The 2011 Aldeburgh Food Conference addressed the sea: its importance to us and the planet, how our activity threatens the sea, and how the sea threatens our life on land – continuing last year’s focus on what needs to change and how. The audience included a couple of fishermen, a handful of people whose livelihood depends on the sea, some involved with policy, a few NGOs and a lot of people who already buy sustainable fish. Several people felt threatened by the sea.
Unlike the very visible farmed landscape, the sea is mysterious and largely unseen. Few of us are aware of what lies beneath the surface and how we exploit it. Beyond an awareness of dwindling fish stocks and rising sea levels, many of us have little understanding of how our exploitation of the sea threatens its ecosystems, or how the sea threatens the land.
Some key themes emerged from the presentations and discussions:
- All are agreed that policy on the sea must change;
- Environmental, social and economic factors must be addressed together in a complex system;
- We need more protected areas, such as the proposed Marine Conservation Zones;
- There are clear examples of unsustainable practice, such as beam dredging in coral areas, fishing for orange roughy, or favouring the top of the food chain in general (described as “like eating lions”);
- There are also good examples of sustainable practice (eg Waitrose’s sourcing policy) but more needs to change;
- Consumer demand is changing (largely thanks to Hugh’s Fish Fight) but needs to change more;
- Small vessels are more sustainable – the only part of the fleet with net economic, social and environmental gain;
- The loss of land to the sea would have severe economic, as well as social and environmental, consequences;
- We all have a part to play – citizen participation and action is essential in changing policy and everyday choices.
Dr Jason Hall-Spencer of Plymouth University described the abundant life of the sea, particularly on the seafloor where 98% of marine species live, dispelling the assumption that it is just a boring expanse of mud. Drawing on a 10 year census of marine life, he introduced recently discovered species, the flourishing habitats of giant underwater mountains – seamounts – and the teeming life of the cold water coral reefs in deep north European waters. Photographs of reefs pulverised by trawlers graphically illustrated the damage of some fishing methods, while the life cycle of the orange roughy, which takes decades to reach reproductive adulthood, offered an example of a “stupidly” unsustainable fishery.
Despite such gloomy insights into the damaged sea Jason highlighted some areas of hope. Steps are being taken in the right direction. Tracking systems help guide fishermen away from fragile areas, protecting breeding grounds for stocks and helping the fishermen avoid the corals that rip their nets and macerate the fish in them. The UK Government is currently considering the creation of new Marine Conservation Zones to protect important areas, though more democratic support is needed to give politicians confidence and impetus to take bold decisions. Where areas have been set aside there’s evidence that they can regenerate. We should all choose sustainably fished seafood, using MSC certification and the Good Fish Guide to navigate a confusing array of choices. We all have a part to play.
Dr Stuart Rogers of CEFAS discussed changes to local fisheries from climate change and over-fishing, where the once dominant herring is long gone, remaining cod stocks are moving north, and non-native species like anchovies are rapidly growing in number, along with less welcome comb jellyfish and harmful bacteria. He explained the role of CEFAS to provide scientific advice and evidence to the Government, balancing the complex social, economic and environmental factors that affect the sea. He described the problem of marine litter, both large (visible plastic that harms albatross chicks and other species) and small (micro-plastics from cosmetics that can disrupt the digestive systems of young herrings etc). The growth of offshore renewable energy presents new challenges though efforts are being made to co-locate turbines and fisheries. Dredging of sand and gravel banks is thought by some to aggravate coastal erosion though CEFAS has found no evidence of a possible mechanism.
Jeremy Ryland Langley, specialist fish buyer at Waitrose, explained that fish very important to Waitrose and demonstrates its commitment to corporate social responsibility. Believing that good food should not only taste and look great, but must be sourced in ethical and sustainable way, Waitrose pioneered sustainable fish sourcing, requiring that all the fish they sell is sourced from sustainable fisheries or responsibly farmed aquaculture. To be sustainable seafood must be managed and fished using practices that will ensure there will be plenty more fish to catch in the future. Waitrose also needs to offer its customers great quality fish at affordable prices. While it doesn’t promise to agree with everything it will always listen, engage and debate – and sometimes argue. Waitrose has four pillars for sustainable fish buying:
- Species must not be endangered or threatened, taking a precautionary approach and avoiding doubtful species, and encouraging sustainable alternatives (demand much increased after Fish Fight);
- All fish must be caught with responsible methods (eg no beam trawled fish is bought because of the high fuel costs and effect on the seabed; line-caught fish are favoured for better quality, minimal impact on environment, less fuel use, and better targeting of species; discards are reduced through appropriate methods);
- Everything must be traceable from catch to consumer;
- All fish must be from well managed fisheries.
