Sunday, March 9, 2008

Marketing Fish for the Future

One of the ideal benefits of quota-based fisheries management is that focus will shift from trying to catch the most fish to trying to make the most off of the limited number of fish you’re allowed to catch. This has had some obviously detrimental consequences – namely that it encourages fishermen to throw back low-value fish and only bring to market the top-value fish, usually the largest and freshest from a trip. If this practice of discarding, known as high-grading, can be minimized, however, the quotas do then encourage fishermen to aim for top market value for each individual fish. Although it’s much more complicated in practice, this can theoretically serve as a conservation tool by allowing fishermen to focus on quality and market demand to get the best possible prices for the fish they land rather than having to catch increasing numbers of fish to make a profit.

While I was in Peterhead, I had the chance to both see the daily fish market and talk with some of the fishermen and the fish buyers about how the market has changed over recent years as decommissioning and tighter quota regulations. The Peterhead fish market is the largest in Scotland, and fishing boats from all over will chose to land there (or, in some cases, have their catches trucked in from other ports) to be sold at the morning auction in Peterhead. To me, it seems like a large market – able to hold over three thousand boxes of fish.

But the old market across the harbor that this new one replaced was far larger, and often would be filled with twelve thousand boxes – whereas today, one quarter of that number is considered a big day in the market. Most people told me this with an air of regret, associating the decline in the amount of fish landed with the decline in the number of boats fishing and the overall place of the industry in town. But though most fishermen would like to see more fish being landed – particularly when they know that they are discarding marketable fish at sea (one told me it was like “throwing ten pound notes over the side”) – the more limited market has increased prices. Crews packing fish at sea also focus on keeping the catch in top quality by not squashing the fish in the boxes and presenting them so they look nice on the market rather than the older strategy of trying to simply fit as many fish as possible into the boxes.

A box of large cod – today, only three cod this size are put in each box, but ten years ago, they would have filled the box with six of them.

A box of haddocks, nicely arranged to look as attractive as possible on the market.

Though fluctuations in supply and demand to create the greatest variations in market price, fishermen and buyers alike agree that quality is an important factor in determining price – when Peter first took me through the market, he pointed out which fish were in the best condition, easily evident to anyone with even a bit of experience with fish; while bidding, the buyers would explain to me which fish would get the most prices, and which boats were known for consistently landing the best quality fish and getting the highest prices.

Here are the buyers bidding on the fish at auction, often selecting box by box which ones they want based on the size and quality of the fish.

Fish prices are more complicated than simple quality and freshness, however – as public concern about the environment and sustainability has increased, the market has begun to demand fish from known, legal, sustainable sources. “Black” fish – landed illegally and sold without being officially declared or counted in the quota, and “grey” fish – usually scarce, highly-regulated fish such as cod landed as a different species with excess quota available, has been considered one of the main problems with enforcement of the quota system in Europe. Scottish fishermen are quick to acknowledge that the practice of landing black used to be widespread – they say that once it became commonplace it became impossible to get by just by landing legally, but with the required registration of buyers and sellers that has come into effect over the past few years they say that black landings here have become all but nonexistent. Skippers are required to keep records of the fish they are landing and where they were caught on official EU logsheets and submit them to the Fisheries Office (officially called the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency) for verification that they have not exceeded their quota and that their records of landings match the records of the amount purchased by the fish buyers.

At the pier in the town of Portree on the Isle of Skye, fishermen can turn in their logsheets in a box mounted next to the lifeboat station.

There are also Fisheries Officers stationed in fishing ports all over the country, who often come out in person to check the fish being landed and ensure that the fish actually being landed match the paper records.

In addition to avoiding the problems of circumventing regulations designed to protect fish stocks, keeping fish landings legal has increased prices both by reducing the fish supply (black fish was often sold at low prices, since fishermen afraid of getting caught would sell the fish for low prices to get it off their hands, making it hard to get a reasonable price for legally-landed fish) and, more significantly, allowing Scottish fish to be marketed as legally-caught.

Eventually, most discussions I’ve had about sustainability in fishing come around to the supermarkets. Because, while government has the ability to enforce policies aimed at creating a sustainable fishery, the market has also begun to influence fishing practices by demanding environmentally-friendly fish. So as a result, the fishing industry has been taking its own steps, independent of government-imposed regulations, to prove to the public – both the end-line consumers and the retailers (particularly large supermarket chains who are increasingly trying to “green” their image) that the fish they are catching meet various criteria of sustainable fishing. Although many environmental organizations have attempted to provide consumers with information about which fish are best to purchase – the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, one of the most widely-cited such consumer guidelines in the US, advertises itself as promoting seafood that is “good for you and good for the oceans” – these are often criticized within the fishing industry for broad generalities, including rejecting most trawl-caught fish or all fisheries for a particular species that might only have problems in some areas, that don’t take into account the detailed realities of how fish get from the sea to the market.

The alternative that has gained the most ground within the fishing industry is a scheme by an independent non-profit organization called the Marine Stewardship Council of that independently assesses fisheries based on the condition of the fish stocks, the impact of the fishing method on the ecosystem, and the fishery management system. The industry itself decides to apply for certification, and if it passes, can then label its fish with the MSC blue eco-label, currently the only independent assessment of fisheries and thus an important factor for both retailers and consumers looking for environmentally-friendly seafood.

