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Blue ecolabel is key driver of sustainability in UK fishing over last 20 years – report reveals

Karen Attwood

Senior PR Manager UK & Ireland   

  • Almost 150 changes to fishing practices since 2001 - driven by Marine Stewardship Council’s ecolabel – the world leader for sustainable seafood 
  • MSC urge UK government to seize once in a generation moment to ensure sustainability is embedded across all aspects of fisheries management 
Consumer demand has been a key driver of sustainability in the UK fishing industry over the last 20 years, a major report reveals today. 

The State of the Water Report for UK and Ireland is the first of its kind from the Marine Stewardship Council UK (MSC). The MSC sets a global standard for sustainability against which fisheries are certified and its blue ecolabel is the world leader for sustainable seafood.  

The report is being released as part of Sustainable Seafood September, a campaign to encourage seafood lovers to choose seafood only from sustainable sources for this month and beyond.  
Some 146 improvements have been made since 2001 to make the UK’s fishing practices far more sustainable, the State of the Water report reveals. Continuous improvement ensures that sustainable fisheries have healthier fish stocks and minimise their impact on the marine environment.  

There are currently 19 MSC certified fisheries, comprising 579 vessels and representing 20% (1) of the UK and Ireland’s national seafood landings. Mussels, crab, haddock, coley, sardines and hake are among the certified species caught landed in UK and Irish waters.   

Consumer demand for sustainable seafood products with the blue MSC ecolabel has helped drive these positive changes. The demand has incentivised retailers to put certification at the heart of their sustainable sourcing policies, which in turn has led to more fisheries making the improvements needed to reach the high bar to be certified. Some 77% of UK seafood consumers want sustainability claims from supermarkets and brands to be independently labelled. (2) 

However, the MSC believes that with the UK government consulting on the future of UK fishing post-Brexit, there is a once in a generation moment to ensure sustainability is embedded into all aspects of fisheries management.  

Policy makers are increasingly recognising the need to scale up the production of sustainable food from oceans, rivers and lakes, known as Blue Foods, as one of the most effective ways to feed a growing global population while reducing the environmental impacts of food production. MSC UK & Ireland fisheries have a vital role to play in this Blue Foods Revolution.  

George Clark, MSC UK & Ireland Programme Director, said: “In order to continue to deliver positive environmental outcomes in our seas while keeping healthy and nutritious fish and seafood on our plates, it’s imperative that UK government and policy makers deliver on the aspiration for our fisheries to become truly world leading in terms of sustainable management. 

With climate change warming our seas and so disturbing the movement and distribution of our fish stocks, it is now more important than ever that UK fisheries become resilient to these ever-increasing pressures, through being managed sustainably. The MSC certified fisheries featured in this first ever UK and Ireland State of the Water Report show how meeting a high bar of sustainability is achievable and creates real, lasting, positive impacts for our marine environment as a result.” 

The first UK fishery to be certified was Thames Blackwater herring in 2000, followed by Burry Inlet cockles in 2001 which has retained its certificate to this day.  

Yearly audits of certified fisheries ensure that required improvements are continuously made, using the most up to the date research, science and technology available in the world of sustainable fishing. 

MSC certified fisheries often go beyond required legislation. One example is by, introducing voluntary closed areas in order to protect various species. The Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group implemented a voluntary closure to protect all known records of Funiculina, a tall, narrow, sea pen, in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway.  

Shetland’s scallop fishermen now avoid specified closed areas in order to protect endangered horse mussels - whose beds are known to provide an important foundation for other marine life - and maerl - a type of coral and another important habitat, particularly for crabs, urchins and worms. 

John Robertson, Inshore Co-ordinator, at Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation (SSMO), said:  

 “It’s good to see the hard work of Shetland fishermen commended in this report. It’s not easy to meet the standards needed for MSC approval but the effort pays off for our fishermen through stronger prices and a stable market. When stocks are managed to be sustainable it means plenty crab and scallops out there for our fleet to catch.” 

Thomas Russell, clam fisherman at the Poole Harbour clam and cockle fishery, in Dorset, said: “We understand the need for sustainable fishing. There has to be a future for those who come after you. You can’t plunder nature. It’s been proven so many times that if you let the stock breed, the stock will replenish itself.” 

Other stand-out improvements made to UK fisheries include: 

  • The introduction of a Dolphin Deterrent Device on board all vessels at the MSC certified hake fishery in Cornwall. The sound waves from this acoustic pinger are successfully deterring dolphins and other cetaceans from the fleet’s fishing nets. 
  • Cornish sardines experienced stock related issues and decline in the 1990s. Through addressing the problem of overfishing, rebuilding fish stocks and implementing effective 
  •  management measures, the fishery is now thriving and is an excellent example of the miraculous turnaround that can be achieved through managing fish stocks sustainably. 
  • Fishermen in the North Sea and off the west coast of Scotland fishing for coley now have digital cameras on deck to monitor whether they also catch any common skate.  If they do, this critically endangered species is returned live back to sea. 
  • In addition, clam and cockle fishermen in Poole Harbour in Dorset were given training and educational materials to help them to identify protected species, as part of a project that received funding from the MSC’s Ocean Stewardship Fund, a global fund providing grants to support fisheries on the sustainability journey, and to invest in new scientific research.