U.K. fisheries project set to be model for worldwide sustainable inshore fishing

It is well documented that the seafood industry needs to provide more products in a sustainable manner for a fast-growing global population. Encouragingly, there’s also little doubt that it is continuing to move in the right direction. Today, many of the world’s larger fisheries are being managed much more conscientiously, while the adoption of responsible practices in aquaculture has resulted in fish farming now providing at least half of the seafood that we eat. There is, though, one sector – through lack of resources rather than lack of desire – that has largely failed to establish a sustainable footing that is recognized by the broader supply chain. That sector is the inshore fisheries.

By their nature, inshore fisheries are as complex as they are fragmented. And many are mixed fisheries, meaning there are no quick fixes. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and the recently completed third stage of the three-year Project Inshore program has shown a route through which inshore fisheries can now supply markets with additional sustainable seafood products.

Using the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) pre-assessment as a gap analysis tool, Project Inshore has looked at what best practice exists in 450 English inshore fisheries identified through a mapping process. Most importantly, it has provided independently compiled evidence-based roadmaps for each to transition toward sustainable management in the future by collectively coordinating efforts.

According to Claire Pescod, fisheries outreach manager at the MSC and chair of the Project Inshore Advisory Group, the principle behind the program provides a template that can be replicated in other regions and countries and can contribute to wider improvements in fisheries sustainability and marine conservation. Already, similar projects are underway in Sweden and Australia, and the inshore fisheries of California as well as in the Baltic and Mediterranean are showing interest.

Project Inshore is a collaborative venture undertaken by the U.K. Seafish Authority, the MSC and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB), supported with EU funding. Its efforts are driven by an advisory group, comprising a wide range of stakeholders, including companies like Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and New England Seafood. It was in part motivated by the launch of the Fish Fight campaign in 2010, led by chef and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who put out a lot of messages about sustainability and encouraged shoppers to buy alternative, underutilized species, such as dab, gurnard and brill.

At that time, MSC was conducting an annual review meeting with a number of stakeholders across the industry and one of the key topics was how it could respond to that challenge, said Toby Middleton, senior country manager for the MSC.

“The issue that retailers, brands and suppliers were facing was that it was all well and good someone saying that cod, for example, was unsustainable, but they couldn’t suddenly switch across to dab and gurnard if exactly the same questions were hanging over those fisheries,” said Middleton. “Quite rightly, there were many people in the supply chain questioning where those fisheries stood.”

Also at that time, the MSC had seen a growing number of assessments conducted on big quota, domestic stocks such as pelagic and whitefish species, but not the same level of take up from the small, inshore fisheries.

“The challenge is they’re much more fragmented and operate on a far smaller scale, so they have much less resources. They really needed some sort of external intervention to help provide economies of scale and to move forward collectively – sharing resources, expertise and financial capacity,” said Middleton. “We would never anticipate that 450 fisheries would work individually, but by breaking them down into their component parts we could understand where there was commonality on gear, seasonality, port of landing and catch.”

Supply chain visibility

The pre-assessments highlighted those fisheries that have good practice and also confirmed those that have some medium-term challenges and those with more longer-term issues.

“Our intention was not to critique – to blacklist fisheries, species or regions. It was to identify best practice and to drive a business case to attract investment and to create a common framework. This will allow the inshore industry to engage alongside other stakeholders, to establish a sustainable opportunity for these products with U.K. consumers as well as in export markets upon which they increasingly depend,” said Middleton. “It establishes where fisheries like dab and gurnard are and where they need to be taken.”

“This isn’t about a bunch of do-gooders forcing something on these fisheries, the inshore managers have been very receptive to this. It will hopefully become part of their strategy going forward and [the roadmaps] will be a very useful resource as they give a ready-made [EU] funding bid,” added Tom Pickerell, technical director at Seafish.

“This is a bona fide tool for taking a fishery that we know very little about, establishing some baseline information and using that to guide the next steps forward. It very clearly shows that by doing X to get to Y, you are going to result in an improvement – a tangible outcome,” said Pickerell.

Melissa Pritchard, corporate social responsibility manager at New England Seafood, a major seafood supplier to the U.K. retail and foodservice sectors, said there are currently just a handful of key inshore species that the company is commercially interested in and that is led by its customer base, but it is hopeful that this will change as more inshore fisheries progress.

“There is a potential for 450 different fisheries to move forward. In practice, that is nigh on impossible; it won’t happen. But the supply chain will have to navigate through that space in terms of the species that are of commercial interest to them. What this does is create visibility for all those supply chains to move forward,” said Middleton.

“With this project, everyone’s starting off at very different points and there are many different interests. I think what’s very encouraging is the leadership role that this has given English fisheries. They are now seeing projects like Project Inshore being replicated in Western Australia, they are looking at it in the Baltic and Mediterranean, and also in countries that have great fisheries management like Iceland.”

Project Inshore has a further six months to run under its current banner, but Pescod sees no reason why it cannot be followed with a second phase. In the meantime, the projects to come out of Stage Four of the program, which is now underway and where “changes are made on the water,” will be open-ended and the hope is they will lead to continued improvement, she said.


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