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A Tale of Exploring Sustainable Seafood in the North of England

This article delves into the complexities of sustainable seafood choices in northern England, highlighting:

  • Challenges such as limited labeling information and the discrepancy between certification standards and fishing practices
  • The decline of traditional white fish stocks and the environmental impact of trawling
  • Efforts by organizations to promote sustainable fishing methods, the role of Marine Protected Areas, and successful conservation initiatives
  • The importance of consumer awareness and responsible purchasing decisions in driving positive change in the seafood industry

“Hi, I’d like to buy some fish using this app, the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS)  Good Fish Guide. It explains how to make sustainable seafood choices based on where the fish comes from, the species and how it was caught. Have you heard of it?”

— I ask the buyer for Northumberland Seafood Centre. “No! I’m not interested, I’ve never heard of it and don’t care!”— he grunts, then adds “There’s nothing sustainable here because the only sustainable fish is farmed”.

The seabass, bream, and salmon on display behind the counter are farmed in Spain, Greece, Turkey and Scotland. Despite the website’s useful information on locally available, seasonal species, the labels with the fish on display only tell me the common name of the fish. I therefore can’t decide if the fish here is sustainable or not. So I don’t buy any. 

What is Sustainable Fish?

Only farmed animals can be classed as organic. For wild-caught fish, the term is “sustainable”. EU legislation defines a sustainable fishery as “the exploitation of a stock in such a way that the future exploitation of the stock will not be prejudiced and that it does not have a negative impact on the marine eco-systems”. Ideally, the definition would include buying seasonal and local. This would minimise transport emissions and protect small businesses. In practice, however, “sustainable” certifications are heavily skewed towards maintaining numbers of the target species, over collateral damage to the environment.

Damaging fishing techniques like trawling are the most commonly used type of fishing in the UK. Trawlers often operate in Marine Protected Areas, where they tow heavy nets with metal doors across the bottom, ripping up the seabed ecosystem. — Yet these fisheries are still certified as sustainable, by organizations as influential as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Despite the definitions, apps and certifications, untangling the best seafood choice is not easy: as I discovered on a week’s tour around the northeast of England.

Supermarkets, Apps and Labelling 

After drawing a blank at the Northumberland Seafood Centre, I decided to give the Good Fish Guide app on my phone another go, and head to Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets. The guide’s sustainability ratings are based on fisheries assessments done by government bodies CEFAS and ICES. Like many nowadays, these supermarkets don’t have a fresh fish counter – so, with nobody watching, I don’t feel uncomfortable working out the fish provenance from the labels.

Current EU and UK laws for the sale of fish state that labels must specify the species’ scientific name, method and origin of capture. I find Salmo salar (salmon) “raised in Norway or Scotland”. This means farmed, in either of those countries. I find “P. vannamei, Vietnam”, or prawns. 

I try a household favourite, “Scottish hot-smoked mackerel, Scomber scombrus, responsibly sourced from either purse seine or mackerel trawl in the northeast Atlantic”, or FAO 27. In this case, the origin of the fish is potentially vast: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) divides fishing areas into large zones and number 27 stretches from Norway to the south of Iceland to the Azores. I check the app and it tells me that most mackerel sold in the UK is overfished, but the best choice would be that caught in the southwest of the UK using hook and line. Despite being trawled in an enormous area, the supermarket label still states it’s responsibly sourced. I have no way of knowing exactly where it was from.

As another example, Waitrose smoked haddock fishcakes are Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – certified. As a processed product (because they’re breaded), they are not held to the labelling information requirements above. It is only for unprocessed fish that the law requires the scientific name, origin and method of capture. This means all I have to base my decision on is the species name and the blue MSC ecolabel.

The label reassures customers that the product comes from well-managed and sustainable fisheries. This certifying body now accounts for around 17% of the world’s fisheries, with some companies, like McDonald’s exclusively selling their products. However, MSC was the subject of much controversy when it was found that most of their certified fisheries use enormous industrial trawlers and dredges. Furthermore, the MSC-certified smoked haddock from the example above is caught using bottom trawlers which carry an associated “unsustainable bycatch of golden redfish, which is of significant concern”. Thus, “sustainable” only refers to the target species, and if the number of those is high enough to avoid a fishery collapse. 

The app contains a wealth of useful information, and I spend 40 minutes investigating which fish would be the best choice — but am limited by the precision of the product labelling. Again, I don’t buy anything.

Buying Fish at North Shields Fishing Quay 

I try again further south. Most of the fish and shellfish landed in the UK are exported, whilst what we eat is imported. Thus, eating British-caught fish is unlikely unless bought at the quaysides, and even then, it could have been fished hundreds of miles away. Established in the 13th Century, North Shields has been a thriving fishing community for hundreds of years. It is also my local fishing quay. By the turn of the 20th Century, at the height of the summer herring runs, up to 300 boats a day landed their haul here. Between 6 and 12000 workers were employed at any one time. They travelled from afar to fillet the herring well into the 50s. Fishing in Europe has up until recently been a largely unregulated free for all. Drifter boats fishing out of North Shields caught the herring mid-water with large nets, while trawlers targeted the bottom for cod, haddock and plaice.

Unfortunately, The white fish industry here collapsed after WW2. This was due to changes in fishing gear and technology that exacerbated already chronic overfishing. For example, the introduction of fish-finding sonars, and nets with smaller holes that were made from stronger synthetic materials. The development of the railway also increased demand from people living inland. Data on landings per unit effort show a decline of 94% of populations of local species of fish since 1889. Today, I count 17 bottom trawlers, otter doors hanging at the rear, and two cobles; traditional wooden fishing boats, used for lower-impact lobster and crab pot fishing. 

