Occasionally the gulf between how food is bought and how it is harvested really hits you. Out in the English Channel on a 12-man rigid inflatable boat called Y-Knot, in gale-force winds and depleted light, it hits me repeatedly on the side of the head in the form of large and powerful waves.
It is 1 October 2006. A moratorium on scallop fishing in the seas off the South Hams coastline was lifted today. Throughout the summer months, this area fell under a 400 square kilometer ‘no take’ zone, introduced as part of the South Devon Inshore Potting Agreement, which prevented dredgers fishing for scallops and wreaking havoc on the seabed.
Eight miles out of the relative shelter of Dartmouth harbour, Y-Knot’s crew – Darren, Andy, Wayne and John – may be fishing for scallops, but they’re doing it the ethical way. They dive to the seabed and hand-pick the shellfish, causing minimal disruption to the ecosystem. If this trip is anything to go by, it’s a harrowing way to make a living. The Observer photographer, Andy Hall, and I are hanging on for grim death. ‘Your mascara’s running,’ yells Darren, Y-Knot’s owner, above the engines, presumably to me. I very much want to yell back that that’s the least of my worries, but every time I open my mouth, I’m engulfed by a wave.
Normally, I feel nauseous in a rowing boat, but here I don’t feel sick. Presumably my brain is too occupied with clinging on and not getting thrown into the dark swell – ‘You’d probably have 10 minutes in there,’ estimates John. I have no desire to pull the toggle on my life jacket, though at some point I notice that our photographer’s life jacket doesn’t seem to have a toggle at all. Rain starts to fall in huge, cold bulbs of water that run straight down the neck of my borrowed waterproofs.
Eventually the boat comes to a stop parallel to the South Devon village of Beesands. I grew up on this coastline and know it well, which should bring some comfort. But from this vantage point, the thunderous, craggy shore has nothing in common with the bucket-and-spade territory I know. I can make out the abandoned cliff-top village of Hallsands. A reminder that this area knows all about the destructive practice of dredging. In the 1900s, materials for development in Plymouth were dredged near Hallsands, despite warnings from locals that it was ruining the coast’s natural sea defences. They were proved right when, one night in 1917, most of Hallsands was swept away.
John puts on his oxygen tank, rolls backwards off the Y-Knot, and is consumed by the dark water. Without radio contact, the only way we know the divers haven’t met with a nasty end is that they send up a buoy. John’s buoy doesn’t come up. ‘For the record,’ says Darren, after 20 minutes, ‘at the coroner’s enquiry, you can all be my witnesses that I told him what to do.’ Because the light is failing, he can’t wait any more, and plops over the side. We sit in the boat while the three divers crawl about (visibility is less than half a metre) looking for scallops. The waters look eerie in the half-light.
After 30 minutes, John sends up a basket (with a buoy attached), the first indication that he hasn’t drowned. Wayne hauls in the basket, full of large, juicy scallops. The moratorium has obviously worked: the shellfish are a good size. The baskets begin to arrive one after another. Then the divers follow, wriggling back into the boat like seals. By now it’s pitch black, freezing cold and it takes an hour to get back to Dartmouth, where the crew spends another hour sorting and measuring the scallops.
Even though Darren Brown sells direct to restaurants such as Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Cornwall, and through his Shell Seekers stall at London foodie haunt Borough Market, it’s hardly big bucks. There are around 200 scallops in each of the nine baskets, selling for between 90p and £1.40 each. Factoring in fuel costs for transport and the Y-Knot, plus wages for four men, the profits are meagre. There has to be an easier way.
There is. Dredging. And it’s on the increase in Lyme Bay, where Darren and the crew are based and used to fish. Darren claims dredgers have obliterated the coast there. ‘It’s amazing,’ he reflects, ‘that you can have a county constantly promoting the beauty of the Jurassic Coast as a tourism destination, and let the dredgers come in and ruin it.’
Government agency English Nature agreed, and backed a Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) campaign for an enforced no-dredging area covering 60 square miles (less than 10 per cent of Lyme Bay), to enable scallop stocks to recover. The Southwest Inshore Scallopers’ Association was hastily formed to oppose this, and Ben Bradshaw – now Minister of State for Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) – weakly agreed to some voluntary recommendations. In the context of fishing, ‘voluntary’ (at least in the minds of most environmentalists) equates to ‘meaningless’. The Lyme Bay story is typical. All over Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, and increasingly in Africa and Asia, fishing is territorial, political. Commercial interests and the ecologists are permanently at war.
The effects of this war were revealed in the report ‘Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services’, published on 3 November in Science and picked up by every newspaper and news channel in the world. In the report, an international group of ecologists and economists, led by renowned marine biologist Boris Worm, reported that 29 per cent of seafood species have collapsed. The report is the grim sequel to Worm’s seminal 2003 paper, co-authored by fellow marine biologist Ransom Myers, in Nature, which concluded that industrialised fisheries typically reduce community biomass by 80 per cent within 15 years of exploitation.
