Sustainable, delicious and easy to cook – so why won’t the Brits touch it?

A flat fish that has teeming stocks in our waters is being heralded as one of the most sustainable and tasty fish currently being caught by the UK fleet; the problem is no one’s heard of it.

According to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) – the voice of the UK fishing industry – megrim is the latest fish that has seen a dramatic improvement in sustainability levels. Yet despite the fleet landing 3,300 tonnes of it last year alone - about the weight of 260 double-decker buses – the majority was exported to Spain and France where the fish is in high demand.

Caught all across the UK by British fishermen, megrim sole is a flatfish similar in flavour to the highly regarded Dover sole, yet at around a third or less of the price. From the same family as turbot and brill, it has softer flesh and thin skin that can be easily crisped during cooking.

According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the most respected scientific body advising on the sustainability of commercial fish stocks, megrim is currently being underutilised and fishermen could land two and half times as much without jeopardising future sustainability.

Until recently, hake suffered a similar reputation to megrim in that British eaters shunned it, while the Spanish ate up to 6kg each every year. However, a recent renaissance in the UK has seen hake sales increase 65 per cent. Monkfish and prawns are also examples of seafood species which, twenty years ago, had no market value and are now two of the most valuable species for the industry.

Regardless of megrim’s place as a largely unknown fish, it is still one of the most important species to fishermen based in the South West of England. One of these fishermen, Tom McClure, said: “Megrim is one of those fish that really ticks all the boxes for fish lovers – it’s sustainably sourced, plentiful, easy to cook and far cheaper than traditional favourites. It’s therefore a little confusing as to why the vast majority of our catch has to be exported to mainland Europe.”

The NFFO recently partnered with Masterchef presenter Gregg Wallace to host an event dedicated to celebrating the diversity of Britain’s seafood. Dubbed ‘Deck to Dinner’, the event was held in the heart of London at Billingsgate fish market and saw award winning chefs from across the UK contribute recipes and cooking demonstrations designed to show consumers how delicious many sustainable but underused fish species can be. The event was filmed, with the NFFO releasing a “Sustainable Seafood Series” of videos showcasing the species on show. The megrim video can be viewed here.

Dave Watts, a top upcoming chef, who spent eight years under the tutelage of Raymond Blanc, created a recipe for megrim with pink fir apple potatoes, green olives and seaweed tartare, which can be downloaded by visiting www.nffo.org.uk

Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the NFFO, said: “The last decade has seen a major attitudinal shift within the industry and fishermen now place sustainability at the heart of operations because it’s in their best interests to do so. This is now paying dividends as reflected in the most recent scientific findings.

“The UK fleet catches a variety of unique, delicious and highly sustainable fish that are regularly overlooked. Deck to Dinner is all about championing these and the fact some of these fish are at the more affordable end of the market means people’s taste buds, wallets and conscience will benefit from eating them.”

National Seafood Week runs from Friday 9th October to Friday 16th October and is designed to celebrate the breadth and variety of British seafood. Watch the NFFO’s Deck to Dinner video and be inspired by the seven delicious sustainable recipes here: http://nffo.org.uk/responsible-fishing/deck-to-dinner.
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There have been an increasing number of sporadic but significant hauls of spurdog (Squalus acanthias) encountered by Cornish fishermen in recent months. Just last week a Newlyn based trawler accidently caught over 10 tonnes of spurdog while fishing for John Dory around the Isles of Scilly. This meant damaged fishing gear, lost fishing time and a great deal of frustration for the skipper involved. To make it even worse under current EU fishing rules not one of the spurdog could be landed for human consumption or sold.

Cornish fishermen are no longer able to land spurdog because of stock status fears that led to a zero Total Allowable Catch (TAC) being introduced in 2010, since when no landings of spurdog have been allowed in the European Union (EU).
It would be logical to think that a zero TAC for spurdog means a zero take or zero fishing mortality on the stock, but as spurdog are widespread and locally abundant throughout the Western Approaches and other areas of the North East Atlantic this is simply not the case.
The reality is that there are accidental by-catches of spurdog in many mixed-fisheries not just in Cornwall but around the UK, this inevitably leads to a level of fishing mortality of spurdog. Under the current EU management regime these perfectly good fish must be discarded whether they are dead or alive. There is no real benefit for the stock, fishermen or wider society under the current regime of discarding dead spurdog. This is a waste of a perfectly good food resource and is clearly not in line with the principles of the recently reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and in particular the much heralded Landings Obligation (“discard ban”).

