Can buying locally caught fish save UK fishers from collapse?

Words by Jack Clarke, Sustainable Seafood Advocate, Marine Conservation Society

There have been many stories told of the challenging effect of Covid-19 on small industries, but one that is worthy of more attention is the impact on our small-scale fishing industry.  

The winter months can be hard for fishers and this year was particularly tough. The storms that brought flooding to many parts of the country left many smaller vessels tied up, unable to leave the safety of their harbours. Normally the advent of spring spells an easier time for our fishers, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues to bite, fleets are staying in port as export markets around the globe dwindle. To add to this, ‘closed till further notice’ signs hang on the doors of the restaurants that provided much of the home market for our seafood.  

We can all help.  Broadening our seafood choices could help to provide the lifeline the UK fishing industry sorely needs.

Small fishing boats, Boscastle, Cornwall. Photo: Natasha Ewins.

Exports and the Home Market

Many people would assume that the fish we catch in this country ends up in local chippies and restaurants, but three quarters of the seafood caught by the UK’s fishing fleet is exported, mainly to Europe and Asia. However, as the pandemic forces the closure of export markets, UK fishers are left with huge volumes of seafood that British consumers have historically overlooked. Fish and shellfish such as hake, langoustines, crab and Dover sole are frequently exported, with the demand for the same species in the UK market being much lower. And that’s because, as a nation, we’re pretty unadventurous when it comes to making new seafood choices (and maybe a bit too squeamish about bones).

Big Five Swaps

When it comes to seafood, us Brits tend to prefer what we know. And we love our ‘Big Five’ species: cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns. In fact, these five seafood groups make up three quarters of the seafood we consume in the UK. But, as we don’t actually catch many of these, we end up importing them. In fact, two-thirds of the fish we eat is imported. This is a bizarre situation, but the remedy is simple and in these trying times, necessary. We just need to start eating all the delicious things we normally send to France and Spain. Premium fish like Dover sole and hake that is normally sent off to fancy restaurants and markets on the continent can finally be eaten and enjoyed at home. For many people this step into the culinary unknown can be a daunting experience, but it needn’t be. If you’re a cod fan, why not swap it for Cornish hake, a white flaky fish. Instead of salmon, try farmed trout. One thing Britain’s waters provide lots of is flat fish. If you’ve never cooked a whole fish before, there are loads of resources online to help you cook seafood simply. There’s no need to worry about filleting, just roasting a fish whole in the oven is one of the simplest and most effective ways of cooking them. It’s surprisingly easy and it’s much easier to remove the meat from the bones once it’s cooked.

Lobster pots, St Ives. Photo: Natasha Ewins.

Trying Times

We’re all getting used to the strange new situation we’ve found ourselves in and as a result, we’re giving new things a try. John Lewis has reported a fivefold increase in sales of pasta machines and Google searches for ‘make bread’ are starting to trend. These come from a society so used to buying processed products that it has largely forgotten that making pasta and bread, or cooking meals from scratch, can actually be an enjoyable and therapeutic process. We finally have time on our hands and many of us are finding it enjoyable to put those hands to use (and for those of you stuck at home with children and zero time for pasta and bread making, seafood is much quicker and easier to cook!).

Easy Choices

Our Good Fish Guide, which you can find here is also available as a smartphone app. It provides comprehensive assessments of fish caught here as well as imported to the UK. It uses a traffic light system where the ‘Best Choice’ (green) is good to eat and ‘Fish to Avoid’ (red) is from unsustainable sources and should be avoided to protect the species. The ratings are dependent on how and where a species is caught – because the same species of fish caught on different sides of the country could receive very different ratings. The map gives a snapshot of just a few of the most sustainable seafood options around the country. Remember, just because it’s bought locally, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s caught locally, so it’s best to check the Good Fish Guide to make sure you’re making the best choices in your area.

A few of the most sustainable seafood options around the country. Map: Josh Brooks, Marine Conservation Society.

Boat to Door

As the UK lockdown continues, many seafood suppliers and businesses are adjusting their business models to ensure they can stay afloat. Door-to-door deliveries of local, sustainable, restaurant-grade seafood will give fish fans a new experience with species they may not have previously encountered. There’s an amazing array of sustainably-caught seafood options available for delivery to our doorsteps, so we would suggest that now is the time to trade in your traditional tuna or prawns for something locally caught. Check online to see if a local fishmonger or wholesaler is delivering in your area. Not only will more money go into the pockets of local fishers and businesses, but you’ll be radically reducing your food miles in the process.

Industry Support

So, as the lockdown continues, and fears grow that many communities and industries will take years to recover, seafood consumers can do their bit to help kickstart the coastal recovery. Many local initiatives are popping up all over the country and organisations are offering a much-needed lifeline to fishers. Alongside checking the Good Fish Guide, look out for the #SeaForYourself campaign, supported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Non-Departmental Public Body Seafish. It hopes to inspire the UK to cook and eat seafood caught sustainably in UK waters. And even in these trying times we can all take inspiration from that.

Try and choose local but check sustainability using the Good Fish Guide. Photo: Jonathan Noack (Unsplash).

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