Sustainable fishing

UK fishers need to be able to secure good markets at home and abroad, in perpetuity. All fish from the UK, and all fish sold in UK shops and food outlets should be verifiably sustainable by 2025.

Around 90 per cent of the world's fish stocks are now fully exploited or over-exploited. A range of measures must be implemented urgently to ensure that we conserve precious fish stocks and marine ecosystems. This includes marine protected areas, scientific assessment of stocks and conservation status, an accelerated shift to sustainable fishing methods, and a reliable market for those fishers who are managing stocks and ecosystems sustainably.

Since 2009, Sustain has been playing our part by working with the main marine conservation groups and foodservice companies to shift very large amounts of the UK's catering companies to buying only verifiably sustainable fish. Caterers that serve over 850 million meals a year have now signed up to our Sustainable Fish Cities pledge.

The UK benefits from being able to sell some of its fish, here and abroad, as “sustainably sourced” an increasingly important assurance. But not all UK fish is considered sustainable, often for a remediable reason such as lack of data or management plan, so some UK fleets are missing out on good markets worth millions of pounds each year.

All fish bought or sold in the UK should be verifiably sustainable and marketed as such; either by meeting the Marine Stewardship Council,  Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance or GlobalGAP certification standards or being considered ‘Fish to Eat’ by the Marine Conservation Society.

How can this vision be achieved?

1. Improving fish stocks and marine ecosystems is vital. Essential elements of sustainable UK fisheries management include:

  • An ecosystem based approach: managing fish as an integral part of healthy ocean ecosystems, and taking account of the cumulative impact of human activities on the environment.
  • All fish stocks restored and maintained above biomass levels capable of producing the maximum sustainable yield by 2020.
  • Fisheries management decisions based on best available science.
  • Fully transparent and accountable fisheries where catches, both target and non-target, are fully documented, infringements are properly enforced and fisheries are effectively controlled.
  • Fishing opportunities allocated on the basis of transparent and objective environmental, social and economic criteria, in a way that incentivises the most sustainable fishing.

Sustain supports the marine conservation measures championed by Greener UK:

2. Maintaining and investing in measures to support the ban on discards

3. Tackling data deficiency, currently preventing many fisheries even being considered as a “sustainable source”; increasing data collection and requiring CCTV and location-tracking across all fishing boats.

4. Government has already announced an annual statement on the state of UK fish stocks which is very welcome, but it will be a thin document because many are data deficient. The statement should show how a fishery is progressing on a range of measures that determine sustainability, for example: stock, fishery impact on the seafloor and other species, management and adherence to laws.

5. Targeted funding, new quota allocation and support from public sector food procurement contracts.

This approach would allow the flexibility to trial new forms of fisheries management (for example ‘Days at Sea’) management, even removing catch limits for some species, because it focusses on the outcome of the activity on the ecosystem and stock.

A bold and confident approach

We must go further than just protecting the status quo after Brexit – lots of UK fish stocks are not currently in good shape. If they were to be rebuilt and better managed, we could reap the rewards in increased landings, an additional £440 million in earnings, and 6,600 new jobs.

Targeted funding to help the UK fishing industry

The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, to which the UK currently contributes, must be replaced by a UK fund that can continue to support the transition of all fishing activity to a sustainable basis, including gear modification, data collection and the costs of sustainability certification.  

New and better fishing quota allocation system  

The UK has the opportunity to come up with new ways to allocate fishing quota. This should reward smaller-scale and sustainable fishing, with very specific rewards for beneficial activities such as participation in fishery
improvement projects, implementation of vessel monitoring, observing the discard ban, sustainability certification and being part of Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme.

Fish for UK schools, hospitals and the armed forces

Government should act as a leader and a responsible consumer, linking fishing policy with public health and boosting incomes for the UK fishing industry through its public-sector buying, by:

  • Confirming the public sector commitment to verifiably sustainable fish
  • Updating school food standards to require sustainability criteria
  • Making healthy and sustainable food standards legally binding for hospitals, prisons and the British armed forces
  • Going further in Central Government contracts to demonstrate innovation and even better sustainable fish buying standards

Standards must be legally-binding and enforced. At the moment they are often ignored, or it is not possible to find out if they are being met. In a recent study the Sustainable Fish Cities campaign found that only one of the contract caterers serving large Ministry of Defence contracts could confirm that they met the Government Buying Standards, whilst another found these same caterers serving red-rated fish. A Department of Health report, published in 2017 and confirmed by Sustain research in 2018, showed that only half of NHS hospitals were meeting even basic food standards.  

Why legal standards are needed for public food

Sustain’s analysis suggests that at the moment about 70% of the fish served by contract caterers in the UK is imported, even though we have suitable, sustainable sources closer to home including coley, whiting, herring, mackerel and trout. Clear, universal and predictable standards would incentivise suppliers and other supply chain companies to produce compliant products, confident that they have a ready market for their goods. In our experience, companies producing food meeting legally binding school food standards have also found new markets elsewhere.

Contact: Ruth Westcott, Sustainable Fish Coordinator, Sustain:;

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