How fishing got ethical, thanks to this Plymouth collective

20th September 2017

The Plymouth sustainable fish collective Sole of Discretion are turning the industry on its head.

Sustainable fishing with Aaron Lidstone's Happy Days boat

Sustainable fishing with Aaron Lidstone in his Happy Days boat, a fisher with Sole of Discretion

Ever wonder why controversy about commercial sea fishing never seems to go away? Britain’s fishermen and women are faced with an industry in decline. Did you know that for the cod, haddock and plaice sold in a supermarket at around £15 per kilo, UK fishermen receive between £1.20 to 2.40 per kilo? Not only that, but the current system means that those who fish with the environment in mind receive the same market driven prices as those who don’t.

Fed up with a failing system and the dramatic fall in the number of UK small-scale fishers – from around 10,000 to around 2,500 in just ten years – former restaurateur Caroline Bennett realised a real solution could only be found in the creation of a whole new supply chain. Here she reveals how she did just that, by creating a social enterprise that protects the marine environment through ethically caught fish called Sole of Discretion.

Caroline Bennet, sustainable fishing pioneer and founder of Sole of Discretion

Caroline Bennett, sustainable fishing pioneer and founder of Sole of Discretion

How did you come up with the idea?

Sole of Discretion started with my background in running Japanese restaurants since 1994, when I setup the first rotating sushi restaurant in the country. At the time, the way the supply chain worked meant that you weren’t able to trace to how fish were caught, let alone when they were caught, raising issues on traceability as well as quality too. I had worked with the fishing supply chain for nearly 20 years and hadn’t found a solution through the existing model. So I thought ‘stuff it’ – if you can’t find a way of working with existing people to find the fishermen who want to work with you can do it to yourself. That’s when I realised I needed to create a completely new supply chain.

What drives your mission?

There are many good fishers out there looking after the quality of their catch and fishing with environmental sensitivity. And yet they get the same market driven prices for their catch as everyone else – many are on the verge of giving up. Furthermore, the industry’s supply chain slows down the delivery of fish, and just isn’t geared up for keeping track of catches. Even despite some significant progress in recent years, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s Chain of Custody scheme, many fish counters can’t tell us when their fish was landed, or by which boat, and sometimes even in which country! This is where Sole of Discretion comes in. We want to create a mechanism to financially reward the fisherman who are the best custodians of our seas.

What makes your fishing ethical?

Our focus on ethical provenance has three aspects; we look at sustainability from an environmental, social and quality point of view. Our skippers own their own boats and as a Community Interest Company they are paid an agreed price in advance rather than market price and profits go straight to small-scale fishers and their communities. The price is set based on what the fishers were receiving this time last year plus a small premium. We’re also working with Exeter University to help us identify best fishing practice.

A Sole of Discretion diver about to take the plunge

A Sole of Discretion diver about to take the plunge

Let’s start with the environment. The impact of fishing on marine life is clearly a problem for the industry. How are you different?

The biggest differentiator between our fish and others is that our fishers use very selective fishing methods. Hand line fishing with a single line is one of the oldest ways to fish and has the least environmental impact of any fishing method (although diving also has as little impact).

All of our fishers’ boats are under 10 metres long. When we use slightly bigger boats it is with static fishing nets that aren’t towed through the water – this is what Beam Trawlers do and is considered one of the most destructive forms of fishing as they damage the seabed. The static nets of our fishers do not damage or disturb the communities of fish that live on or in the seabed. There’s also a positive carbon impact too because fuel usage is much less on smaller boats than compared to larger vessels.

We’re thinking about the end-to-end journey and collaborating with Great Western Rail to transport our fish quickly and more sustainably.

And how about compared to supermarket fish?

90 to 95% of the time the fish you find in supermarkets is caught by industrial fishing boats and its impact on the marine environments is considerably higher than any of our fishers. Although supermarkets have made some steps to improve, nevertheless it’s due to huge volumes and the nature of the business they work in that the prices they are prepared to pay negates the ability for a smaller scale fisher to supply to them.

