Keeping seafood on the menu – a sustainability journey. By Dr Stuart McLanaghan

We often see headlines and statistics that raise concerns about the future of fish and shellfish. But, it’s worth remembering that this coverage isn’t always a balanced reflection of the industry today, or its direction of travel. In reality, the UK is a global leader in spearheading responsible and sustainable fisheries management and seafood sourcing, and positive work is underway to ensure that the fish we eat is sourced in a way that protects the supply of this healthy protein source for today’s and future generations.

The sustainable sourcing of fish from wild marine stocks is crucial to healthy ecosystems and a vibrant commercial fishing sector, and the importance of a good fisheries management framework to protect fish stocks cannot be overstated. Fish stocks and fishing fleets are highly regulated; there are restrictions on the amount of fish that can be caught, the type of gear used and the areas where fishing can take place.

Concern around UK fish stocks was generated recently when advice issued by ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), the organisation responsible for advising how much fish to catch based on scientific data of fish stocks, recommended a significant reduction for the catch allowance of North Sea cod in 2020. This iconic species remains the ‘poster boy’ for the public’s concern on declining fish stocks from the North Sea. Whilst there will be less North Sea cod around next year, fortunately for UK consumers there are other sources of the nation’s favourite fish (e.g. Barents Sea), as well as an array of other highly nutritious fish species to choose from. The decision to reduce North Sea cod catches is an example of responsible sustainable fisheries management in practice; where industry is taking concerted management action on the back of the latest scientific advice. Indeed, the Scottish fishing industry is right behind these steps and has already agreed to implement a new Fisheries Improvement Plan for North Sea cod. Irrespective of the prevailing political landscape, the importance of good fisheries management will remain so it will be important that industry, Government and the science community continue to collaborate in a post-Brexit world.

Good practice
In addition to highly regulated activities, several voluntary schemes and initiatives also help drive, document and promote ‘sea to plate’ assurance on responsible sourcing and sustainable seafood certification helps consumers make informed choices. For over 20 years, the MSC has provided an international benchmark, by certifying fisheries that operate sustainably. Fisheries which have been MSC certified are recognised as meeting good practice, helping to manage impacts to the oceans’ fish stocks, habitats and endangered wildlife species. Through Project-UK, an ambitious initiative led by Seafish and MSC, further work is underway to also deliver sustainable fisheries for other key commercial seafood species.

High standards
Moving along the supply chain, the Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) is a leading voluntary vessel-based initiative. Launched in 2016 it was developed to raise standards and demonstrate commitment to the responsible sourcing of seafood by certifying high standards of crew welfare and responsible catching practices on fishing vessels. RFS now has over 142 certified vessels and already accounts for almost 1/3 of the UK fleet’s landings by weight. Work is currently underway to develop the latest iteration of the Standard which will ensure it meets the evolving demands of the supply chain in the UK and beyond, ahead of international roll-out in 2020. Responsible sourcing doesn’t stop with vessels; the Responsible Fishing Ports Scheme (RFPS) offers an opportunity for UK ports and harbours to demonstrate their responsible practices through an independently audited, certified programme. Peterhead recently became the first large port to be certified and a standard for small ports is also under development, to ensure the RFPS covers the requirements of all fishing ports and harbours in the UK.

Importance of aquaculture
It’s also important to remember that increasing seafood demand cannot be met by wild capture fishing alone; indeed globally catches have remained relatively static since the late 1980s. Aquaculture – fish farming and shellfish cultivation – have been primarily responsible globally for the continued growth in the supply of seafood for human consumption. UK aquaculture is also subject to a comprehensive regulatory framework to protect human health, consumer wellbeing and minimise environmental impacts. Voluntary third-party assurance schemes – for example the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) – certify and label seafood that has been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

Worldwide aquaculture production (including aquatic plants) recorded an all-time high of 110 million tonnes (live weight) in 2016, with a total estimated first-sale value of $243 billion. The UK aquaculture sector produced over 222,440 tonnes of farmed seafood, valued at over £1.12 billion in 2017; over 85 per cent of which by volume was provided by Scottish farmed Atlantic salmon. Going forward aquaculture will continue to play an important role bridging the gap between seafood supply and demand, whilst reducing pressure on wild fisheries.

There’s no denying that how we feed ourselves has impacts on the natural world and that’s something that we all need to work to address globally, regardless of the type of food we eat. And we openly acknowledge that there is more work to be done across the seafood supply chain. However, we can be optimistic that through a combination of regulated fishing activities, sound fisheries management practices and third-party supply chain assurance, fish and shellfish will remain on the sustainable dinner plate of the future. D

The Responsible Seafood Economy is the theme for this year’s UK Seafood Summit, which will take place on Wednesday 16 and Thursday 17 October. Organised annually by Seafish, the event brings together respected speakers and delegates to discuss and debate the burning issues facing the global seafood industry

Dr Stuart McLanaghan is Head of Responsible Sourcing at Seafish, the public body that supports the £10bn UK seafood industry. It covers the seafood industry from catch to plate providing facts, stats, research, a range of business and industry support tools and has a big focus on promoting seafood to consumers.