French sardine fishery looks to future


Lindsey Partos, SeafoodSource contributing editor, reporting from Paris

Published on
July 1, 2012

Editor’s note: The following is SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Lindsey Partos’ account of her recent trip aboard a French sardine purse seiner.

In collaboration with Parisian cookery school Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi, the European branch of non-profit organization SeaWeb launched a French sustainable seafood culinary competition in 2011. 

Prize winners Damien Regnier and Marie Lebigot achieved the opportunity to experience first hand a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified sardine fishery in South Brittany, France. Last week, SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Lindsey Partos shadowed the prize winners as they spent a night on the open seas.

26 June, 10 p.m.: I leave the port of Saint-Guénolé in southern Brittany aboard the 15.64-meter long Stereden Al Moor, owned and captained by Yvan Le Lay, president of the Association des Bolincheurs de Bretagne.

On the “bolinche,” the local name for the sardine purse seiner, are six fishermen, ranging in age from 20 to 50. French law stipulates that fishermen can retire after 37 years of work. Many of those on board started working as a fisherman while a teenager. 

After leaving the harbor and venturing into the open seas, Yvan Le Lay explains to SeafoodSource the reasons behind the drive to acquire the MSC eco-label. “The primary motivation for the MSC label is to help secure current, and in particular, future markets,” he said. “Prior to acquiring the eco-label, the fishery was already driven by sustainability and fulfilled much of the criteria.”

Future markets are a key concern for the fishermen here. While today the market is buoyant, with strong demand and a resilient price point — currently around EUR 0.50 per kilogram — the sardine purse seiners feel a clear responsibility to prepare for the future.

Says Le Lay, “Demand today is strong, particularly from Japan, and tons of sardines are frequently purchased directly onboard the purse seiner, even before the MSC boats hit the quayside. But we want to look to the future, and ensure we support the fishery for the next generation of fishermen.”

27 June, 1 a.m.: Using sonar technology, the captain estimates the position of the sardine, calling out to the men on board to let out the seine when the moment is right. The captain then guides the boat in a circle, helping to pull the seine around the sardines’ shoal. 

Once encircled, and with the seine pulled tight at the bottom, the men arduously and rhythmically haul the net on board, in a diminishing circle. Eventually, a mechanical net on board the boat reaches into the “diminished circle,” scoops up thousands of sardines in the sea and deposits them in the boat’s refrigerated hold.  

Intermittently during the calm yet foggy night, the Stereden Al Moor hauls in two more sardine catches, adding up to a total of six tons. “This is a disappointing quantity for the time of the year; we expect more,” says the captain.

In terms of quality and quantity, the most opportune time for these seiners is from June to September. “The fish have a high ratio of fat during this period,” adds Le Lay. Although distributed virtually throughout the year, 85 to 92 percent of catches are landed from May to October. 

In fact, the 27 boats licensed for the MSC sardine purse seine fishery have a daily cap of 20 tons for the target species, Sardina pilchardus pilchardus. 

Observing a daily catch cap, which helps maintain stocks, is one of the key requirements for environmentally responsible fishing defined by the eco-label.

According to Le Lay, the fishery catches less than 5 percent of the total sardine biomass for the area, which stretches from the southern Bay of Biscay to the North Sea and the English Channel, excluding the Mediterranean Sea.

The South Brittany purse seine fishery is separated into two stock units distributed from Gibraltar to the North of Spain (Southern Atlantic sardine), and from the South of the Bay of Biscay to the North Sea and the English Channel (northern Atlantic sardine). 

Essential criteria for the eco-label also includes selective fishing, in this case the purse seine method, and the use of modestly sized boats (all boats come in under 17 meters long, except one that’s 19 meters). On-board independent observers to assess the ecological impact of the fishery also figure in the criteria list.

27 June, 8 a.m.: After a long night and a lower-than-expected catch, the Stereden Al Moor motors into the small port of Saint-Guénolé, home to a swathe of “bolincheurs” boats. About 6 tons of sardines are quickly and effortlessly lifted by a mechanized pick-up from the hold to iced crates on the quay, before being whisked into the harbor-side hangar for an immediate electronic auction. Supermarkets and wholesalers will purchase a large majority of the catch.

South Brittany’s purse seiners’ annual sardine catch data has risen in recent years, from 11,000 tons in 2006 to more than 16,000 tonn in 2008. Although sardines represent almost 90 percent of annual catches, more than 95 percent of catches between May and October are carried out by purse seiners  Other species are also caught, including: horse mackerel, mulet, mackerel, black bream, yellow mackerel, bass and sea bream. 

The assessment of South Brittany’s purse seine sardine was undertaken by third-party organization, Bureau Veritas. Click here to download a PDF of the final report > 

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