By Jason Holland, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from London
Published on 29 November, 2012
Britain’s seafood industry can be proud of the great strides it has made over the last 40 years in managing its resources, particularly in the way that it has created a “fresh-thinking” environment that incorporates multi-stakeholder consensus, according to Phil MacMullen, head of environment at the U.K. Sea Fish Industry Authority (Seafish).
Speaking at the 4th annual Billingsgate School Sustainable Fish & Shellfish Awards, held at London’s Billingsgate Fish Market, MacMullen, a Seafish veteran of more than 35 years, said that despite many reports to the contrary, such as the erroneous U.K. Sunday Times headline that the North Sea had only 100 adult cod remaining, the country and several other nations had done “remarkably well” in balancing conservation and stock exploitation.
“The U.K. can be proud of itself in probably leading the world in progressive thinking and actions from the fishing side as well in producing conservation measures,” said MacMullen. “We are doing well. If you take the Marine Management Organization’s (MMO) figures of U.K. landings from sustainable sources, it reckons that by volume we are now looking at 70 percent. That’s a remarkable figure.
“We have come to the stage where we know how to manage fisheries better. And if we are looking at sustainability and sustainable seafood, we have a whole set of values that we can run through and revisit every time we look to find good practice and best practice.
“We’ve actually gone through a lot of problems and we’ve come out the other end with a very healthy and flourishing seafood industry.”
It could have quite easily gone the other way, however. The United Kingdom completely rebuilt its fishing fleet in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, throughout the North East Atlantic, gadoid-type fish stocks were at unprecedented levels and the people who designed the capacity of the new fleet built it to match what they thought was going to be this everlasting high biomass of gadoid species.
There was also what could be regarded as a second industrial revolution – there had already been the transition from sail to motor propulsion, but with hi-tech fish locating equipment, the fishing sector became much more efficient for the next couple of decades.
“We know now that [the fishing] wasn’t to last,” said MacMullen. “We had built in a huge overcapacity from which we suffered for a long, long time.”
As a direct result, the industry has been demonized many times along the way to establishing the current, much more environmentally sympathetic fleet, and MacMullen referenced “compelling” anti-fishing images such as the one given in 1998 by Dr. Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash., that likened trawling to clear cutting virgin forest.
“They were wrong; they overplayed it greatly, but it’s an image that’s still put out today,” said MacMullen.
He added that Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and co-author of “Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know,” tells us agriculture actually has a far greater impact on the natural environment than fisheries ever does.
“But we don’t seem to think about that.”
In line with Hilborn’s studies, MacMullen believes fisheries and seafood have a more vital role to play than agriculture in ensuring global food security amid the “exponential growth” in population.
“We can’t produce much more food from the land than we currently do, but we can keep producing a lot of seafood. While we might be under pressure to reduce our seafood production, agriculture can’t fill the gaps. And we know as people get wealthier, they eat more protein and they want more seafood,” he said.
Furthermore, he said, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projections indicate there will be a seafood production shortfall in the next few decades of between 30 and 40 million metric tons, based on current production and population growth forecasts.
“We therefore need to do better than we are; we need to recover ecosystems; completely recover fish populations; and [encourage] a lot more productivity. We have challenges to meet.”
As well as making fisheries more efficiently productive, MacMullen believes the seafood industry must raise the standard of its communication so that it can defend its reputation with “solid, incontrovertible evidence” when it’s impugned. This will also build greater trust with consumers, he said.
“People have to be able to see they are getting what they want; that it is what it says on the tin,” he said. “At the same time, the provenance of what we are selling and what consumers are being presented with is very important. If people are expressing a preference for certain types of products, caught in certain ways from certain areas, they have to know that they are getting what they want.”
The seafood sector has clearly overcome many difficulties in recent times and that should be celebrated along with the heavy universal emphasis on sustainability. But as MacMullen points out, the supply chain has many more obstacles to come.