Despite those 2003 findings, there was not enough change in industrial practice. Three years on, Worm’s latest report shows that the impact of decreases in species population in ocean ecosystems affects the oceans’ planet-sustaining functions, including filtering pollutants such as carbon. The most chilling fact is that, if current trends continue, the last commercial fish species will be lost by 2048.
The idea that the next generation will not have any wild fish is unbearable. Yet we are devouring current supplies at an alarming rate: according to UN figures, human consumption of fish increased from 93.6m tonnes in 1998 to 100.7m tonnes in 2002, providing 2.6bn people with a minimum of 20 per cent of their average per capita protein intake. By 2015, total world consumption of fish is predicted to reach 179m tonnes. We see the same trends in the UK. Last year, sales of fresh fish surpassed fresh poultry for the first time ever. And yet, we’re still encouraged to eat more – the Food Standards Authority (FSA) recently launching its ‘two [fish] a week’ campaign.
Could the threat of the end of wild fish be the necessary wake-up call to the fishing industry? History suggests not. After all, the industry already had a major warning when the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed in the Eighties. Known as Newfoundland Currency (a reflection of its fiscal might), cod has been fished in the Canadian fishery since the 19th century. In the Sixties, trawlers moved in and stocks began to plummet. In 1974, quotas for total allowable catches were brought in, but they were too high. When the fishery collapsed, 40,000 jobs were lost. There has been little sign of recovery in the cod population, suggesting that once species numbers plummet so far, recovery is slow – or even impossible.
Though the fishing industry seems loathe to take action, Greenpeace has entered the fray. The Save Our Seas campaign aims to halt the decline of the world’s oceanic systems. And its priority is the Mediterranean. Geophysically speaking, this sea has always been at a disadvantage: there are no significant tides to help disperse pollution and its entrance at Gibraltar is too small to allow large movements of water. At the same time, 150,000 tonnes of oil spill into the Med each year from boating accidents and operational discharges. Overfishing, particularly of bluefin tuna, disrupts the ecosystem further, and Greenpeace scientists are adamant that the only way to avoid further decline, and possible collapse, is through establishing eight ‘no-take’ policed marine reserves, the biggest of which would stretch for 18km. To help publicise the campaign, Greenpeace has sent in its most famous fighter, Rainbow Warrior.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing Rainbow Warrior for the first time. Although she looks well used, she’s still iconic, from her painted rainbow and dove emblems and wooden ship’s wheel (salvaged from the original) to the carved dolphin figurehead. The first Rainbow Warrior was blown up 21 years ago in Auckland by the French Secret Service. On deck, I watch as yachts make detours to take photos. Tourists wave madly and give victory signs.
That’s one way of greeting Rainbow Warrior. Another is to behave as the French purse seiner (trawler) fleet did in Marseilles, days before my arrival. Despite permission to dock – the Greenpeace crew was due to present a study on the benefits of marine reserves – a fleet of 20 French purse seiner pulled up alongside the Old Lady (as she’s known, on account of her creakiness), boarded, threatened the crew and blockaded the port until the authorities towed Rainbow Warrior out, against the express wishes of Captain Mike Fincken.
The fishermen had reason to be paranoid. The French fleet is the largest in the Mediterranean. It is able to swoop on shoals of fish using sonar and satellite equipment. Huge nets trap tuna during the crucial spawning part of their migratory cycle. These days, Cessna aircraft are even employed to track the shoals. The total catch of tuna in the Mediterranean (mainly supplied to the Japanese market) is now estimated at 37-41 per cent above the legal Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set by international quota. The purse seiners also catch wild tuna which are taken to one of the Med’s 50 tuna ranches – distinctive circular cages, held under the sea, with a diameter of hundreds of metres- located along the coastline. Here, the tuna are fattened for six to seven months before being sold.
The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) have been unable to stop a spiral of misreported catches and illegal boats. The number of bluefin tuna has decreased by 80 per cent over the past 20 years and, at this rate, it’s a prime candidate to become one of the first species to conform to Boris Worm’s 2048 deadline.
While ICCAT and the GFCM are seemingly unwilling to reverse the havoc wreaked by tuna ranches, Greenpeace is determined to halt the irreversible decline of the Mediterranean. So, just a few hours after joining the crew, at 4.30am, I am on deck watching as Rainbow Warrior chugs towards a distant tuna ranch.
‘Rainbow Warrior, Rainbow Warrior. Bastard bastards,’ crackles an excited voice over the radio that intercepts fishermen’s transmissions. There’s a police boat on the horizon. At about 5.30am, with the tuna ranch in his sights, Captain Mike gives the order for the divers and dinghies to get into the water.
