The rise of the ethical fish business

Published on
August 6, 2018

Sole of Discretion, set up by Caroline Bennett two years ago in Plymouth, in the United Kingdom, is part of a growing and successful trend for ethical fishmongers selling direct from the boat. 

Bennett, a pioneer who started Moshi Moshi, London’s first rotating sushi restaurant nearly 25 years ago, said her new project stemmed from her desire to source better and fresher seafood. 

“It was inspired by E.F. Schumaker’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ book and a visit to a Slow Food festival, where I networked with many small-scale producers and realised what might be possible. I undertook a successful crowdfunding campaign and was the beneficiary of a generous bank loan  to make it a reality,” she told SeafoodSource.

Bennett had long wanted to do something that helped other people, in addition to ensuring the fish and shellfish she ate and sold were caught with as little damage to the marine environment as possible. Setting up a Community Interest Company, with shares owned by fishermen, provided the answer. 

“It is difficult for a single fisherman to make an impact in the marketplace, but collectively they are able to differentiate their product and provide continuity of supply,” Bennett said.

Running the company on altruistic lines, Bennett is pleased to contribute to the livelihood of small-scale fishers and their communities.

“I believe that it is really important to keep the skills of inshore small-scale fishers intact, and that by guaranteeing them a fair price and supporting sustainable fishing practices, we are safeguarding the productive future of our seas,” she said. “The population of small-scale fishers in the U.K. has fallen to around 2,500 today, down from 10,000 just 10 years ago, and the average age of a fisher is now in the mid-50s. Without adequate hope for a sustainable future, they won’t be replaced by a younger generation and their knowledge will be lost forever.” 

As with any bright idea, Bennett explained that the reality is never easy, but she is gradually building up the business. She said she has a growing list of independent farm shops, organic suppliers, restaurants, and home delivery customers in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe who appreciate quality seafood.

Sole of Discretion’s fish is only caught from owner-operated day-boats measuring under 10 meters in length, which use static-gill and trammel nets, handlines, traps, and mid-water trawls for shoaling species such as sardines or herring. 

Bennett said she hasn’t ruled out buying from bottom-trawlers using lightweight gear, but thus far has not gone down that route.

Fishermen ice the catch at sea and have direct access to a refrigerated store at the quayside processing unit to land their catch. They message Bennett with details in advance, which ensures that her five part-time staff know what volumes they will be processing the following day. 

“We take whatever our fishermen land, but love less-popular species including pouting, wrasse, ling, and dogfish. By filleting the fish and packing it into consumer-ready packs, we can get a better return for the fishermen than they would receive for the same whole fish sold on the market auction next door,” Bennett said.

Fish is also sent to a secondary processor just over the border in Cornwall, who produces added-value fish pies, fish cakes, and breaded goujons under the Sole of Discretion label. 

Around 30 percentof the fish is sold fresh, with the remainder blast-frozen and stored locally to help smooth out supply variations. 

One of the latest boats to sign up is “No More,” fishing out of Weymouth, owned by Nick Fisher and Jamie Macdonald, and skippered by Nick Rich.

“Caroline’s enthusiasm for all British fish and small boat inshore fisheries is exactly what the industry currently needs – a little love and affection,” Fisher said. “With Brexit there’s a lot of angst and head banging, but what Caroline brings is a passion for our fish and especially some of those forgotten and undervalued species which are prized in the rest of Europe, but are often used as pot bait at home.”

Bennett, a winner of numerous awards for environmental stewardship, is now working with academics and students from the University of Exeter to research the environmental impact of fishing. A project led by Steve Simpson, an associate professor in marine biology and global change, is hoping to work towards a more positive future for fisheries in 2050 by developing an alternative to traditional fishing that rewards fishermen for being environmentally sensitive, Bennett said.

“As climate change becomes more evident and the burden on the planet of a growing, richer, global population is more keenly felt in competition for natural resources, there has to be a better way of taking fish out of our seas that limits damage to the marine ecosystem,” Bennett said. “I am frustrated by well-intentioned NGOs who insist that the solution is to remove species from my restaurant menu, rather than focusing on the ecosystem as a whole. Sole of Discretion pledges to turn all the catch into products for human consumption and to waste nothing. I believe that nature will balance itself out far more efficiently than we can ever dream of, given half a chance, and lower-impact fishing is one big step to help it  get there.”

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