Under the sea: can fishing ever really be sustainable?
As films and discourse continue to debate the ethics of eating seafood, Molly Codyre meets the people aiming to create a new template for a genuinely sustainable fishing industry
I’m on a boat bobbing somewhere in the middle of Tor Bay, the closest piece of land being the precipitous Orestone Rock, when a neon orange flag pops up about 50 metres away. Frazer Pugh, our captain and owner of The Hand Picked Scallop Company , navigates us over swells rolling in from the English Channel – the remnants of a storm a few days earlier – to grab the flag and haul the bag below it onto the boat.
It lands with a resounding thwack , anchored by the weight of what must be about 150 scallops that have just been hand picked by one of Pugh’s two team members, who are both underwater. No sooner has Pugh unclipped the flag when another pops up, this time yellow, a further 20 metres away. The cycle repeats itself for an hour – the allotted time any member of the team stays under for – until the divers resurface and Pugh heads down for his turn.
According to the Marine Stewardship Council’s annual report in May 2020, 97% of all scallops landed in the UK are obtained by dredging. On the day I’m out with Pugh, he and his team land 2689 scallops. Large-scale dredging boats can bring in as many as 12,000 in a day. It is not, however, simply down to quantity. The way dredging works involves dragging nets with metal teeth along the seabed, digging up the ground and flipping the scallops into the nets. The impact on habitat can be colossal, with the process essentially tearing apart any microsystems that function on the ocean floor in the area where the dredging occurs. “Dredging is objectively horrendous. It’s like dragging a rake through the ground,” says Ben King, founder of Pesky Fish . “It can take well over a year for the ground to return to its original make-up.”
Conversations around sustainable fishing and seafood have been bubbling around for a while now, but the 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy catapulted the topic into public consciousness. The documentary did the job of opening up the discussion to a larger audience, but it has been widely criticised by experts and environmentalists – including many who were interviewed for the documentary – for mishandling the topic, marking all seafood consumption as inherently bad and often pointing the finger at the groups attempting to change things for the better.
“The science is irrefutable that a sustainable fishing industry is not only achievable, but within reach,” says King. “With effective regulation and the means for consumers to identify and consume fish that is objectively sustainable, the argument around it being impossible to consume sustainably disappears. You also need to look at the industry as a whole – if we stopped eating fish outright, it would jeopardise the tens of millions of people around the world whose income is entirely dependent on the fishing industry.” The Marine Conservation Society backs this up. “We definitely think there are sustainable ways to fish,” says Jack Clarke, the charity’s sustainable seafood advocate. “Some forms of fishing have a higher impact on the marine environment than others, but health of fish stocks around the UK is also really important. You can catch the last fish in the sea with a hook on a line.”
The Marine Stewardship Council, a non-profit organisation that sets standards for sustainable fishing and independently assesses fisheries, furthers this point. “The issue of overfishing and the need to source seafood sustainably is the reason the MSC exists. Sustainable fishing means fishing in a way that allows adult fish to breed and sustain a healthy population, as well as putting measures in place to protect ocean habitats and threatened species,” says George Clark, program director for MSC UK and Ireland. “What’s amazing is that if we take care of our fish stocks, they take care of us. Research shows that fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable are also more productive in the long term, meaning more seafood for our growing population.”
The health of fish stocks is important – you can catch the last fish in the sea with a hook on a line
To be able to sell their fish with the MSC blue label, fisheries are continuously monitored and assessed by the organisation’s Conformity Assessment Bodies. If fish numbers fall below sustainable levels, an MSC-certified fishery will have to change the way they fish or risk losing their MSC certification. It is a positive step, but its Achilles’ heel is that participation is voluntary – so those fishermen who perhaps need guidance the most are left, largely, to continue to fish however they want.
One of the biggest issues, however, is transparency and clarity. Seaspiracy raises a few probing questions around the legitimacy of the MSC, and would understandably leave viewers sceptical of how the organisation can ensure the sustainable methods of the fisheries they certify. One example used in the film focused on an Icelandic fishery that, in one month, had a bycatch that included 269 harbour porpoises, 900 seals and 5000 seabirds. That fishery was MSC-certified.
