Sunday, 2 September 2012

Day Boats and that word 'Sustainable'

Recently I tweeted the following and unsurprisingly it sparked quite a reaction. Generally the responses were from people correcting my error. There was, of course, no error to correct as my statement was 100% correct. 

“@Chelseafish All I keep hearing is "we buy from day boats because it’s sustainable". Well I'm sorry to burst your bubble but that ain't always the case” 

Now before I discuss my statement I would like to make two points very clear so do please read and absorb these as they will clarify my stance on day boat fishing. 

1. I personally believe, after hand collection techniques, the majority of day boats fishing methods are the most ethical forms of fishing undertaken around our coast line. 
2. I personally believe, with the occasional exception, day boat fish are the freshest and most ethically sourced product available on our seafood markets. 

So there we have it, however, neither of these two points I have ever challenged. I continually hear from friends, customers, celebrity chefs and so on that day boat fish are sustainable and in some cases 100% sustainable! Are they really? Who has told you this? Is this just an assumption or can you back this up with fact? So are all day boat fish sustainable irrespective of the species or catch method? 

Allow me to set the scene. 

Off our coast line we have a couple of imaginary lines indicating fishing limits up to 12 nautical miles. Beyond this we have another line at 200 nautical miles from the coast called the exclusive economic zone. Beyond this is almost no man’s land with little to no regulation. Day boats will generally fish within this 12 mile limit due to time restrictions on returning to port or size of the vessel. Additionally boats that spend more time at sea than a day can also fish in certain areas within the 12 mile zone. Beyond the 12 mile zone quotas are bought and sold by EU flagged vessels under the rules of up take of unused quota by home based vessels. Quotas dictate the volume of each species and by catch of certain species a vessel can land over a period of time. Quotas are adjusted yearly with the use of retrospective scientific data, can be increased or decreased, and are not an indication of the sustainability of a stock biomass. In time levels will be found for each species to mirror catch volumes to the maximum sustainable yield – for many species this data is not sufficient to achieve this as yet. So all nice and easy. We know where we should fish, what we are fishing for and how much we are allowed to catch. One snag – Fish don't follow rules!!! 

Let me try and break down this very complex area. For a species biomass to be classed as sustainable it requires statistical data proving its catch volumes do not exceed its maximum sustainable yield. So immediately we have issues. 

1. The level of fishing effort on that stock biomass dictates whether it can sustain healthy levels at that current fishing volumes. Fishing method, therefore, is wholly irrelevant as too many boats fishing one stock biomass that is close too, or exceeding, its maximum sustainable yield is detrimental what ever the technique. 

2. Fish are not willing to stay in open areas or within boundaries. Fish migrate for a number of reasons and some do this across huge distances. 

Point 2 is the key to the argument. Take the stock biomass of Mackerel off Penzance for example. A study clearly showed this stock biomass split into three migrating parties were later to be found: 

A. Throughout the Irish sea, west of Ireland and West of Scotland as far as Shetland 
B. Along the south coast of England and the North Coast of France and in the Bay of Biscay 
C. In the Celtic Sea 

Therefore our line catching mackerel fisherman in Cornwall, whom everybody tells me is sustainable because he catches from a day boat, could as likely be increasing the pressure on the stock that is heavily fished in all the aforementioned migratory areas. It is not his fault that his beloved mackerel are also being targeted by Spanish, French or Scottish pair trawlers, but it is happening and there is nothing he can do about it. Until the complete fishing effort upon a stock is understood no claim by any one part of a fishing fleet on any one part of the migratory root can hail sustainability. The same scenario is relevant to many other migratory species such Cod, Haddock, Hake, Plaice, bass, Pollack, Coley, Sole and so on. 

Love or hate what the MSC do they actually calculate and award fisheries a sustainable status after accessing the complete migratory biomass. Each element of the effort on that biomass needs to submit catch data over a set period to offer any chance of MSC accreditation. This is why there are so few UK accredited fisheries as accreditation is so complex and on many sections of the migratory route the is insufficient data or fleets are unwilling to collate and submit catch data. All other organisations that give sustainable ratings such as the MCS, Mont Aquarium, GoodFish BadFish and Red List use MSC as a basis before giving advice. 

So let me conclude this with some key words 

Freshness (the most important word used when ascertaining fish quality) 
Day boats yield and offer some of the freshest fish available on the market today, fact. 

Line Caught 
Few species are commercially line caught in volumes by day boats. These include Mackerel, Bass and Pollack. To my knowledge there are NO UK line caught red mullet, haddock, flatfish, Dory, cod (in volume) or coley fleets. Do not get hand line or pole and line confused with long –line. 

Day Boat 
Many methods of capture are used by day boats including Line, Pots, Gill net, Trammel nets, Pelagic trawls, Dredge, Purse seine to name the most common. All have some level of by catch and some are substantially more ethical than others. 

In my opinion the best way to describe how your day boat fish is sourced. Day boat fishing methods, in most cases, cause lesser impact on the environment around the target species. 

The most over and incorrectly used term with regards to any fish or fishery. Fishing method or target species is NOT the indication of sustainability. Total fishing pressure on a migratory stock biomass is. 

I think once everybody understands the complexity of this science they might start applying the word sustainable correctly. It is NOT a sales term to put on your blackboard or for a fishmonger or wholesaler to use to make a sale, its a serious subject. If you are unsure do not use it as all you are doing is potentially misleading the diner.


  1. We agree.

    Most of our fish comes from small day boats.

    Small day boats means the fish is handled carefully and landed fresh. It also means we support small traditional fishers - the most sustainable form of fishing.

  2. Really great post, Thank you for sharing This knowledge.Excellently written article, if only all bloggers offered the same level of content as you, the internet would be a much better place. Please keep it up! new boats

  3. I have been coming up against the same issue. MSC certification is useful but, at times, difficult to get. So we have all these retailers selling fish that the MSC would classify as amber at best, but saying it's ok because they're day boats.

    What I don't understand - and please forgive me if this is a fish 101 type question - is why day boats are more ethical. Why is short range fishing particularly ethical? Surely a fish is a fish? I'd be grateful for any advice, as my family and I are currently trying to improve our food ethics.