In an effort to end this madness Cornish fishermen have been at the forefront of working in partnership with scientists from CEFAS and policy makers from DEFRA since 2010 in a genuine effort to assist scientists, managers and policy makers to better understand that the current management measures for spurdog are not in tune with what they encounter on a daily basis at sea, as well as giving a valuable insight into spurdog behaviour and interactions with fishing gears in the South West.
At the heart of this ongoing working relationship is a desire to improve genuine, rather than cosmetic, management of spurdog whilst providing legitimate flexibility within the future landings obligation to account for unpredictable and unavoidable spurdog catches, i.e. allowing the landing of dead spurdog.
The Cornish Fish Producer’s Organisation (CFPO) is now taking part in an important part of the ongoing work. In conjunction with CEFAS and DEFRA it is developing a pilot project using a real time reporting system, similar to that used for the cod recovery programme in the North Sea. The project will be carried out in the Western Approaches/Celtic Sea (ICES Divisions VIIe-j). Fishermen are asked to report any spurdog catches within pre-defined reporting grids and that information can then be fed back to other skippers.
It is envisaged that the project will assist skippers by giving them up-to-date information on spurdog movements and allow skippers to make informed decisions about potential interactions. This will hopefully reduce the occurrence of significant spurdog catch events and contribute to the perceived stock improvement being witnessed by fishermen. It will not result in a complete avoidance of spurdog catches. The CFPO is therefore calling for an ability to land a marketable dead spurdog bycatch with a nominal landing allowance that does not incentivise targeting of the stock.
This proposed solution allows for the ongoing recovery of spurdog in the North East Atlantic by reducing fishing induced mortality, further improving scientific understanding of spurdog and its interactions with fishermen, whilst allowing incidental dead spurdog by-catch to be landed and marketed. This would appear be the most logical option for a way forward and of course would be in the interests of fishermen, scientists, managers and conservation.
International support for this initiative was clearly given at the most recent North Western Waters Advisory Council (NWW AC) in July, with backing from all present at the meeting and a willingness from other member states to be actively involved. For the project to work effectively, there needs to be a high level of industry-science collaboration and cooperation.
Paul Trebilcock Chief Executive of the CFPO said “Progress has been frustratingly slow on this issue. But credit must go to the skippers and crews who have remained engaged and continue to work with scientists and policy makers. There is no question in my mind that spurdog populations are increasing throughout the Western Approaches and beyond. This perception is being echoed by fishermen across Europe.

I genuinely believe that DEFRA and CEFAS understand that the current EU management regime for spurdog isn’t compatible with the Landing Obligation and are committed to changing it. George Eustice and his DEFRA team have clearly stated that the UK position will be to seek a landing allowance to stop the unnecessary waste of dead by-caught spurdog as part of the pilot project we are involved in.”

​A team of Cornish fishermen joined their contemporaries from around the country at a ‘Deck to Dinner’ event at Billingsgate Fish Market last week with famous food writer and food lover Gregg Wallace.

The event, organised by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), launched a new campaign that will encourage more people to try different types of sustainably caught fish from around our shores. It follows the release of new scientific research showing that stocks of many commercial fish species have reached Maximum Sustainable Yield, which is the gold standard of sustainability.

According to the NFFO, the big ‘seafood staples’ including cod and haddock have seen a dramatic resurgence in sustainability over recent years, and this success is paralleled by many other tasty and sustainable species that rarely find their way into our kitchens.

Deck to Dinner saw Wallace and a team of award winning, household-name chefs join forces with the fishermen to create a series of easy to cook recipes for what the NFFO calls its ‘Magnificent Seven of Sustainable Seafood’ - crab, megrim, plaice, coley, mackerel, hake and gurnard.

The Cornish fishermen, all members of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO), attended the event to offer their seafood knowledge to the chefs. James Chown, Tom McClure and Andrew Pascoe are all life-long fishermen and between them catch an incredible and diverse range of species. They enjoyed sharing their expertise with the chefs, some of whom were cooking with species they had never handled before.

Tom McClure Skipper/Owner of the ‘Harvest Reaper’ PZ 329 said: “it was a very worthwhile event and an interesting experience. It was great to see professional and passionate chefs working with top quality Cornish seafood. It was surprising to find that megrim sole still remains relatively unknown here in the UK, even amongst the professional chefs. When Gregg Wallace tasted megrim, he declared that it was better than Dover sole. And it costs less than half the price!”

The initiative is designed to show that more unusual species can be just as easy to cook as the ‘big five’ - salmon, cod, haddock, tuna and prawns - which command over 70 per cent of all UK seafood sales, according to the latest data from Seafish.