The film raises the valid issue that this, to the consumer, is not a sustainably caught piece of seafood. I queried the MSC on this issue, and they responded. “ Seaspiracy does not specify which Icelandic fishery it is referring to, but we assume it is the Icelandic gillnet lumpfish fishery,” a spokesperson said. “If this is the case, the fishery gained MSC certification in 2014 and was suspended from the programme three years later precisely because of bycatch issues. The fishery spent years working with a range of partners, including bird conservation bodies such as Birdlife as well as the Icelandic government, to find ways to reduce bycatch. It only regained certification in 2020 when these issues had been resolved. This shows our programme is working and driving change.”
Seaspiracy also argues that this, to the consumer, is not a sustainably caught piece of seafood. It doesn’t help that, again according to the film, the MSC gets 80% of their income from licensing the use of its blue label. To dive too deep into this can raise more questions than answers. But is it fair to vilify an organisation that is, according to its spokespeople, trying its best to better the industry?
The issue is not simply about fishing methods – although they are inevitably at the core of the conversation. As with much of the food industry as a whole, the supply chain for seafood is incredibly warped. In the UK alone we export 73% of the fish we catch, yet 80% of the fish we eat is imported. It’s one of those basic statistical situations where the maths simply doesn’t add up. This is often simply due to supply and demand. “80% of the seafood we eat in the UK is made up of just five species – cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns,” says the Marine Conservation Society’s Jack Clarke. “Our insatiable demand for a handful of species puts a lot of pressure on just a few wild stocks.”
When it comes to seafood, it’s not simply a matter of black and white, or a distinct delineation between what is good and what is bad. Most of the fishing industry is wallowing in some kind of moral grey area, and no one is more open about this than Mitch Tonks, chef and owner of the Rockfish empire and The Seahorse restaurant, and a legend of Brixham, the Devon market town that’s an epicentre for the UK’s seafood industry. “It’s just not possible to source everything we sell sustainably,” he tells me over dinner at The Seahorse, his bistro-style, seafood-focused restaurant in Dartmouth. The tanned – something I discover comes from many days spent sailing along the surrounding coastline – and affable chef is dressed in a tangerine-toned terry cloth polo and matching shorts that would be impossible for most other people to pull off. The Seahorse’s kitchen used to be Tonks’ domain, until he recently handed the reins to his son Ben, who has brought a slightly more modern approach to the menu but ultimately kept simple, impeccably grilled fish at the core of the menu. “I’m not going to lie and pretend that every piece of seafood we serve is perfect,” Tonks continues. “That’s the way the industry works at the moment – people are trying, but there’s a lot of greenwashing going on.”
The process isn't broken, it's just unsustainable in the long run
Tonks is trying to better this, and his business tries its best to enact change, particularly with Rockfish at Home, which aims to influence how we buy seafood. ‘Tomorrow’s fish is still in the sea’ is the online store’s slogan. And while it might not be technically correct (tomorrow’s fish is, most likely, on a boat or on ice at the fish market), the sentiment remains: selling to meet demand, rather than obtaining stock based on predicted figures, only for it to go to waste, is always a better system.
One thing Tonks surprises me on is his support for imported fish from other countries – particularly Iceland. “The fishermen there are doing really amazing things in terms of ensuring positive fishing practices,” he tells me. During a tour of their dockside facility in Brixham, he points out a selection of frozen fillets that have been imported from the country. “The fact is, the highest demand for fish in the UK is for white fish, and that’s just not what we’re catching a majority of,” he tells me.
There’s further evidence from Norway, too, a country often cited as a leading light in sustainable seafood and a longtime supplier to UK restaurants as well as its own. “We believe in the importance of sharing details about product origin and what goes into bringing responsible seafood from the sea to the table,” says Victoria Braathen, director of the Norwegian Seafood Council. Whatever your stance on the UK importing fish and seafood, it’s clear that through a top-down approach and hands-on work throughout the supply chain, both countries provide an argument that tight regulation by national governments can contribute to a functional system for countries that are reliant on a thriving fishing industry.
Back in Devon, though, Rockfish’s proximity to the docks and the fish market make for an easily traceable supply chain. The company’s head of seafood and sustainability, Josh Perkes, heads down there every day to check out the stock on offer in person – noting what boats it comes from and ensuring they’re purchasing quality catch. This is not to say, however, that it’s all sunshine and rainbows, and Tonks himself is – as already discussed – the first to mention this. The next day, over breakfast and shots of armagnac (a Tonks favourite, I’m told), he shows me photos from a fish market in Spain. Among the most disturbing are a room full of pallets upon pallets of sharks, which are likely to go to waste, or be harvested for their fins only. “Even a decade ago I’m not sure I would have realised how terrible this is,” he tells me. “But now I look at it and feel sick.”
