Know your fish

The man who brought organic values to wild fishing says seafood can be sustainable

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 3 September 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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This article first appeared in our ‘Why organic is the answer’ issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 03 September 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

A number of reports have exposed the dark side of fishing, often suggesting we should all stop eating seafood.

Seaspiracy revealed over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every single year as ‘by-catch’ – the collateral damage caused by industrial fishing.

Plastic pollution is another problem; ‘ghost gear’ – lost fishing gear, mostly plastic – adds around 1 million tonnes of waste to the ocean each year.

Abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) causes 70% of marine animal entanglements and can be linked to 30% of some fish species’ decline.

For Charles Redfern, founder of Fish4Ever, the version of sustainable fishing that most companies and many organisations support is far too weak, as Seaspiracy argued.

But he says the documentary went on to conflate two very different moral issues: the issue of sustainability and the issue of eating – and therefore killing – animals.

For Charles, the idea there is no such thing as sustainable fishing is a falsehood that badly lets down many campaigning organisations and experts, some of whom were featured in the film, and the hundreds of thousands of small-scale fisheries that rely on fishing for food and income.

If we tar everyone with the same brush, Charles argues, we do a huge disservice to those who are trying to make a difference.

‘3 billion people in the world depend on fish as their primary source of protein’, Charles tells us. ‘That’s a huge percentage of the global population of just under 8 billion. When fished sustainably – which in theory is possible – fish self-renew, making them an infinitely renewable resource.’

What is sustainable fishing?

We can’t untangle the notion of sustainable fishing without first asking who’s responsible for its definition.

The mainstream marker of sustainable wild fish is currently enshrined in the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC’s) blue tick.

Tuna is an iconic species in the world of fishing sustainability and in terms of volumes one of the top three fish species caught globally. ‘When we started’, Charles remembers, ‘every can in the world had a dolphin friendly label. By and large it’s a con.’

The practice of ‘setting on’ dolphins was only really used off the coast of Mexico when fishing for yellowfin tuna. This represented less than 2% of the total tuna caught, and in the UK canned tuna is skipjack, not yellowfin.

‘The logo might as well be on chocolate’, Charles tells us; ‘it’s completely irrelevant.’

What is relevant is how the industry has changed since the 1960s; total annual catch is five times larger, and we use bigger boats and more sophisticated methods.

Huge quantities of tuna – as well as endangered species such as turtles, whales, sharks, other fish species and a vast number of juvenile tuna – are caught in gigantic purse seine nets the size of football pitches.

‘Back then it was dolphin friendly’, Charles tells us, ‘now it’s MSC. 30% of the world’s tuna catch is now blue tick certified – with a further 20% under assessment. But it’s caught using the same boats, the same ownership and the same fishing methods that have been criticised over the last 20 years.’

Fishing by and large is predicated on the concept of maximum sustainable yields (MSY): ‘You try to extract as much fish as you possibly can without crashing the stocks and try to row back when there are signs of overfishing’, Charles explains.

Yet with climate change, impacts on ecosystems and the notoriously complicated nature of modelling stock behaviour, fishing at MSY is no guarantee of sustainability.

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In all discussions of sustainable fishing, the people doing the fishing are hugely important. ‘We believe in a fishing system that values the fishers and protects traditional coastal communities’, Charles says. ‘For us it’s their resource and they should have prior access. With tuna we saw more powerful nations basically appropriating a resource that by right should belong to others.’

Charles feels that the focus on MSY shifts attention away from fishing methods; ‘The MSC is proud to declare that it basically allows all methods’, Charles says, ‘yet it is clear that not all methods have the same impact or potential impact on other species or the ecosystem. We should be saying that only methods with as close to zero by-catch as possible are acceptable, especially given the huge decline in many species.’

Concentrating on yields also ignores the crucial ‘who’ of fishing; ‘95% of that MSC tuna is caught by industrial vessels’, Charles tells us, ‘fishing far from home.’

Organic values in fishing

Fish4Ever was founded with a ‘land-sea-people’ approach, and brought organic values to wild fishing. ‘This is our signature approach’, Charles explains; ‘we look at the problem as a whole.’

Fish4Ever visits all its suppliers in person, gets to know them and focuses on long-term relationships. It’s the opposite of price-based transactional trade.

For Charles, keeping supply chains short, knowing your sources and buying for the story rather than the price is the most effective way to achieve sustainability.

The company is strict on methods and on traceability; it pioneered a code that provides full back-to-the-boat visibility on each can, allowing shoppers to see detailed information on the fishers and the fishery.

Beyond this, it’s Fish4Ever’s integration of the social aspect of sustainability that really stands out. The company refuses long-distance water fleets and ‘flags of convenience’ – when a boat is registered in a no-questions-asked jurisdiction.

Fish4Ever boats are managed where the fish are caught; they land to a local port, ideally locally owned and under the close supervision of the local fishing authorities.

‘All this means we are anchored in the community and support positive developments’, says Charles. ‘Using organic ingredients adds another layer of responsible management in the factory itself’.

For Charles there is nothing wrong with industrial fishing per se; in some places he concedes it is the right option. ‘Where the economies are advanced and the resource is far away from the coast, sometimes in choppier seas – if the stock is managed and has not historically been accessed by others and the method used is highly targeted, then industrial boats are a good answer’, he says. ‘In some cases bigger boats mean better facilities for the fishers, too, so you need to take a case-by-case view.’

Sustainable fishing projects

Fish4Ever pioneered sustainable canned fish more than 20 years ago and has campaigned on the subject since the start, from action on marine parks to supporting slow foods. The company is currently involved with several new projects, including a pilot project in Morocco for fairly traded sardines and the Make Stewardship Count advocacy group.

In the Azores, it has arranged the first tuna certification by Naturland, a German organic certifier with a wild fish standard.

Fish4Ever is also sponsoring a plastic-positive project incentivising small-scale tuna fishers to collect discarded nets. The gear will be weighed in the ports where the fish is landed and disposed of safely.

‘Our values-based approach – from the way the fish is caught and the care in the process to the ingredients we add – means we are selling really delicious products’, says Charles. ‘Canned fish is terribly underrated; it’s healthy, very convenient and easy to turn into a quick and tasty meal.’

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