Q&A: ‘Action before legislation,’ part 2

Published on
May 1, 2011

In part two of a two-part interview, SeafoodSource talks to Melissa Pritchard, ClientEarth’s first marine scientist, about the new Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) and the effort to eliminate fish discards. Click here to read part one, which ran on Friday.

Holland: 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?

Pritchard: We’ll be looking at encouraging the use of selective gear. There’s no incentive to do that in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) — no one pays you any more 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 pollock 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 UK waters. So instead of saying, “tTry 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-3s. 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 the 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. The 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 12 May, 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 the SSC be rolled out beyond the UK? 

We hope the UK 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 UK 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 UK representative has already done it.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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