability: Environment, Social, and Economic (Planet, People, Profit), incorporate them into legislation and ensure in doing so that the views, knowledge and experience of our membership are afforded the recognition and respect from those who ultimately manufacture the policies that bind us.”

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Kathryn knows full well, from years of dealing with all the bodies involved, just how much progress has been made and continues to do so.

“There are many ongoing challenges” she elaborates, “apart from the sustainability element, food security, sound decision making from peer-reviewed science, progressive safety at sea, continued development training for our members and provision for succession, all help us to implement best practice. Moreover, we know that out there is a fish-loving populous that’s consuming an average of nearly 25.5kgs per capita across our member countries.”

These revealing statistics are part of the Europêche drive to establish far greater and more positive consumer engagement and mainstream understanding of current practice and doctrine.

“We commissioned a pan-European survey,” she continues, “to ascertain exactly where consumer attitudes lie in respect of our industry, its practices and objectives and the dietary importance of fish and the significance of the accompanying health benefits, in a society where wellbeing is of paramount importance.”

The resultant statistics revealed an enormous appetite amongst EU dwellers, not only for the fish they were buying and consuming, but also for information, born out of a desire to extend their knowledge of its provenance beyond that of the fishmonger’s slab or supermarket shelf.

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68% of consumers in the poll, revealed, that knowledge of where and how the fish was caught and by whom, is of significant importance. A further 54% attested that knowing a species was fully sustainable and responsibly fished, would influence their decision to purchase. Furthermore, a staggering 86.4%, in the UK alone, regarded the need for increased Government support for the fishing industry, as vital, in maintaining a healthy and well-managed supply of fresh seafood.

“We took these figures (and many more) from our findings”, Stack expounds. “From what we saw, it was obvious that there was a statistical need for improved consumer engagement and knowledge transfer. The survey showed a clear recognition by Europeans of the importance of our industry not just for food but as part of the wider economy”
Thus was born iFish.

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Essentially a consumer-facing information portal, iFish seeks to focus on the realities of the European fishing industry, slicing through the bunkum of myth, discarding the offal of misinformation and leaving only the prime facts available for consumption.

Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the UK’s National Federation of Fishermens’ Organisations (NFFO) and a Vice President of Europêche, regards iFish as a natural response to the considerable dearth of critical information, lately available to the average fish-consuming European.

“The public domain has been swamped with inaccuracies about the fishing industry for far too long. Our technological development in recent years coupled with the management systems we, as fishermen, have implemented, has seen us make huge advances in the way our industry operates now.” he asserts.

“But it doesn’t stop there. The consumer needs to also understand that the days of archaic, top-down prescriptive and sweeping, blanket-legislation from Brussels are over. For our fisheries to be managed correctly, decentralisation and more regionalisation, has to happen, so policy makers can work alongside fishermen to implement a framework that is not only flexible in its approach but local in its governance.”

“Fishermen are able to react very quickly to circumstance and opportunity. That means real-time data being acted on in a timely way and not accompanied by the lag we’ve seen in recent years. Fishermen need to be consulted at every opportunity and we need to see more decisions being made in the wheelhouse.”

So what next? Our desire for abundant seafood has placed undoubted strain on stocks in the past, but both Barrie and Kathryn are at pains to illustrate, that with the increasing number of commercial species, reaching MSY and improved education for consumers high on the agenda, a bright future lies ahead for the fisheries of the EU.

Barrie continues: “With the reduction in effort that we’ve seen due to the recovery of stocks and hopefully more localised roadmaps produced for better fishery management, our members should be able to fish with confidence for generations to come.”

This all certainly rings true for Peterhead fisherman Jimmy Buchan. Having faced the bleak and dispiriting prospect of decommissioning his vessel five years ago, he decided to alter course, in a supreme effort to be able to continue with what he knows best. A major refit of his boat (Amity II) ensued, with investment in every aspect of her function. Everything was scrutinized, from fuel efficiency, crew safety and training, to gear function and navigation technology, culminating in a modern workhorse of a boat equipped handsomely for life on the waters of the North Sea for the next 20 years.

“I just felt I had to invest,” he stresses. “With the fishing as good as it has been for many years, we, the skippers, merchants and processors, know full well there’s a future for our industry, which if managed correctly, will ensure quality fish continue to be landed around our coasts. Many of us are now engaged in live data recording aboard our vessels with CCTV and electronic monitoring of everything we do. We embrace it happily because we know it’s part of the overall sustainability for which we strive.”

It’s clear that Jimmy Buchan is not alone. All around the coast of the UK from Peterhead to Newlyn, fishermen are adopting these measures and are massively keen to interface with society on the future of fishing.

From the deep-water vessels, to the inshore artisanal boats, all are integral to the economic fabric and overall demographic of coastal communities and their dependents. Large or small, both types continue to coexist, as they carry out essentially the same function i.e. the hunting of wild food.

iFish is there to inform, to educate, to reassure and to enthuse. It aims to deliver a message of confidence, whilst excluding and filtering out the sensationalist background narrative that confuses and confounds.

Last words go to the Europêche President, Javier Garat, who sums up in definitive tone, the need for confidence in the future of an industry worth over seven billion Euros, in landings alone.

“There is a need throughout Europe for consumers to have a clearer idea of how the fish they eat is caught, the fishermen and the vessels behind the catch. Fishermen take their role as stewards of the sea incredibly seriously. There is no one more determined than the fishermen themselves, to see healthy and sustainable stocks. The EU sector is leading the way in innovative technology and gear development and is taking part in a huge number of projects to improve catches, enhance monitoring and compliance and participate in voluntary oceanic cleanup. This proactive approach and total commitment to responsible fishing must filter down to the public, so they can see for themselves all the hard work and success the sector has achieved over the last few years.”

Mike Warner

Originally appeared on EASTCOASTAVOCET