Creel fisheries told: ‘You need an FMP’

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) announced last week updates to its Good Fish Guide, a long-established publication that has often made waves with some of its broad-brush assessments of fish available to UK consumers, reports Andy Read.

Updates this year include a call to ‘avoid’ crab and lobster caught in western Scotland, due to potential management and bycatch issues.

The Good Fish Guide is aimed at UK consumers, and provides a list of 656 different fish or fisheries products, of which it classifies 161 as ‘ones to avoid’.

In addition to adding West of Scotland crab and lobster to this list, this year’s guide has also classed both North Sea and West of Scotland monkish as ‘to avoid’ – due, it says, to TACs exceeding advice provided.

However, ‘to avoid’ status is this year withdrawn for Isle of Man scallops and queenies, which the guide says are ‘improved’. North Sea herring and South West sardine have been added to the ‘recommended’ list.

The new edition of the guide has already generated mainstream media headlines, with the Guardian last week headlining its online story: “Much of Scottish crab and lobster is ‘fish to avoid’, says sustainable seafood guide”, and reporting claims by the MCS that all but one of 11 UK crab and lobster fisheries are not sustainably managed.

The front page of the print version of the Guardian simplified things even more: ignoring the fact that just two of the stocks around the UK are classed by MCS as ‘red’, it simply said ‘avoid crab and lobster’.

The Guardian doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to crab – FN readers may remember its apocalyptic headline about ‘invasive king crab’, which subsequently turned out to be native stone crab – but nonetheless, such headlines could be seriously damaging to a sector of the UK industry that has made huge effort, within the restrictions placed on it by the UK and Scottish governments, to ensure sustainable long-term management of stocks.

Defending the changes to the Good Fish Guide, Charlotte Coombes, MCS Good Fish Guide manager, told Fishing News: “The issue of potential cetacean bycatch was a factor, but not the main driver, for the change in status of what we are saying about West of Scotland crab and lobster.

“For all these UK stocks there is a pressing need both for more data, and for management of the stocks, which in effect are completely unregulated.”

MCS policy manager Clara Johnson added: “The MCS is calling for the introduction of Fisheries Management Plans, as is discussed in the consultation on the Joint Fisheries Statement. Marine Scotland has failed to take the opportunity to work with the fishing industry on management plans in these fisheries, and to support the great work being undertaken by fishers at grassroots level to manage their stocks sustainably.

“A commitment to introduce FMPs would be a great step to restoring consumer confidence in these species.”

Hannah Fennell, head of Orkney Fishermen’s Association told Fishing News: “It’s incredibly disappointing to hear that Orkney’s crab fishery has been lumped in with other fisheries and thus received a poor rating.

“Orkney fishermen work closely with scientists from the local IFG and Heriot-Watt University to understand the crab and lobster stocks, fishing effort, and the interactions between creels and the environment.

“The MCS press release highlights a paucity of data surrounding bycatch as being a main contributor to the red and amber ratings. Since November 2021, any bycatch of any marine mammal has to be reported to the MMO within 48 hours of the end of a fishing trip, so there is data out there.

“I am disappointed to see that this hypothetical risk is being used as an excuse to demote Orkney’s crab and lobster fishery into an amber or ‘fish to avoid’ category.”

Bally Philp, for the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, whose members are active participants in the Scottish Entanglement Alliance, told FN: “This very frustrating. As an industry we are exceedingly proactive on the entanglement issue. Instead of getting credit from MCS for transparency, we get a downrating.

“The issue of creel management is something we have spent years and two judicial reviews trying to get the government to take action on. We have proposals for addressing both issues, which are both symptoms of chronically poor spatial management of our inshore marine environment.

“This is a devolved area, and accordingly the Scottish government has the power to resolve these issues. We would urge the cabinet secretary to meet with us at the soonest opportunity to discuss a pilot of our proposed mitigations.”

Demersal sector criticises MCS approach

Elsewhere, industry voices added their concerns about the guide, and the way it has oversimplified issues, with a likely negative impact on buyers’ perceptions.

Scottish Fishermen’s Federation CEO Elspeth Macdonald said: “The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) doesn’t hide its dislike of mobile fishing such as trawling, so its new ratings on species such as monkfish don’t surprise the fishing industry – they are what we have come to expect from an organisation that would prefer that wild-capture fishing didn’t exist, and campaigns endlessly to end what is a legitimate and highly regulated means of food production.

“Through dialogue, the SFF has tried to gain a better understanding of the process that MCS uses to generate its ratings. What has become clear over time is the lack of transparency by MCS and their resistance for the catching sector to observe their process. If their process is robust and would stand up to scrutiny, then why are they not open to challenge?

“The MCS ratings are based on information cherry-picked to suit their narrative. On monkfish, our industry fishes in line with ICES advice, which already has a precautionary filter as it is classed as a data-limited stock.

“The MCS rating is based on a tiny snapshot from a much longer time-series of data, showing that the monkfish stock is only fractionally below the long-term average, and that action is being taken to improve the science and data that is needed for better understanding.

“Scottish fish stocks are well managed. There has been a steady upwards trend in sustainable fishing over the last 30 years by an industry committed to this for the long term. Yes, there is more to do, but to demonise our industry and provide misleading information to the public is both unfair and unwarranted. Through their actions, MCS risk driving consumers towards foods that have a much greater environmental impact than low-emission, healthy and sustainable wild-caught fish.”

The Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association said: “Once again we find MCS creating media headlines through dodgy ratings in its Good Fish Guide. Providing guidance to the public on what and what not to eat is fine so long as there is no hidden agenda and misleading info. Eat northern monkfish with confidence.”

In Shetland, in spite of the fact that the guide recognised Shetland crab as well managed and as a ‘recommended’ good buy, it was noted that wider media had missed this point completely in search of simpler headlines related to the guide.

The Shetland Fishermen’s Association said simply “It hasn’t made the headlines today, but Shetland shellfish is sustainably caught – and should not be ‘avoided’.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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