Monty Halls

The same Community Supported Fishery (CSF) initiative that has revolutionized struggling U.S. small boat fisheries could deliver a desperately needed shot in the arm to the United Kingdom’s beleaguered inshore fishermen, according to writer, explorer and TV presenter Monty Halls.

Speaking at the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Annual General Meeting in London last week, Halls reflected on his eight-month experience creating the hit six-part BBC TV series, "The Fisherman's Apprentice with Monty Halls," which first aired on U.K. screens in February.

For the show, Halls moved to the small, traditional Cornish fishing village of Cadgwith to learn how to live and work as a small-boat fisherman. He revealed that as a marine biologist he went into the experience with the conception that all fishermen were overfishing, greedy and having a detrimental impact on the oceans. But when he left, he felt that maybe the conservationists, himself included, had got it wrong.

“Every fisherman I met was extremely hardworking and every boat I worked on wanted a sustainable way forward,” said Halls. “I felt their story was an important one to tell; they could be the last generation of fishermen — the average age of a U.K. fisherman is 49 and there isn’t another generation coming through.”

Through the show, Halls wanted to learn why the small boats are in the trouble that they are in; in his words “heading to oblivion,” particularly when the quality of the catch from thee vessels is universally agreed to be superior to that of trawled fish.

Part of the problem is the British public has fallen out of love with its own seafood, assessed Halls. “Spider crab is one of the sweetest, best-tasting crabs in the world but we export 95 percent of the crab we catch in this country. There’s a big logistics chain in place. Meanwhile, we import 70 to 80 percent of the fish that we eat.

“We are losing that link with our fishermen and they are losing income. The average annual salary of a Cornish small-boat fisherman is just GBP 15,000 (EUR 18,610/USD 24,280), so they are not doing it for the money.”

Halls’ epiphany moment came when he visited the United States, specifically Gloucester, Mass., and Port Clyde, Maine, to learn about CSFs, which were first set up in Port Clyde in 2009 and are now in existence in 24 U.S. towns and cities.

“We had heard of these fisheries that had turned it 'round sustainably by fostering a direct link between the boats and the local community. Their small-boat fishing industries had been dying out, much in the same way as in Britain.”

In a nutshell, a CSF sees local people support their local fleet by paying a lump sum upfront to get fresh fish once a week for a set period of time. In the case of Port Clyde it’s three months. Crucially, this process means fishermen benefit from having a lump sum at the start of a season to help budget and use as part of income.

The price is fixed ahead of the subscription period and the fish are collected by the subscriber from a central distribution point. In Port Clyde, 200 people signed up to the CSF, paying USD 360 (EUR 276) each, which provided USD 72,000 (EUR 55,175) to four boats.

“It’s sustainable because the boats go out catching whatever is going past; you don’t say I want a cod and a bass, but that in itself creates a dialogue between the fishermen and the customer — conversations about what the fish is and how to cook it — and very quickly you have a relationship,” said Halls.

A further result of this initiative was that seafood products achieved a greater value. Shrimp, for example, quickly went from 50 cents per pound to USD 3 (EUR 2.30) per pound.

Also at Port Clyde, Halls learned how the local lobster industry had strengthened since control of the fishery was handed over to the fishermen in 1997. It now comprises seven councils made up of elected fishermen “ruthlessly policing” seven districts. There’s now a limit on pots, as all pots must be tagged and a large lobster throwback initiative is in place. Furthermore, two boats have to leave the business for one new license to be issued.

“Since 1997, it has become the most successful lobster fishery in the world,” he remarked.

As part of the TV series, Halls trialed a CSF concept in the Cornish town of Helston using fish landed in Cadgwith and he said the locals “became very excited” by the project and what was swimming around in their inshore waters.

“It was about selling whatever happened to be around, seasonally, in those waters at that time. That’s key to this kind of project and I was energized by the results.”

Halls revealed a number of fisheries agencies and NGOs have since been in touch. Retailers Co-op and Spar have expressed a keen interest in CSF-style projects. A conference is now being planned for January 2013 to get these stakeholders around the table along with fishing communities and he said he’s “now truly optimistic” about the potential CSFs could have in the UK.

“This is something I want to get involved in,” he said. “It’s one way we can fish sustainably and make sure the boats stay in business; we don’t want to lose our small boat fleet or those communities.”

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