I sit in a hut with a bunch of fishermen, on plastic chairs set around an old engine atop an oil drum. It turns out that my local seabed off the coast of Northumberland is now mostly mud.

It would have once been rich in oyster beds, and highly-structured bottom communities. Nearly everyone on this stretch of the coast nowadays uses bottom trawlers to fish for prawns. These are processed abroad and sold back here as scampi. The rest of our fishing industry is made up of pot-caught lobster and brown crab. The industry has largely shifted to shellfish now there are not many white fish left. Furthermore, the weary men tell me that one huge industrial trawler can buy up the quota of many smaller trawlers so that they cannot fish. If the fishermen do land any white fish, such as cod or codling, this is caught as a bycatch in the prawn trawlers.

They also tell me that warming seas are causing some fish to head further north. But that they hope new species, like squid, will migrate from the south to these waters -— and could become a new fishery that would keep them and their families in work.

I go over the road to the fishmongers, the last place to smoke their kippers here, out of around 50 smokehouses in the heyday. They have cod and codling on display. I know from the Good Fish Guide that cod in the North Sea is struggling to recover and is listed as a fish to avoid. The guys explain that fish landed in North Shields will be sold at auction as a lot, all together in a box. Thus, it is hard to say where and how it was caught. Therefore, without this information on display, for the average fish consumer, it is still impossible to make the best choice.

I try a different shop and find king scallops. The most sustainable scallops are those hand-picked by divers. The assistant can only tell me that it says “Atlantic” on the box, so I don’t buy them either because they usually are caught in dredges which harm the seabed.

A History of Trawling the North Sea

Trawlers drag heavy nets over the seabed, using a lot of diesel in the process. Intensive mechanized trawling in the North Sea began over a century ago, with 1752 steam trawlers registered in European North Sea ports by 1906. The mouth of trawl nets uproots target and non-target organisms and flicks them into the net, altering the habitat as it goes. Muddy sediments in the North Sea are less damaged by trawling than complex structural habitats like coral reefs or seabed meadows. Nevertheless, chronically trawled areas of the North Sea show altered species composition, with more smaller animals than in un-trawled areas, and less habitat for juvenile fish to use as nurseries. While all types of fishing gear have unwanted impacts on other species, trawling is the least sustainable method of fishing — because of the damage both to non-target species and to the environment.

With European fisheries severely depleted, there is now no denying that change has to happen. And it can: ocean conservation advocate group OCEANA has recently released a report identifying alternative gears for each trawl fishery. These could be used to transition away from bottom-impacting gear altogether -— towards low-impact and low-carbon fisheries. What’s more, small-scale fishermen platform Low-Impact Fisheries of Europe, (LIFE), is working on a label that will empower consumers to differentiate between produce sourced from industrial fishing and from fisheries that cause less environmental and social damage. 

Marine Protected Areas and Fisheries Management Decisions 

Confused about the extent of trawling in Marine Protected Areas, I drive up to Blyth to talk to the Northumberland Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NIFCA). This government body is responsible for waters covering six nautical miles seaward from the River Tyne to the Scottish border. Within their remit are two Marine Conservation Zones, designated to protect eider ducks and sub-tidal habitats. Yet, fishermen with vessels under 12m can apply for an exemption and trawl these waters, potentially damaging the seabed.

NIFCA staff assess the impacts of bottom-towed gear (trawling) on the protected features and decide whether to manage or stop trawling in the region altogether, the latter being by far the easiest option, I’m told. However, to protect the seabed as well as fishermen’s livelihoods short term, compromises are made. In this case, rubber disks called rockhoppers that line the bottom mouth of the open net have been limited to a maximum diameter of 70mm. In this way, the nets bounce off the bottom reducing damage to seabed communities, but also limiting the fisherman to where he can trawl because larger bottom features would still snag the net. The officer stresses that sustainable fisheries are about protecting local communities as much as the marine environment. Furthermore, management actions that force fishermen to fish elsewhere may actually be more damaging in the longer term

“Fishermen want better management”

— Says Charlotte Coombes of the MCS. To this end, NIFCA officers regularly assess the populations of lobsters and brown crabs caught in pots off the coast of Northumberland. They started the voluntary v-notch lobster scheme in 2000, marking females with eggs (berried hens) by cutting a part of their tail so that they can’t be taken from the sea, but will continue to reproduce unhindered. This programme was superseded in 2017 by national legislation; the landing prohibition of berried hen lobsters.  NIFCA data show that landings per unit effort, or kilos of lobster caught per 100 pots have been stable since 2011. Thus, this is a successful case of fishermen, scientists and regulators working together to protect species. As a consumer trying to buy sustainable seafood, I now know that the best local options from the North Sea would be lobster or brown crabs caught in creels or pots. This type of fishing is more selective so has low bycatch, or catch of species other than that targeted, has stable populations, and doesn’t damage the seabed as much as trawled fisheries.

Online Shopping

In the end, for white fish, I buy online with Plymouth-based company Sole of Discretion. They sell an array of British species not normally available in supermarkets, like wrasse. Diversifying consumer choice helps relieve pressure on the overfished species such as cod, tuna and salmon. The fish are caught by small-scale local fishermen and are mostly not from trawlers. These people fish in small boats near home, so my purchase is supporting local communities. 

In my experience in the northeast of England, the fishmongers I approached wanted to sell me “fresh fish”. However, environmental damage and social inequality linked to unsustainable fishing are increasingly considered by consumers. Thus, despite many examples of certification schemes misleading customers, awareness is increasing. I still believe our buying choices have the power to influence markets and policymakers. 

The article was written by Rachael Adams, freelance journalist specialising in farming and aquaculture.