The Scottish haddock and nephrops (prawn) fisheries are both currently being assessed for MSC certification, but in the mean time, many Scottish skippers have taken it upon themselves to independently prove that they are fishing sustainably. Peter Bruce was the first to tell me about the Responsible Fishing Scheme, a program that currently has 167 participating vessels in Britain who have been audited by Seafish to show that they meet a set of criteria about fishing responsibly and safely – everything from making sure that the crew have the proper safety training to collecting all the litter caught while trawling rather than throwing it back into the sea.

Walking around the harbor in Peterhead, it was easy to spot participating vessels – here’s a fishing for litter bag aboard Favonious, one of the seventeen vessels in Peterhead who have signed onto this program (slightly less than half of the port’s fishing fleet).

It was equally evident in the market, where fish from participating vessels are labeled with a note indicating to the buyer that it came from a vessel fishing responsibly.

Some skippers have taken the task of marketing their catch and their local industry even further, making direct connections with restaurants and consumers to explain their fishing methods and the efforts they take to fish sustainably. Fishing has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years due to concerns about overfishing and black landings, and from the perspective of fishermen attempting to follow the rules and fish responsibly, the industry now faces a significant task of proving to the public that fishermen are not criminals out to ravage the environment. While I was in Peterhead, Peter went to London for the launch of the Scottish Skipper’s Scheme, which focuses on getting top-quality fish and having a direct connection between the restaurant-goer with a fish on their plate and the fishermen out in the North Sea catching the fish. To me, it seems like one of the best ways of ensuring that the fish you eat is caught in a responsible manner – actually take the time to meet the person who goes out to catch it. Peter said that most of the people he met down in London hadn’t heard about many of Scotland’s efforts to conserve fish, including a new system of real time closures where fishermen avoid aggregations of spawning cod and a conservation credits scheme, which provides incentives for fishermen to use more selective gear and abide by the real time closure restrictions, and were surprised at the efforts taken to truly fish responsibly.

Another member of the Scottish Skipper’s Scheme, Jimmy Buchan of the Amity II, has become one of the best-known faces of the Scottish fishing industry and a bit of a celebrity as one of the stars of the BBC series Trawlermen, which is currently filming its third series showing the day-to-day realities of fishing (the British response to Deadliest Catch, if you will).

I initially met him at a meeting in Fraserburgh as part of a Science-Industry Partnership between the Fisheries Research Services in Aberdeen and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to “review recent development work on gear designs and to identify options for selectivity related technical measures for Scottish mixed species fisheries,” but didn’t realize he was a celebrity until I met him again after watching some of the Trawlermen series. Jimmy has in many ways taken on the role of showing the public what is really going on in the fishing industry, including writing for a blog on the Seafish website.

Although consumer demand is notoriously fickle and has certainly made fishing a much more complicated business, I think that overall, this move towards demand of sustainably-caught fish will be a good thing for the consumer, industry, and environment. This is still a fairly early stage in a much larger movement towards consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and how it was produced, and as such there are many mixed messages about which types of fish and fishing methods are really the best choices. But by allowing consumers to get to know the fishermen and their stories both about what it takes to get fish on the table and about their own histories and communities, and convincing fishermen that it is in their own interest from a marketing perspective to stick to responsible methods, I think the market has a chance of both encouraging environmentally-friendly fishing and in turn rewarding responsible fishermen with better prices.


adele said...

Interesting stuff.

I'm trying to keep an eye out for local(ish) seafood, but Shaws is not entirely helpful in that regard.

Hilary said...

From my experience with buying seafood in the States, most people working at supermarket seafood counters just don't know much about where their fish is from. And on top of that, distant products are often seen as more environmentally-friendly under guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's (i.e. Alaskan pollock over New England cod or haddock), and so supermarkets like to follow those recommendations.

My suggestion if you want locally-caught seafood, short of going out to a fishing port, is to find a small shop that specializes in seafood. Unfortunately I don't know any to recommend in Boston, but in general, small shops tend to know much more about their sources and also are more likely to buy their fish locally. And if your lucky, the people in the shop might actually know something about the local fishing industry and how the fish were actually caught.

dj said...

Hilary, You seem to be obsessed with yourself and your outdated Sealing & Fishing Industry. Your Industry has been presented real data that supports the reasons to stop killing baby seals and have been offered legitimate researched alternatives, but instead of embracing the 21st century, your excuse's range from crime in the cities to economical and tradition. The truth is that the sealers want to continue to flood the ice with blood to satisfy their need and addiction to kill, and use the government to subsidize this barbaric, Neanderthal behavior, instead of getting retrained in a real job, (that doesn't allow you to drink beer while you work)in a real world. It's not about the "cute Factor", It's about respect, decency, and compassion for all living creatures.

Hilary said...

First of all, just to clarify, you commented on a post focusing on the Scottish fishing industry - Scotland has no seal hunt. You can find my relevant post at

As for the Canadian seal hunt, to which I presume you are referring, your comment shows little understanding of the actual people involved in hunting seals. They are by no means barbaric, and their support for the hunt is driven by economic necessity and tradition, not by an "addiction to kill." Many people within the Newfoundland fishing industry took classes aimed at job retraining in the 1990s in the wake of the cod moratorium, but there are few options in the outport communities other than making a living from the sea.

Your characterization of the seal harvesters as not doing a "real job" and drinking while working (a ridiculous idea, since the work requires physical precision and would be far too dangerous with impaired senses) shows no respect for these people's humanity, traditions, and way of life. I agree that respect and compassion for all living creatures is the highest priority - a respect you should extend to the fishermen and their families as well as the seals.