Aaron Lidstone on his boat Happy Days, its named coined from the catchphrase of a fellow fisherman who had positive outlook each time he set off for a catch

Aaron Lidstone on his boat Happy Days

Which leads us to the social aspect of your work. Tell us more:

If you’re buying fish landed by industrial boats, often the boats are owned by people living in the Bahamas or have never set foot on a boat. A lot of them are held in investment trusts and so a lot of the time there is very low paid labour. A lot of the Filipino labourers for example are not even allowed to come onto the shores due to legal and immigration issues. The fact that our boats are all owner run not only improves the social sustainability of the supply chain, but also  improves the freshness of the fish that reaches the plate.

And what about the quality of the fish?

The world of fishing is more complicated than a usual harvest, because the fishers who go out to sea everyday often don’t know what they’re going to catch. In addition, sourcing fish from small-scale boats really is at the behest of the weather. Small boats simply can’t go out during the high winds that the bigger boats can.

Our solution is blast freezing within 24 hours – this is the process of pushing cold air at high velocity to freeze the fish as quickly as possible. This drives our commitments to quality as fish will be of impeccable freshness compared to one that is 3, 5 or 10-days old. If you’re happy to accept fish in this way you’re allowing small-scale fishers to survive and to be differentiated positively.

Freshly caught place about to be filleted

Freshly caught plaice about to be filleted

Undoubtedly there is a huge resistance to frozen because in the past it has meant inferior quality, although I think people recognise that freshly frozen peas are superior to a 10-day old fresh pea that has been languishing around in the back of the storeroom.

The other alternative is that fishers are only able to land (harvest fish from the sea) when the weather is great. When this happens everybody else has been out and everyone lands at the same time, which depresses prices. The bottom line is that our fishermen and women aren’t financially rewarded for doing less damage and that’s at the core of what we’re trying to change.

Then there’s the issue of transparency.

I’ve also heard a lot of people say ‘I just don’t eat fish’. Honestly the state of some of the fish sold in Britain today simply wouldn’t be allowed in Japan. We can trace right back to the boat and we know the fishers behind each catch.

Happy Days heading out of Plymouth Harbour

Happy Days heading out of Plymouth Harbour – the name was coined from the catchphrase of a fellow fisherman

What are the challenges?

Some say it will only ever be a niche business because the small-scale boats catch so little fish, but you’d be surprised at how much fish they can land. Our fisher Aaron Lidstone can catch half a tonne or even 800 kilos, which for one man and a boat is impressive. One of the first fishers to join us is Graham Searle and he’ll catch a couple of tonnes sometimes.

For me it’s more a question of resource use. If we ate everything that the fishers took from the sea, rather than mostly cod or haddock for example, then we simply wouldn’t need to use bigger boats at all.

Tell us about the main types of fish caught:

Plymouth is the centre of the universe for the European Pollock. It’s our number one bread-and-butter species. Then there’s Ling which is very much an under appreciated deeper water species and is caught on a long line by people like Aaron.

What does the future look like?

I believe that if everyone switched to hand line and static nets we wouldn’t be in the pickle we are now with fishing stocks in such dire straits. If we don’t protect small-scale fisherman and the knowledge they hold then in 10 to 15 years many more fisheries will disappear. Industrial fishing could mean the end of so many livelihoods.

Whilst we respect what Marine Stewardship Council does in terms of setting an across-the-board standard, our approach is to look at the whole holistic ecosystem and focus on balance. I hope that by enabling consumers to have a direct say in the type of fishing carried out that they can be empowered to be part of creating a lasting change for good.

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. UK Fishermen have a one in 20 chance of being killed on the job during their working lives and it’s thanks to organisations like the RNLI saving lives at sea that the industry can continue. We’re teaming up with the RNLI to support their Fish Supper – an annual charity event to help raise funds for the incredible lifesaving work that they do.
Simply invite your friends or family for a delicious Fish Supper over the weekend of 13 to 15 October. Get everything you need to host with our RNLI Fish Supper bundle where 20% of each one sold will go direct to the RNLI.

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