Q&A: ‘Action before legislation’ JH


Less than two weeks ago ClientEarth unveiled its Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC), which it has tasked with taking the lead on eliminating fish discards in the U.K. seafood industry. The environmental law organization has secured the participation of many of the country’s leading brands and supermarkets, but with the market already awash with sustainability and eco-label campaigns won’t this just add to the confusion? ClientEarth'sfirst marine scientistMelissa Pritchard thinks not and tells SeafoodSource that greater clarity could be just months away. 


How did ClientEarth come to be involved in fisheries and what was the inspiration behind the SSC? 

ClientEarth is four years old and started as a group of lawyers, but today it also includes scientists and economists. In terms of our involvement in fisheries, it began when the CEO (James Thornton) said, “look at the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) - it’s the worst piece of legislation that I’ve ever seen.” As a consequence, ClientEarth teamed up with the Marine Conservation Society and together we came up with the fishing credit system as an alternative proposal for the reform of the CFP. It’s actually more like an 11-year vision whereby for it to be fully in place it would take another decade, and for that to happen certain things need to start now.  

As well as working on CFP policy, ClientEarth worked very closely with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on his Fish Fight campaign and also produced a report on seafood labeling that was issued in January this year, where we looked at 100 products in supermarkets (including brands) and found that one-in-three made environmental claims that were misleading.  

We’re very much about the integration of fisheries and environmental laws as well as data collection and usage. We came up with SSC as a means to achieve these aims without having to wait for policy. We are environmental lawyers but the way the group is focused is to take action before legislation. What quite often happens is proposed legislation doesn’t work because (1) it comes from a central office, (2) it’s not practical, (3) it’s forced upon people, or (4) it just takes too long. Whereas, voluntary codes of conduct or voluntary agreements can often turn into legislation. 

A lot of problems can be tackled by seafood companies – they have enormous leverage and the power to create change by saying, “we will only take fish if it’s caught in a certain way, using certain gear.” The coalition is essentially about harnessing that leverage. 

We will be calling upon participatory industry members and advisory members, which include government bodies like Seafish and DEFRA (U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs),as well as NGOs who have expertise in marketing, labeling and consumer work, to help the group develop and implement its code.  

SSC has some of the U.K.’s leading retail brands onboard but what of the rest of the seafood industry? 

The initial thoughts behind the coalition were had a little under a year ago and action was taken about eight months ago. It’s taken a long time to assess what could be achieved and how we should go about it, but we’ve come up with a three-phased strategy. What we’ve launched is stage 1 with the supermarkets and suppliers because they sell most of the species - they have the reputations and they are the most progressive. The next two phases will be the foodservice sector, followed by fishmeal producers and users. Eventually, we’ll have everyone that uses or produces seafood.  

Publicly we’re only two weeks old; we haven’t even had our first meeting (scheduled for May 12). In that meeting we’ll be agreeing terms of reference, timelines and strategies. It will also be an opportunity for those companies who haven’t had the chance to come to one of our presentations to learn a bit more and sign up. 


Is the SSC purely designed to give the U.K. seafood industry a more coordinated voice that can lobby for change or will there be an end-consumer focus? 

It’s for both. The hard work is undoubtedly in the B2B area and not all of that will be communicated to consumers because it may be confidential. Some of it won’t even be discussed between companies because of competition laws. And yet, the outcomes are absolutely for consumers and we will have consumer-facing programs that explain what’s being done. However, the key focus of SSC is that business can bring about change and can talk to government and improve things like data collection and the use of the data collected by businesses.  

The consumer facing level is going to be more about looking at underutilized species and those that are discarded because they don’t have a market. We’ll have a coordinated approach whereby we’ll target something like 10 species that could be marketed in two or three months. Our celebrity chef members will push these to consumers – saying “this is a really great tasting dish, go home and cook it.” Meanwhile, the supermarkets will have it on offer and the brands will sell it in a special way like breaded or with a sauce. In addition, the restaurant members, who we’ll hopefully have in the future, will also be selling it so people have the opportunity to taste it in that environment.  

It’s a bit like advertising – subconsciously you’ll be seeing it everywhere, but in a coordinated way, which is something that doesn’t happen at the moment. We’ve had Hugh’s Fish Fight, which was great, but the momentum can be quickly lost. 


There’s already a profusion of seafood sustainability programs out there. Is it possible SSC will simply add to the confusion? 

We’re completely for reducing confusion and hence we will absolutely not be creating an eco-label and we won’t be duplicating any work because so much work has already been done. We have very specific targets in the sense of wanting data on specific use of fish. SSC members will develop the codes themselves and they will agree to them. We need to raise the bar and ClientEarth is successful at achieving its targets. It will be challenging but this code of conduct will really mean something. We will have most of the supermarket chains plus the major suppliers onboard, which means we have virtually covered the entire U.K. seafood supply. 


