Victory for Hugh's fish fight

Updated on 01 March 2011 | 0 Comments

Millions of fish are being needlessly slaughtered and dumped back into the sea each year. At last, the British Government has decided to act!

They’ve done it again.

Celebrity chefs, I mean.

They’ve won another campaign to change Government policy. This time, it’s all about stopping millions of fish from being needlessly slaughtered and then discarded by British fisheries.

What happened?

A few weeks ago, we reported that a gang of Britain’s best chefs were getting together on the telly to have a fish fight. Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall all took time out from restaurant-running and book writing to appear in Channel 4’s Big Fish Fight throughout January.

The culinary rivals didn’t slap each other about the face with wet kippers, as the name suggested. No: they went on a mission to change Britain’s fishing policy, to safeguard marine stocks for the future and to stop millions of fish being needlessly slaughtered each year.

What’s the problem?

As Hugh and the gang  uncovered, at the moment fisheries throughout the EU  (including British fishermen) undertake the shameful practice of “discarding” fish, which is when fish are thrown back into the ocean, because a trawler has already reached its EU quota for that particular species.

It is estimated that over one million tonnes of prime fish – up to two thirds of each catch – is dumped into the North Sea every year.

By the time they are thrown back, the fish are dead.

Why do fishermen do this?

Of course, the fishermen aren’t deliberately trying to catch fish in order to throw them back dead. That would be stupid, as well as cruel.

The fact is, fishermen cannot know in advance which fish will swim into their nets throughout the day. The majority of catches in EU waters are from mixed fisheries, and there is a financial incentive for the firms to keep on fishing until they have filled their quotas for the most valuable fish. This means fish species which have fallen out of fashion – and thus are cheap due to low demand - are the most likely to be discarded.

As a result, because of the strict EU quotas they are forced to adhere to, they are continually having to sort through the fish and throw back into the sea many of the ones they accidentally caught too much of.

The celebrity chefs have been lobbying parliament to put a stop to fish discarding and have managed to collect 650,000 signatures for their petition so far. (To be kept informed about the campaign, follow @BigFishFight on twitter, or signing up to the page.)

Small steps forward

This week, the British Government took the first steps towards banning fish discarding, calling the practice “unacceptable” at a time when fish stocks are declining.

Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki met with delegates from other EU countries in Brussells to discuss introducing a discard band.

The delegates are looking at:

- controlling "fishing effort", by limiting the amount of time boats can spend at sea and the places where they can fish

- counting all fish landed against quotas

- closing "mixed fisheries" when the maximum quota of one species in it has been caught

- expanding the use of CCTV, observers, electronic logbooks and monitoring of ports.

Unfortunately, even if Britain manages to persuade the other delegates to introduce a ban, it is not likely to come into effect before 2013.

So although Hugh could say it is a victory for his campaign, there is certainly no immediate solution to the problem for fish lovers.

What you can do

The obvious short-term solution is to eat less fashionable fish. By increasing demand for the fish species that usually gets discarded, less should be thrown back.

The problem is, we’re very conservative in our fish tastes in Britain. Boring, even. It is possible you don’t have a decent fishmonger near you, but the fresh fish counters in supermarkets are often well stocked, so instead of grabbing a packet of salmon or prawns next time you’re doing a shop, go and ask what else is available.

Mackerel is a particularly good fish to try to eat more of – we have a plentiful supply of this species and it is absolutely delicious. Why not encourage your local chippie to start serving it? Similarly, herring is found in good numbers in England or you could try squid from Scotland.

For more help choosing alternative species to eat, check out Channel 4’s fish inspiration site or get adventurous with Hugh. The Marine Conservation Society’s Fish Online also has heaps of information about endangered species and farmed fish.

And if your local supermarket doesn’t stock anything except salmon, cod or tuna, bear in mind there are also a growing number of reputable online suppliers, such as The Fish Society and Cornwall’s Fish For Thought, which is recommended by Rick Stein and other well-known chefs.

Finally, if you eat a lot of fish, it might be time you cut back a little. Just as meat-free days are becoming more popular among non-veggies, you could incorporate some fish-free days into your week – if nothing else, it will keep Hugh, Jamie, Heston and Gordon off their soapboxes for a while!

Also worth your attention:

Facebook page: hughs fish fight

twitter page: @hughsfishfight

Hugh’s Big Fish Fight

Mitch Tonks' spaghetti with clams

Mitch Tonks grey mullet with mussels

The seafood chef who loves British fish


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