50% of fish sold by Waitrose is farmed, where a similar set of principles is applied:
- Welfare must be maximised;
- Farming methods must ensure long-term sustainability of the environment and community;
- Feed must be from long-term sustainable sources (vegetable sources are being explored);
- Everything must be fully traceable from farm to consumer.
In the future small inshore vessels will have increasing role to play though supplies are currently all through central hubs apart from initiatives in Wales, Cornwall and the Channel Islands. Waitrose buys fish from 35 different countries; some is shipped and some air-freighting, though this is likely to end. The buying policy applies to own-label tinned fish and pressure is increasingly applied to other brands, some of which have adopted similar sourcing policies.
James Thornton of ClientEarth, provides legal help and lobbying for the earth and its resources. Marine biodiversity a core concern with fisheries in severe decline but also the prospect of recovery if fisheries are better managed. An optimistic approach is essential: although 90% of the world’s sharks have been killed, at least we have 10% left. There is broad agreement between fishermen, conservationists and governments on the need for radical change (In contrast to climate change) but politics and vested interests are obstructive. Policy should follow clear principles for a more effective system (none of which are met by the current Common Fisheries Policy – possibly the worst law in the world and the main reason 80% of European fisheries are in decline):
- Management of the sea must be based around ecosystems: with different approaches to meet different needs;
- Quotas must follow scientific advice (politicians tend to set higher quota, on average 48% higher than advised);
- Discards must be minimized – a system of annual credits (with limited transferability) to catch any species would give fishermen more choice, reduce the need for other regulations, and ensure that everything caught is landed and not discarded (with limited exceptions for species that can survive) – and providing better info on stocks;
- Rules must be simple and make sense to avoid willing or unwilling violation
- Policy must be consistency with other environmental law, eg not allowing fishing in protected areas;
- The system must be transparent to allow citizens to participate.
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is undergoing a 10-yearly revision through a 2 year process, with the first hearing in the European Parliament next month. The commission has high ambitions – the commissioner has said the new policy will reduce discards, encourage regional decisions, and follow scientific advice – but the proposal doesn’t do any of these things, leaving details vague and without mandatory timelines. The proposal must be changed by the European Parliament and Council – if we succeed we will continue to have fish and prosperous fishermen. We must all lobby.
Bill Parker, Suffolk Coast Futures Officer, described the engagement of the community in planning for the future of the Ore and Alde coastal area, which has long been threatened by the sea and faces continuing risk from sea surges. The project aims to ensure sustainable communities, to tackle the important local issues, to find new ways to multi-fund action, and to improve decision making with input from local community. Following advice from the Dutch, the approach is based on the whole area, looks at all major issues, recognises that solutions often found locally, and only tries to solve problems that can be solved locally.
Jerry Percy, fisherman and CEO of the Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, explained the history of North Sea fishing, the current methods used and state of the industry. While much current fishing is unsustainable, inshore fishermen rely on local stocks and have a strong incentive to protect them. Smaller vessels are challenged by economic and policy pressures and the the fleet is in decline, but where they survive they provide more employment and are the only part of the fishing fleet to offer a total net gain across economic, social and environmental values. Jerry echoed James Thornton’s suggestion that fisheries can be sustainable under the right policies, largely agreeing on the areas where the CFP must change and quoting the FAO’s assertion that properly managed fisheries could provide enough fish to feed everyone. Credits should be allocated according to environmental and social impact.
Sir Edward Greenwell, a farmer near Orford, described the findings of a field study into how the Suffolk economy could suffer if sea defences are not maintained. In the sandlings of the Alde and Ore area, production of high value potatoes and vegetables is only possible through irrigation that largely draws on water pumped from freshwater marshes, also providing necessary drainage. Incursion of seawater into the marshes would prevent this, leading to an annual loss of production to the value of £10.3 million out of current total production of £15.2 million. This would result in lost wages of £3 million and further lost local spending of £4 million. Communities must take imaginative action (eg through planning gain) to help maintain defences as the Government will not continue to do so.
Primary school children and young people working with Eastfeast ended the day by showing through dance and in an interview with Eastfeast’s director Yvonne Moores how they were developing skills and awareness through food and art.