Looking at the discards issue from the commercial fishermen’s standpoint, won’t the landing of valueless species simply exert greater pressure on their operations? 

We’ll be looking at encouraging the use of selective gear. There’s no incentive to do that in the CFP – no-one pays you anymore money to use better gear, which puts a proactive fishermen at a disadvantage to Joe Blogs who is working next to him. But if we have everybody together agreeing that they’ll pay 50 pence (EUR 0.56/USD 0.83) extra per kilo or if they state they will only take fish if fishermen use this gear – that immediately cuts out the unnecessary bycatch of undersize species.  

For the discards that we don’t want because there’s no market for them, which is about 50 percent in England and Wales and a major problem, CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) has already done a survey and has identified a number of species it believes have potential to be marketed.  

We have a problem in the UK where we focus on just five main species and then occasionally we look at one other, as has recently been the case with pollack and then gurnard. We want to try and reeducate consumers – fish is an amazing protein, unlike any other and there’s 150 different species in U.K. waters, so instead of saying, “try this one cod alternative,” we’ll say try eating 10 different fish and then link that with seasonality and show them how to prepare the fish. This will be done in a coordinated way by having these species on offer in stores.  

Obviously, we need the data on these fish but in light of the government cuts, this push needs to come from elsewhere. A potential SSC approach is to get the companies to say: “We’ll give you some money if you land that fish, but in return we need you to collect data on what you’re discarding and the fish that you’re bringing back.”  

We would be killing two birds with one stone, but we must do it in a very careful, measured way because we don’t want to create a market where there’s just one species that becomes everyone’s new favorite cod alternative.  

It might be that some fish aren’t good for supermarkets and they’re better for foodservice while others may suit stores but not on the wetfish counter but perhaps in another format. 


Will the next problem be getting the consumer sales to make this viable for the stores and brands? 

Perhaps a mistake made by the NGOs in promoting underutilized species is they’ve pushed the sustainability message, but on a consumer level better results can be gained from urging the health and cost benefits of these species. At the end of the day, if it means those “unloved” species are used then we have achieved our aim. We know it can work – one of our members, Birds Eye, used to use cod in its fish fingers but it now uses pollock and it did that by promoting the omega-3. Young’s is another that uses a variety of species. These brands all have valuable experience of being able to do that. 

Also, when companies have tried to sell underutilized species in the past often all they have done is put them on the wetfish counter, which means it’s only the very adventurous consumer that will take the plunge. What we actually need to do is be convenient – provide it in a packet, give it a sauce and tell the consumer what to do. 


Another aspect of SSC is to harmonize seafood labeling. How do you suggest this is implemented? 

The labeling is all about the consumer because we cannot have them being misled. It’s not regulated so “sustainably sourced” can mean anything you want it to. That’s what we want to change; we want a code that’s agreed to by all retailers, brands and, in the future, restaurants. The terms we’ve seen so far also include “responsibly sourced,” “responsibly farmed” and “environmentally farmed” – all widely used but they have no definition or supermarkets have their own definition. SSC is about agreeing a standard definition. Some companies might go further than others within that definition but it’s having a baseline that everybody agrees to so the consumer knows “sustainably sourced” means at least ‘X’ at all of them.  


Won’t building markets for discarded/alternative species and creating harmonized labeling take a long time to implement? 

We have our first meeting on May 12 where we will be agreeing the timeline for our aims. So far SSC members have committed to certain ambitions within an agreement document but what we have to do now is thrash out in more detail what they are and how we will achieve them. And then we will be agreeing targets for members.  

I suspect we’ll end up having different working groups for different topics and some of the targets will be quicker than others, depending on how complicated they are. With the discards utilization, there are things we can do right now, but some will take much longer and will require a great deal of strategic thinking and data collection.  

The main thing is we have to be working on all of our aims and achieving some of them before the end of 2012 and the start of the new CFP. 


Lastly, will SSC be rolled out beyond the U.K.? 

We hope the U.K. can be a pioneer of a voluntary code that can be extended to the EU and internationally and maybe that will be adopted into legislation. We have spoken to the European Commission on other aspects and have seen the CFP revision papers – we’re not convinced these things are going to happen even in the CFP reform. They’re going to look at discards, for example, but they’ve made it quite clear that it’s not going to look at discards as a result of marketing. It will only look at discards that are the result of quota species.  

One of the advantages, apart from being EU-based ourselves, is a lot of our members are European or international organizations. I would say the U.K. is the most progressive nation in seafood and that it will be more difficult rolling SSC out in Europe but we will have something that works to take forward. For those international companies, it will surely be a lot less daunting if their U.K. representative has already done it. 


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