The action is a relatively calm one, especially after the adrenaline-fuelled days in Marseilles. There’s a genuine sense of sadness as divers float out little white wooden crosses attached to buoys daubed with black writing, ‘RIP Mediterranean’. They float up to the vast circles of the tuna ranch. Down below, hundreds of caged tuna are forcibly restrained from completing their migratory patterns in the interests of feeding our increasing appetite for sushi.
The fishermen who run the units are Cuban. One of them motors a dingy over to the Rainbow Warrior. He is friendly and warns Mike, who has brought the boat right into the ranch, to be careful of some lines. Later, when we round the peninsula, we bump into the same Cuban fisherman. ‘I don’t want no trouble, really. I understand Greenpeace’s point, but they should target the big trawlers. They are the ones taking all the stocks. I don’t get involved, you know – it’s a job and I have two children.’ He lives in a makeshift house on the beach with his family. It looks like a shanty town.
As the Rainbow Warrior activists get back on board, it’s clear that some divers had wanted to go further and cut the pens open. I was surprised how strongly I wished they had, a reflection perhaps of the fact I’d spent the whole night before looking at photographs of fearless Greenpeace luminaries such as Marilyn Kaga and Paul Watson facing down Soviet harpoon boats. Watson was frustrated by Greenpeace’s non-interventionist strategies. He created the Sea Shepherd fleet, which roams the world’s oceans. Whaling ships and illegal trawlers are given one warning by him over a loud hailer and then he rams them.
‘I’d have let the tuna out, yes,’ says marine biologist Dr Roger Grace, as the divers file back on board. He’s been cataloguing Greenpeace’s oceanic campaigns for 30 years, and is an expert on marine reserves. He set up some of the world’s oldest no-intervention reserves in his native New Zealand which have brought spectacular species recovery. ‘In all that time,’ he says, ‘I’ve never had a fisherman explain to me why they need to fish in 100 per cent of the sea. Why not have 20 per cent set aside? Fish life functions best when the ecosystem is entirely set aside. If you’re forever pulling fish out on a string around the entire damned coastline there’s no respite anywhere.’
Rainbow Warrior’s engine room is full of Grace’s pictures of seascapes in New Zealand damaged by the removal of big predators. For example, it takes big snappers to eat big sea urchins. Once they are removed, sea urchins multiply. They eat the luscious kelp forest, chew it down. The seabed begins to resemble a lunarscape. This barren seabed can’t support fish populations and, as suggested in Boris Worm’s report, the devastation depletes the ocean’s ability to support the groups of species that help filter, recycle and store nutrients, trap sediments and reduce phytoplankton.
Grace also believes estimates of ‘sustainable’ stocks by fishery scientists might have been set too high. ‘They usually say you can fish down to 20 per cent of the original biomass,’ he says, ‘but this leaves no margin for error. Trying to keep it at 20 per cent is going to be hard – you can see this in the snapper fishery on New Zealand’s east coast, which has fallen to 16 per cent. They are still fishing. On the west coast, the biomass has fallen to 8 per cent despite efforts to manage stocks, and they haven’t stopped fishing. Every time campaigners try to reduce quotas, the fishermen take them to court. It will take 20 years to get stocks back.’
Back home, I am struck by the fact that people seem to eat a fantastic amount of fish. Perhaps they have been galvanised by the thought of an abundance of Omega-3 promised in the FSA campaign. Every sandwich seems to be filled with fish or sits next to a box of sushi, but none gives any idea of provenance. The fish might as well have been air freighted from Mars.
But John Rutherford, the CEO of the Seafish Industry Authority, thinks the FSA campaign to eat more fish is a good thing. ‘It seems that there are really good health benefits and that’s an important message to get across.’ He also has good news about local cod stocks, ‘I’m getting reports,’ he says, ‘from fishermen in the North Sea, they report seeing lots of cod.’ I’m surprised to hear this because, according to ICES (the International Council for the Explorations of the Sea), the 26,000 tonnes a year total allowable catch set last year was pretty much a kamikaze move to pacify the fishermen. What was needed was a total ban.
Another day, another slew of depressing, fish-related headlines. Twenty-four hours after I spoke to John Rutherford, the end of cod in the North Sea is predicted, completely contradicting him. Perhaps ICES hadn’t heard Rutherford’s good news of adult fish sightings. ‘They may be very localised observations,’ says ICES General Secretary Gerd Hubold, tactfully. ‘Our data suggests the situation regarding cod stocks in the North Sea has not improved since last year. Once again we’re recommending zero catch. The first thing everybody has to ask themselves is what do they want? Do they want cod stocks? Then leave the cod stocks to recover and within four years you could have a potential harvest in the North Sea of 200,000 tonnes a year. We are changing the entire ecosystem by taking these big predators out and we need to protect it for future generations.’