Glamorously dressed in hairnets and overshoes, we join Perkes for a bright-and-early tour of the Brixham fish market that preceded our breakfast with Tonks. Trying to ignore the frigid chill of fish gut-spiked water seeping into my Birkenstocks, I take in the enormous enterprise. Machines lined up against the walls homogenise the sorting process, grading fish by size as they come off the boats and into the market, and printing a label that notes this down alongside the boat they came off, and the species, weight and quality of the fish. Pointing out the fishing vessels attached to the catch in each box, Perkes very elusively mentions there are some boats whose methods he disagrees with, before quickly changing the topic.
We walk past box after box of fish, seemingly scattered around the market with no rhyme or reason, many labelled with the lucky purchaser from that morning’s digital bidding war. I recognise the name of many fishmongers, including my local on Broadway Market, Fin and Flounder, and online purveyors like Henderson to Home.
Marine environments are enormously reproductive
More than £30 million’s worth of seafood comes through Brixham port every year. As far as industries go, it’s a pretty big one, especially when it’s concentrated within a reasonably small selection of suppliers, many of whom have been operating fishing vessels in the family for generations. Perkes himself is the sixth generation of his family to work in the business, all of them functioning within Brixham in some respect. It makes transparency about the reality of the industry difficult, and finding someone to speak on the fishing industry’s inherent misgivings nearly impossible. “If I was honest about what I really thought, I think I would wake up to find my boat sunk in the harbour,” admits one reluctant fisherman when I enquire.
There are, however, people striving for positive change, and hoping to encourage the rest of the industry to do so. “It’s pretty simple,” says King. “If they want to ensure the longevity of their business, we need to maintain fish stocks. The fishing process isn’t broken, it’s just unsustainable in the long run.” King started Pesky Fish to, in his words, answer one simple question: how do we accelerate sustainable seafood consumption the fastest? “What’s staggering is that the only organisations that are proactively working to deliver sustainability are governments, charities and NGOs,” he adds. “Every commercial business in the industry simply works within the regulation of what can be caught and then applies certifications such as MSC and the Responsible Fishing Scheme to tick boxes. Nobody from within the industry is leading a vision for a sustainable industry, let alone giving consumers the means to accelerate its delivery.”
So what can be done? And how does the industry move forward? The answer is paradoxically hugely simple and deeply complicated. At its most basic principle, the key to allowing the industry to function sustainably is actually not simply for it to function sustainably, but also for it to function regeneratively. This means not only sustaining current fish stocks, but also working to regenerate stocks for the future. “The single greatest source of confidence that it can be sustainable comes from the fact that fish and marine environments are enormously reproductive – with each species spawning tens, thousands or even millions of fish each year,” says King.
A large chunk of Seaspiracy focuses on bycatch and discards, claiming that 48% of fish caught is discarded back into the ocean, often dead. This is, by my estimation, incorrect. The 48% actually refers to bycatch, most of which ends up making its way to the market, while the actual discard rate is 10%. Both statistics are still unacceptably high, but the inaccuracies only serve to promote an idea of confirmation bias within the documentary. Pesky Fish has, as part of its process, created a fishing-gear impact assessment, rating each method on a scale from 0 to 5 for its environmental interaction and bycatch levels, with 0 being good and 5 being bad (as for irreversible environmental damage and high bycatch levels), and the total score being 10. Pesky doesn’t sell fish caught via a method that has a score higher than 7, and even then, doesn’t sell fish with an environmental impact higher than 3. Having met Ben and some of his suppliers, and seen the genuine passion that exists within this group of people for preserving our oceans, it’s clear that bycatch is not always the devil Seaspiracy paints it out to be, especially when offset by a fishing method that lowers its impact in other ways.
The Marine Conservation Society has created the Good Fish Guide, which aims to help arm consumers with the information around a species’ sustainability rating. Based on a traffic-light system – green being good, orange being average and red being bad – people can easily check as long as they know the species, where it was caught and how it was caught. It’s certainly not a perfect answer, no less because of issues around transparency on packaging, but it’s a good step in the right direction. Its red-rated seafood list – species that they don’t advise eating – mentions a few surprises, including “most things with tentacles – octopus, squid and cuttlefish – uncertified farmed prawns and European eel – normally jellied or smoked (and more endangered than a panda).”
