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UK fisheries losing out on millions of pounds of business as UK buyers look abroad for sustainable fish

An investigation by Sustainable Fish Cities, and published today in the Independent, has found that UK fishers are losing out on markets worth an estimated £62 million because UK companies are buying-in sustainable fish from overseas.

Good Catch / Emily Howgate

Good Catch / Emily Howgate
Sustainable Fish Cities found that UK fish buyers are importing more sustainable varieties of fish traditionally caught in British waters from the USA, Turkey, Greenland and South America rather than risk selling fish that is unsustainably caught from UK waters.
Ruth Westcott, co-ordinator of Sustainable Fish Cities said: “What a travesty that our fishers are losing out on so much business. Caterers in the UK want to buy UK fish and support our coastal communities but for some species they have no choice but to import from across the world to ensure that what they buy is sustainable.”
"The government simply hasn’t invested enough in research, data collection, and monitoring of fishing vessels.  Even if boats are operating sustainably, if there isn’t a good enough understanding of the fish stocks and impact on the environment the fishery can’t achieve sustainability certification or be considered ok to eat according to the Marine Conservation Society."
"Government will be releasing proposals for a new post-Brexit fishing regime soon, and this is the perfect opportunity to invest in monitoring systems on all vessels across the UK, and to eliminating the problems of data deficiency. The power is in our hands to make all UK fisheries verifiably sustainable, and thereby make sure they are the most attractive to fish buyers."

Foodservice companies have rushed to adopt sustainable fish buying policies, to their great credit, and to help ensure they can meet government buying standards and satisfy customers increasingly concerned about sustainable fishing. Many have signed the Sustainable Fish Cities pledge, committing to buying species considered ‘fish to eat’ by the Marine Conservation Society or with a certification such as the Marine Stewardship Council or Aquacutlure Stewardship Council. This means that, at the moment, many popular choices from the UK are off-limits.
Poor fisheries governance and data deficiency to blame
All the species found to be imported (instead of sourced locally), are down-graded for sustainability in the Marine Conservation Society ratings - at least in part - because of data deficiency or poor management. For scallops, for example, lack of comprehensive and up to date population assessments mean scientists are concerned about the impact of fishing on the health of the stock. Nephrops, which are turned into pub-favourite scampi, could be improved with better vessel monitoring, and controls to prevent overfishing in specific areas.
UK species not considered sustainable
  • Some scallops: In the UK most scallops dredged in offshore areas are not considered OK to eat regularly (rated 4 by the Marine Conservation Society). In a number of areas, data is insufficient to be able to confirm scallop population numbers and therefore set safe harvest limits. Scallop dredging is one of the most destructive bottom-trawl fishing methods and sensitive areas must be protected effectively. UK scallop fishing boats were accused of dredging in a protected area in February. Human rights abuses have been discovered on UK boats, including slavery.
  • Nephrops: One of the most important fisheries in the inshore areas of Scotland and North-East England is nephrops, which is turned into pub-favourite Scampi.
    Unfortunately, most sources in the east of Scotland and the North Sea are rated 4 and the Farn Deeps area of the North Sea is currently considered Fish to Avoid.
    Some areas are being fished above scientific advice, threatening the long-term health of the stock. Because langoustines are trawled using nets with very fine mesh, bycatch is often high and trawling damages the sea bed. Scientists recommend a number of better management measures, including investing in on-board monitoring for fishing boats, and full assessments of the impact of fishing in order that sensitive areas can be effectively protected
  • Seabass: The top ten caterers in the UK have stopped selling sea bass considered Fish to Avoid – the stocks are in poor shape. 
  • Halibut: This prized delicacy caught from around the coast of the UK is red-rated. The Marine Conservation Society are concerned that there is not enough information about the status of the stock, which could be tackled with investment in data collection and monitoring. 


Oversees alternatives found to be used instead

  • Scallops: Caterers were found to be sourcing nearly all their scallops from the USA and Patagonia. Imports of scallops have increased from £15.9 million to over £40 million in the last five years. Patagonian and US scallops are green-rated by the Marine Conservation Society and lots are MSC certified. Hand-dived scallops from the UK – a more sustainable option – are used in some cases
  • Nephrops: Caterers were found to be specifying scampi sourced only from the west coast of Scotland and from Ireland, where the stock is in better shape.
  • Large Prawns: Overwhelmingly, caters were found to be using coated or breaded warm-water prawns from responsible-certified farms imported from Thailand, India and Vietnam. In 2012 the UK imported £503 million worth of prawns and shrimp. In 2016 it was £644 million (see chapter 4)
  • Seabass: Caterers were found to be importing farmed seabass from the Mediterranean including Greece and Turkey.
  • Halibut: Other countries have managed their Halibut stocks better.  Greenland and Iceland stock are in better shape and the data to confirm this is better. The fishery is managed using licences, gear restrictions, VMS, recording of prohibited species and logbooks. New studies have outlined where vulnerable habitats are found for better avoidance. We found evidence of caterers  importing wild-caught halibut from Greenland and farms in Norway
Contract catering is big business. Roughly 17% of all meals eaten out of home are served by catering companies and they sell approximately £87 [1] million worth of fish every year, from top-end fine dining in tourist attractions and FTSE 100 firms, to sports venues, schools, prisons, hospitals and defence sites.
Sustainable Fish Cities investigated the fish bought by the nine largest contract catering companies in the UK. Many contract catering companies have signed the Sustainable Fish Cities pledge, requiring all fish sourced to be considered sustainable either by an independent certification scheme or rated 1-3 by the Marine Conservation Society. Our analysis suggested that about 71% of fish served by contract caterers is imported[2].
Getting UK-landed fish on the menu
Sustainable Fish Cities has found that lack of demonstrable sustainability is cutting off access to large and important markets in the UK.
As part of a post-Brexit fishing regime, the Government’s aim should be for all UK fisheries to be verifiably sustainable, and the resources provided to invest in research, data collection, monitoring, sustainability certification and protection of sensitive areas. Sustain wrote to all MPs in April to call for ambitious, world-leading fisheries management post-Brexit, for benefit the oceans, jobs, and our fishing communities. 

[1] Overall value of seafood sales in Foodservice £3.06bn and contract catering sector sells roughly £87million worth of fish every year. From: (page 3)
[2] We considered a sample of the UK caterers. Where it wasn’t possible to be sure if the fish was caught and landed in the UK, we assumed roughly 50% UK, 50% non-UK.

Published Tuesday 12 June 2018

Sustainable Fish: A campaign to protect precious marine environments and fishing livelihoods, and call for fish to be bought from sustainable sources. We want to show what can be done if people and organisations make a concerted effort to change their buying habits.

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