The Marine Stewardship Council’s logo offers a certain amount of assurance for those of us who can’t give up our Friday cod. It tells you that the product you are buying comes from one of 21 certified fisheries around the world, harvested by following MSC’s ‘sustainable’ criteria: to maintain healthy target fish populations, safeguarding the integrity of marine ecosystems and implementing effective fisheries management systems.
‘MSC labelling transforms a global industry into a sustainable one. In the marketplace we send clear signals to other retailers saying “raise your game”, and look at ecological improvements. It’s extremely effective,’ says Chief Executive Rupert Howes, ‘We are now reaching a tipping point. Consumers are learning to look for the logo. If they want cod they can get sustainable, certified cod from our fishery in Alaska, which doesn’t have a problem with stock levels. I promise you, I can’t taste the difference between this and North Sea cod.’
It’s not the taste that worries me. A study by Imperial College shows that the MSC fisheries do bring benefits to oceanic ecosystems (although it should be pointed out that the study was commissioned by the MSC). But can an organisation that has such commercial criteria ever have the right ecological emphasis? And, bearing in mind the state of global fisheries, should biomass baselines be set much higher, as Greenpeace’s Roger Grace suspects? I am also troubled by recent Birds Eye adverts where food critic Richard Johnson seems to make a virtue of the global nature of today’s catch, which may come from an MSC hoki fishery in New Zealand, cod fishery in Alaska or be a South African hake. All MSC certified, but all of which have to travel thousands of miles to reach the UK.
‘The fact is,’ continues Howes, good, well-managed stocks are not local to their markets, and people are still going to eat fish, so it makes more sense to bring it in from abroad. Besides, the bulk is frozen at sea and probably comes in by ship, which isn’t nearly as bad as air freight.’ What proportion is shipped instead of air-freighted? ‘Er, I’m not sure,’ he concedes.
In fact, no one seems to know, which makes it difficult to ascertain the true price of fish. In any case, a large proportion of the fishing industry is heading in a different direction: aquaculture, the business of cultivating marine and freshwater species, also known as aquafarming. More than 70 per cent of salmon sold in the EU is farmed. A few weeks ago, the MSC took the decision not to move its label into certification of farmed fish. Perhaps Howes and colleagues were mindful of the flak taken by the Soil Association, which elected to apply its organic standards to farmed salmon earlier this year – a decision that moved Peter Kindersley, a well-known organic pioneer, to resign. ‘It was a complete betrayal of everything organics has stood for on every level,’ he said. ‘Salmon farming breaches all the basic principles drawn up by the founders of the organic movement.’
Proponents call aquaculture ‘the blue revolution’, opponents call it madness. I see their point. Most aquaculture systems use wild fish to feed captive fish. Research shows it typically takes 3kg of wild fish to feed 1kg of farmed fish. Finding fish to feed farmed or ranched fish can put pressure on species that previously were not commonly fished. According to a recent Canadian study, disease epidemics in wild fish are induced by farmed fish, and infections can spread like wildfire through fish farms. In Australia, tuna ranching has been accused of luring sharks closer to the coastline and increasing the number of surfers killed in attacks.
Ecologists talk of sliding baselines, referring to the way that habitat and species lost becomes normalised. Once you accept it as a reality the standards just keep falling. With oceans, the baseline is more of a plummeting chasm. As Charles Clover puts it in his book The End of the Lin: ‘The fact that the sea is presided over by lunatics who believe there should be commercial fishing in 100 per cent of the sea breeds a culture that is corrosive.’
I can’t do anything about the lunatics except to support Greenpeace, the WWF and the MCS (Marine Conservation Society). There are other ways of eating fish that will limit my contribution to the devastation – the MSC programme, for example – but, currently, the ethical answers don’t add up. While my time on the Y-Knot showed how hard it is to turn a profit from ethical fishing, the alternatives are unappealing. There’s still no overall strategy to maintain and develop ocean ecosystems. Partial fishing hasn’t worked, total allowable catches are set too high, prone to abuse and do not allow species to recover.
I’m not given to breaking into restaurants to rescue crustacea, but I can’t get over the thought that ranching a large oceanic predator (which essentially means keeping it in a cage) is wrong. Add on the problems in the supply chain, doubtful provenance and food miles involved in shipping certified fish and I arrive at the conclusion that I no longer want to eat it. I will not, therefore, be following the FSA’s guidelines on two portions of fish a week, and I no longer subscribe to the view that there are plenty more fish in the sea. There aren’t.
Feature by Lucy Siegle for The Observer, Sunday December 10, 2006
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