One step forward, two steps back

There are plenty of commendable campaigns aimed solely at driving up fish consumption, but for every positive message that’s delivered, there are twice as many negative stories undermining the good work. At the same time, consumer misinformation has become the No. 1 scourge of the seafood industry.

A case in point is the recent U.K. Sunday Times front page headline that claimed there were “only 100 adult cod left in the North Sea.” The story, because it painted a very bleak picture of the United Kingdom’s most iconic food fish, was regurgitated by many other media companies despite being factually wrong.

For the record, scientific research estimates from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) put the North Sea cod spawning stock at 21 million mature fish, which equates to around 65,000 metric tons (MT). Furthermore, the same stock has grown for six consecutive years.

Seafood industry leaders have criticized such misleading statements, while the Scottish Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead said they have been “unhelpful,” particularly when Scottish fishermen are going to great lengths to enable cod recovery. “Willfully misleading and sensational claims that selectively interpret the facts do no nothing to promote this agenda,” he said.

Unfortunately, the facts and the minister’s assurance that North Sea cod stocks are getting bigger all the time didn’t get anywhere near the same level of press coverage, and there’s little doubt consumers’ perceptions of North Sea cod fishermen and the sustainability of the product deteriorated as a result of this imbalance.

There’s further cause for industry anxiety on the horizon — this time in the form of campaigning television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Fish Fight” campaign, which will return to U.K. television screens in the New Year with a new agenda.

The original documentary series initially aired in January 2011 and brought huge public attention to the issue of European fishermen discarding unwanted fish at sea. While there were already initiatives in place geared toward minimizing the practice, Fish Fight undoubtedly took the issue mainstream and contributed to ensuring a species-by-species discard ban became a priority for the current EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform.

Fearnley-Whittingstall has revealed 2013’s Fish Fight will look at Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), also known as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world, particularly at ways in which they have benefited marine life and fish stocks. Filming for the new series has already taken place in Thailand, the Philippines and Antarctica.

Meanwhile, in a new film posted on YouTube, he is urging fishermen to give their opinion on MPAs by posting their own video messages. These may be used in the new series, he said.

Many fishermen are, however, concerned they will be portrayed in an unsavory light and their opinions will be taken out of context. It’s believed that trawling and scalloping, particularly techniques deployed by the North Sea beam trawl fleet and their effects on the seabed will come under considerable fire in the new Fish Fight.

These suspicions are not without reason. In July, Fearnley-Whittingstall and his film crew had a beam trawl and scallop dredges pulled along a beach in the South West of England to demonstrate the destruction that they can cause to sea beds.

From a seafood industry perspective, the difference between Fish Fight I and the suspected content of Fish Fight II couldn’t be bigger. The former estimated that close to 500,000 (MT) of fish was being thrown away each year by European fishermen. It informed viewers/consumers that this wasn’t happening as a result of the fishermen’s malpractice; they were told the fishermen weren’t villains, it was instead a symptom of a broken CFP — the same policy that was introduced to protect fish stocks.

Beam trawling and scalloping, on the other hand, are fishing practices that have long incurred the wrath of environmental groups for the damage that the equipment they deploy inflicts upon the seabed. They have, however, been striving to improve their sustainability credentials and their impact on marine habitats in recent years by introducing better management practices, controls and regulations as well as introducing new monitoring technology.

It should also be noted that trawling is now typically only carried out in established fishing grounds that have been dredged for generations rather than environmentally-sensitive areas. In addition, trials are being conducted with less destructive gear.

Anyone who has watched Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentaries will know he’s not averse to getting his opinion across to audiences by generating consumer outrage. The fishermen and coastal communities that are dependent upon these fisheries will therefore be hoping at the very least that the new Fish Fight is sympathetic to the improvements taking place in the sector and the sensational claims will be kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, industry responses are being prepared to address any media fallout.


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