The Good Fish Guide is also recommended by the Marine Stewardship Council. “As well as buying seafood with the blue MSC label, which identifies fish from sustainable fisheries, there are lots of things consumers can do. In the absence of the blue ecolabel, use helpful resources like the Good Fish Guide from the MCS,” says George Clark, when I ask what consumers can be doing going forward. “Simply asking questions when you’re out shopping or eating fish in a restaurant, about what type of species it is, where and how it was caught, are key. Eating seasonal, local seafood, like Cornish sardines in summer, is a great way of reducing your carbon footprint and food mileage. Opting for lesser-known white fish like hake and coley is another way of taking pressure off our go-to species and are equally tasty.”
At Pesky Fish, you can only buy fish caught from low-impact methods
Jack Clarke, meanwhile, encourages diners to reevaluate the seafood they’re opting to eat. “About three quarters of British seafood is exported,” he says. “So if you want to play your part, mix up your midweek meals. Hake, farmed mussels, sardines, farmed trout and megrim are all good choices caught or farmed here in the UK.” Farmed seafood can also be a great option when done in a way that works in harmony with the environment, just like farming above land.
The answer offered by Seaspiracy was that the only adequate way to tackle the damage overfishing is causing to our oceans is to stop consuming seafood altogether. This, for many reasons, is a flawed and unhelpful response, no less because according to many members of the industry, it is truly possible to fish sustainably and thus consume sustainable seafood. One of the largest criticisms of the film was that it vilified the organisations at least attempting to enact change. While this is a conflicting argument in and of itself – one major part of this being it is incredibly important to hold bad practice and investment to account – it also fails to look further up, questioning why change isn’t happening at a governmental level. Ultimately, the fishing industry is a multi-billion-pound, international sector and it requires noise from the top level if things are really going to improve for the better.
I attempted to contact Sea Shepherd, an organisation featured in Seaspiracy that aims to “defend, conserve and protect the ocean”, to include their thoughts in this article. Their multifaceted approach includes working with authorities and governments to tackle illegal fishing, tracking boats to observe their fishing practices and collecting fishing gear from the ocean – among many others. Curious as to their thoughts on this wide-ranging issue, I asked if they’d be happy to answer a few of my questions on how we move forward with seafood consumption, and the question of sustainable and regenerative fishing. The response was relatively blunt, simply reading “Sea Shepherd doesn’t consider fish (or any animals) to be food, let alone sustainable,” and linking me to a piece on their website titled ‘Sustainable fisheries, a contradiction’. Its conclusion is straightforward, and echoes that offered by Seaspiracy : stop eating fish, full stop.
King, though, says the answer actually is simple. If a fish species is fished at a rate that does not damage its stocks, and the marine environment is treated with care, it is almost a guarantee that the fish stocks will replenish themselves for the following year. He says that customers buying from Pesky Fish can be assured that fish has been caught sustainably because, in King’s own words, “You can only buy fish from stocks that are abundant. You can only buy fish that are large enough to have had at least one reproductive cycle. You can only buy fish caught from low-impact fishing methods. No grey area, no wiggle room. If the entire industry adhered to these principles, we would not only make the industry sustainable, but we would regenerate it for generations to come.”
What’s inexorably true is that the fishing industry has deep, entrenched issues that need to be addressed, and quickly. But personally, I’m not sure the answer lies with completely cutting fish out of your diet, nor do I think it is correct to vilify the people attempting to make change for the better. The more I researched for this article, the less of a grasp I felt I had on what was right and wrong, so for the average consumer, reassessing your consumption of seafood can be nearly impossible. But the fact of the matter is that there are people looking to better the industry, and their approach is backed by real, valid scientific evidence. It would be reductive to try and classify a topic as varied as this into overly simplistic ideas of good and bad.
Walking past Brixham’s dredgers after spending the day on the boat with Pugh and his team, I felt like the wool had been lifted from over my eyes. What previously seemed vaguely harmless, the scariest thing in sight being the militant seagulls and the vague stench of decaying fish, now looked like an aggressive landing space for mass destruction – each enormous, beamed vessel looming threateningly. How can something so industrial, so obviously built to cause damage, ever have seemed harmless? Make no mistake, as long as those are the boats responsible for putting fish on your plate, you can be pretty sure what you’re consuming isn’t sustainable, let alone regenerative. But when you look at people like King and Pugh, and even larger, more established groups like Rockfish, who are trying their best to make changes for the better, it does instil a glimmer of hope. All is not lost just yet, and sometimes the most powerful way to enact change is to put your money where your mouth is.