Ever since I began my fisheries odyssey, I’ve consistently witnessed and realised the importance and relevance of sustainability. As I always profess, it’s a term that’s sometimes used very glibly and without due reference to the more specific and often unseen criteria that have to assemble, to create the defining infrastructure of stable and prosperous communities.
Whilst visiting the multitude of harbours, ports, beaches, auctions, boatyards and quays, around the shores of the U.K., it never ceases to amaze me, the extent of the commercial interactions necessary to support an industry such as our fisheries enjoy. The skippers, the crew, the merchants, auctioneers and harbour authorities. The fuel suppliers, transport managers, net makers, engineers and fitters. The ice plant, Mission man, RNLI and Coastguard, provisioners, chandlers and electricians. All these trades and a myriad more, play an integral and critical role in sustaining the prime function of these iconic coastal destinations, namely the catching, sale and processing of fish and shellfish from our waters, that constitute a staggering 765,000 tonne yearly haul with an equally impressive value that stands the industry at £860 million. (MMO UK annual fisheries statistics 2014)
It’s no surprise then, with approximately 6,300 vessels of all classes operating around our shores that the need for a collective and unified approach to maintaining the viability and operational integrity of the fleet is of paramount importance. Even more so when you consider the disparate nature of some of the operatives, in a sector where although achieving essentially a common aim (hunting a wild food source) comparisons are often difficult to make, where techniques and scale can differ so widely.
I’ve been struck by this notion of industry collaboration before. I’ve experienced it working to good effect in agriculture, where different farming elements have galvanised their approach in supporting each other, the interrelations between business owners/managers and their customers, having resulted in huge advances being made in training, knowledge transfer and succession planning, leading to greater commercial stability.
Impressed I’ve been too, by the stance taken by HRH the Prince of Wales in his support of agriculture and its allied trades, especially in the artisan sector. His vision to secure a viable, progressive and environmentally sensitive future for food production made me think that a similar approach rolled out across the fishing industry, where exponents could benefit from group thinking, knowledge and idea sharing, and a sense of unity across all disciplines could bring hugely positive benefits to not only individuals and businesses, but communities too, leading to more cooperation, better mutual understanding, risk management and the easing of local tensions.
Last autumn I wrote to him, voicing my own rather insignificant concerns, and following his secretary’s prompt and enlightening reply, I soon realised he was already way ahead of the game. His Marine Programme as part of the International Sustainability Unit (ISU) has sought to do just what I’ve noted above, seeking out ways to achieve industry consensus as to building on and maintaining both food and livelihood security. The upshot of this vision has been the recognition that fishermen need to, not only to work together to find long lasting industry solutions, but they are in fact a crucial part of the overall solution. Their knowledge, innovation and best practice reflecting directly on all three pillars of sustainability:
Social, Environmental, Economic
“So, how to address the concept of cohesion more fully? It’s obvious that fishermen need to lead the way, but they also need the tools and framework with which to do this. Working alongside Seafish the ISU initiated Fishing into the Future to do just that. With fishermen at its helm, FitF’s constitution of Trustees unites the industry, scientists, and managers – all of whom have wholeheartedly embraced the notion of sustainability, translating its doctrine into innovation and prosperity.”
I’ve since become acquainted and in the last few weeks have become increasingly excited by the passion, drive and commitment of the Trustees of this independent and not-for-profit charity, that seeks to address the issues and problems listed above, by galvanising the industry at all levels and promoting best practice and collaboration across the length and breadth of our abundant and diverse UK fisheries.
Alan Steer, Trustee, Chairman of the group and South Devon crab fishermen, explained to me some of the challenges they faced.
Speaking from a Dartmouth boatyard in between glossing and anti-fouling his 12m crabber “Superb -Us” Alan succinctly addresses the aims and objectives of the group going forward.
“The inaugural workshop in Brixham in 2013 set the scene for our remit”, he tells me. “Our message is clear. We want fishermen of all sectors to actively collaborate in order to achieve cohesion across the industry. Data sharing and knowledge transfer sits at the heart of this and we’re encouraging our subscribers and members to be proactive in communicating, whether it’s swapping ideas or information or collating data and statistics for wider use in determining policy and to assist this process, we’re looking to establish a protocol system which will provide the necessary framework.”
A powerful message which will hopefully resonate in parliamentary corridors and convey the passion and determination of Alan and his contemporaries, to secure viable and sustainable futures for fishermen of all classes and types, through the desire to assist government in reaching considered and practical policy.
