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The Great British cod dilemma

The Great British cod dilemma

by Laurence Hartwell 23 May 2013

Our infographic on buying sustainable cod led to many comments on Twitter from both bloggers and fishermen. None more passionate than ex-commercial fishing skipper, Laurence, who wanted to share his views and put forward to voice of British fishermen, straight from the sea.

Cod fishing has reached crisis point in the North Sea. In the last few weeks some boats have filled their fishrooms to the hatches in a few days - fishing like this hasn’t been seen for over twenty years. Good news for the fishermen from Scotland you would think. On the contrary, because the quota system is so inflexible Scottish boats are now being forced to fish elsewhere.

John Clarke, skipper of the 90 foot Reliance II is currently fishing at Rockall for haddock, monk and squid. It took him 62 hours to steam there from his home port of Peterhead - and this was what the weather was like for the first 48 hours! This will mean that of his total time at sea, five days will have been spent steaming to and for the grounds.

On the way to Rockall, skipper Clarke steamed past groups of Norwegian, Icelandic and Russian trawlers fishing for blue whiting. That scenario is repeated up and down the UK coastline with ‘foreign’ boats still fishing ‘our’ waters under the jurisdiction of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), negotiated way back in the 1970s by Ted Heath’s Tory government.

British fishermen are really feeling the pinch. On top of trying to find young crew (it seems many youngsters are not prepared to accept that any kind of financial reward or self-fulfilment can be got through entering the hard world of the fishing industry), there are also worries about the cost of fuel. They are now faced with the biggest catches for years as many fish stocks show signs of increasing dramatically but in many cases the boats do not have the quota to keep those fish on board.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight series was commissioned on the back of this iniquitous situation. Unfortunately, the TV series seemed to turn into something of a witch hunt constantly painting a bleak picture of fishermen the world over all seemingly determined to catch fish by any means possible with blatant disregard for future generations.

In truth, skippers like John Clarke (Reliance III) and Peter Bruce on the Budding Rose have pioneered an increasingly effective series of changes to their working practice and modifications to their fishing gear in order to reduce discards - the focus of Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign. In either series precious little mention or even acknowledgement was given to the work and sacrifices these men have made to try and make the increasingly amoral quota system work.

Motivated by a fear that high profile campaigns ranged against the industry (and backed by hugely wealthy and powerful environmental groups like Greenpeace and the WWF) could potentially spell the end of the remaining fishing communities in the UK, the fishermen of the UK, led by Scottish skippers but supported by fishermen as far as Newlyn in the far south west of Cornwall, are fighting back.

Making use of their ultra modern communications systems aboard their vessels, which allow them to contribute while they are at sea fishing, they have set up a blog - www.therealfishfightsofc.co.uk/ and a web site - www.realfishfight.org - to support the Facebook page that was created to fight the hugely negative attitude of HFWs Ch4 Fish Fight programme, in particular the second series which gave a very one-sided view of the UK scallop fishery.

Budding Rose skipper Peter Bruce has been making use of the web to promote his work as a founder member of Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) and to make public the life of his and his partners' fishing boats. Other fishing web sites like Through the Gaps serve to promote the fishing industry by linking the industry with chefs, consumers and the general public.

Thanks to Keith Floyd who started the hands-on TV chef genre, the public are now far more aware and more interested in where their fish come from. Top chefs like Tom Aikens have made a point of sourcing their fish sustainably. Many restaurants proudly cite the provenance of locally caught fish, some fishing boats - such as the hake netter Ajax - even have their own web sites in an attempt to promote underutilised fish.

But the fishing industry works under such a complex set of rules devolved from Brussels that these days tremendous harm is being done by some chefs in the media making a point of singling out particular species and fishing methods. The result that the public is presented with an incredibly simplistic view of an incredibly complex industry.

Basically, fishermen want chefs to be better briefed about what to say and, especially when they appear on TV or are quoted in the media, to be more aware of just how quickly things are changing. With cod this has become a real issue this year. Every time a chef talks of decimated North Sea stocks, over-fishing, destructive trawling etc they further incense the guys who have been working for many years trialling and experimenting with modified fishing gear - often at their own expense in order to reduce wasting our hugely valuable source of protein. All of this well before Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ever came on the scene and started the very public Fish Fight campaign, so the public see him as being the champion of the cause!

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The Great British cod dilemma


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