Gregg Wallace, said: “It’s interesting to see from the new research that despite over eighty percent of people saying they prefer to eat seafood at home rather than in a restaurant, the majority stick to the same two or three species. Deck to Dinner is all about showing people the breadth and variety of sustainable seafood offered by the UK fleet and most importantly how easy it is to prepare a simple yet delicious, nutritious and often more affordable meal at home.”

“Fish is one of the healthiest and tastiest food options out there and hopefully through Deck to Dinner people will find a new and unusual favourite!”

“The UK fleet catches a variety of unique, delicious and highly sustainable fish that are regularly overlooked. Deck to Dinner is all about championing these and the fact some of these fish are at the more affordable end of the market means people’s taste buds, wallets and conscience will benefit from eating them.”

Paul Trebilcock, chief executive of the CFPO and president of the NFFO, commented: “The range of species landed throughout the UK and particularly here in Cornwall is fantastically diverse, British fishermen are certainly giving consumers plenty to choose from., Sustainability is at the very heart of our fishing industry and we are very excited to be involved in Deck to Dinner, which is all about getting that message across to the public. Fishermen in this country have come a long way in the last 10 years and are now rightly regarded by many as sustainable food producing heroes. I hope this initiative encourages the public to get behind and support British fishermen by enjoying more and different types of wonderful British seafood. ”

Andrew Pascoe skipper and owner of 2 vessels operating out of Newlyn; ’ Lamorna’ SS 28 and ‘Ajax’ PZ 36 added : “Gregg Wallace was an enthusiastic and well informed host at the launch event. He was very clear in his message that there are alternatives which are actually cheaper than our staples, as well as being very tasty. Cornish Hake, which we are catching at the moment, is a great example of a plentiful and sustainable fish that is under used here in the UK. I would encourage everyone to try a new fish for dinner and make sure it is sustainable, top-quality Cornish fish!”
​The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd (CFPO) is a producer organisation based in Newlyn, Cornwall. We have approximately 180 vessels (current membership list is attached for information) in membership ranging in size from 5 metre single-handed cove boats to beam trawlers over 30 metres in length. Our vessels use a diverse range of fishing techniques including trawling, beam trawling, crab/lobster potting, gill-netting, longlining, drift-netting, scallop dredging, ring-netting and hand-lining.
The CFPO is the largest regional fishermen’s organisation in England and represents the majority of over-10m demersal fishing vessel owners operating out of Cornwall as well as significant proportion of the active under-10m vessel owners.

We therefore fully appreciate and understand the full range of issues confronting DEFRA in this consultation.

It is a reality that there is a level of latent capacity in the under-10m fleet (both fin fish and shellfish). The level to which this latent capacity has the potential to undermine future management measures is unclear and unquantifiable at this stage.

A further capping round as proposed by DEFRA in the consultation paper is not supported by the CFPO. It is not a sensible way to proceed at this time, especially given the imminent landings obligation and the challenges it will provide. The relationship between capped licence regime and the landings obligation requirements have clearly not been adequately considered or thought through properly.

Alternative Approach
As an alternative we would suggest a change to the current fishing vessel licencing regime to permit then aggregation of under-10m licences with ovr-10m vessel licences.

This in effect would amount to an industry funded decommissioning scheme.

Overcapacity in the over-10m sector has been dealt with in the past through a combination of publicly-funded decommissioning and consolidation by vessel owners to match their capacity with their quota holdings. It is very important that the licensing policy that we advocate does not undermine the progress that has been made in this part of the fleet.

For this reason we suggest stringent safeguards are put in place for example that approval of any licence aggregation which involves under-10m and over-10m licences is subject to approval of a detailed fishing plan which would ensure that the fishing opportunities necessary were available to the vessel concerned.

A further restriction concerning shellfish would be necessary. The aggregation of licences onto any over 15m vessel holding a shellfish entitlement should not be permitted at this time. (Particularly given current Western Waters effort regulations).

It would be fundamentally important that this type of scheme does not undermine the progress that has been made in the over-10m sector.

Aggregation Restriction
In addition to this consideration should be given to a temporary restriction on the aggregation of two or more under-10m licences. The objective of this should be to prevent the further expansion of the high catching capacity sector of the under-10m fleet. In reality this part of the fleet developed rapidly in response to the arbitrary division of the fleet at 10m and the management pressures in the over-10m fleet.

The CFPO remains committed to full engagement with DEFRA on the sensible and practical management of the Under-10m fleet.