Elaborating further, he keenly demonstrates that training is also key and a vital element of the FitF philosophy.
“The training we’re looking to provide will reflect our desire to embrace the real-time aspects of fisheries management,” he asserts. “For far too long, science has been out of step with the reality of what’s happening on the shop floor and our training will involve helping fishermen to capture, record and deliver live, but highly relevant data to those who can successfully interpret it. We aim to run more workshops and seminars which will hopefully encourage members to attend, especially when they see the benefits and appeal of working together.”
“The pilot training workshop that we’re running in Scotland, will be based around the need to equip skippers with the “toolbox” required to interact with management. Knowledge exchange and a science-based grounding in ecosystem and fisheries management will form the basis for future training and will provide the platform and structure necessary for fishermen to be able to engage.”
But how on earth do you manage to engage a profession which works in such incredibly isolated and often fiercely competitive ways? How do you go about unifying such a scattered and technically diverse population and then presenting to them the premise that cooperation and collaboration are to their collective benefit?
For further pragmatism and a detailed explanation of the science element of FitF agenda, I called on another Trustee and highly respected CEFAS scientist Steve Mackinson who presented an equally passionate, but dialectic, view on the current state of affairs surrounding UK fisheries and how dialogue and the presentation of pertinent data could ensure that fishermen’s voices and opinions might not only be just heard, but respected and acted upon.
Initially, I inquire as to his role within the organisation and his remit in assisting with the delivery of the FitF objectives. I learn that a scientific background, across all fishery disciplines has amply equipped him with an extensive reservoir of knowledge and experience that perfectly compliments the Board’s skill set. “There’s absolutely no use in talking for the sake of it,” is Steve’s opening gambit. “We require like-minded thinkers in this forum. My job is to assist in developing a strategy whereby the protocols for delivering scientifically credible and relevant data, dictate that industry engagement is encouraged and that participating fishermen feel that their efforts are justly rewarded through their submissions being acted upon. FitF promotes and facilitates the collaboration between fishermen of all sectors. It’s a platform that exists for the sole purpose of uniting like-minded people to share their knowledge, experience and innovation. Of course, not everyone falls into this category, but there’s a growing sense of purpose here and a willingness for more to be involved.”
I sense that although still early days, much has been achieved, since the Brixham meeting, in laying the foundations of this incentive. Although a non-lobbying body, it displays real conviction and purpose for submitting evidence that will encourage policy makers, NGO’s and enforcers that there is considerable and profitable merit in listening to the advice emanating from the deck and wheelhouse.
But is it just all still talk? Have the plethora of discussions and debates over the last few years, translated into something more tangible ?
“We already have work in progress,” I’m enthusiastically informed. “As part of our Fishermen-Science Interface Programme, we’re currently working with a sentinel project in the South West channel scallop fishery. This will allow us to assess data that skippers are collecting, with ultimate aim of demonstrating just how sustainable this important species is and how its progressive management can be assured, whilst maintaining vessel profitability”.
In the pipeline too, many other projects, that look to dovetail perfectly alongside existing work being carried out by Seafish and CEFAS and will undoubtedly assist in bringing clarity to the vagaries and uncertainties of the Landing Obligation. Another prime example of current issues being addressed from the forefront, with fishermen at the heart of the research.
But it’s by no means an easy route. In an industry where sacrifice is met on a daily and very sadly, a too-often-reported ultimate basis, the confidence required by fishermen in the system has to be acknowledged in their prosperity. Steve Mackinson is at pains to point out that effective management must start with a strong evidence base, if objectives are to be achieved. For all the data collection, monitoring, innovation, best practice and environmental sensitivity, there has to be one overriding commercial reality – profitability. If fishermen aren’t able to prosper then the labours of this massively important work are for nought and sustainability fails.
As Alan Steer sums up perfectly:
“If a fishermen is in the red, then he can’t afford to be green.”
Taking this all on board, the future for fishing looks incredibly promising. It’ll need all the drive, passion and commitment that the industry can muster, but the outcome will undoubtedly be worth it. It’s happening as we speak. With the right philosophy, the criticisms, tribulations and accusations of the past can be left astern, as progress, viability and succession ensure sustainability across the whole industry.
In the words of HRH:
“Seeing is believing”
Mike Warner May 2016