From policy to plate: How the new Fisheries Bill affects the sustainability of your seafood

By Clara Johnston, MCS Fisheries Policy Advocate.

Commercial fishing is arguably the last form of large scale “hunting” of a wild resource and therefore requires progressive and robust management to ensure it’s done sustainably. The new Fisheries Bill – working its way through UK parliament right now – gives the UK an amazing opportunity to develop world-leading fisheries management with sustainability at its heart and deliver ocean-friendly seafood for consumers to enjoy. I very much hope the final version of the Bill delivers just that and will go as far as possible to achieve healthy seas.

Houses of Parliament 2 - London

Back in 2018 the Government stated their intent to set ‘a gold standard for sustainable fishing around the world’. Since then they have released two versions of the Fisheries Bill, the second of which was made public at the end of January 2020. Although this new Bill does build on the first by including some additional objectives on climate change and bycatch, it’s still very far from the ‘gold standard’ we have been promised. It’s incredibly important the new Fisheries Bill outlines clear and legally binding criteria which aims to protect all stocks from overfishing. Unfortunately, the Bill still contains loopholes and exceptions which make it easy for authorities to fall short of delivering the objectives. Therefore, while the objectives might look good on paper, there is a real concern they may not be achieved.

Requirements for sustainable and responsive management

If developed and put in place properly, effective management can both prevent stocks from being over-exploited and recover populations that are already in decline. In 2012, numbers of Shetland brown crab reached their lowest levels since recording began in 2000; this decline prompted urgent actions, including limits on fishing. The prompt implementation of new management measures by industry and local authorities has led to a steady increase in the brown crab population ever since. Crab sizes have also been increasing, which is indicative of not only a growing, but a healthier population. As a result, the Shetland brown crab fishery (which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council) has been given a green rating (Best choice) in our latest Good Fish Guide, so is a great option if you ever see it on a menu!

Bringing Shetland brown crab back from the brink is an encouraging example of what can be achieved when management measures are put in place and adhered to, it would be great to see plans put in place to protect and recover all populations that are not currently at healthy levels. Having the right criteria in the new Fisheries Bill could make this a reality, but the current version needs improvement.

Fishing boats dock

A commitment to cameras

We shouldn’t really be waiting for fish populations to fall below healthy levels before intervening. Instead, we should be going one step further and preventing this from happening in the first place. Often the first step of any successful management plan is having accurate scientific information regarding the current status of the stock; unfortunately, this isn’t always available. One key change to the Fisheries Bill could help address this – a commitment to roll out Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras.

Cameras have been in use for over 15 years in various countries to support authorities in the monitoring and management of their fisheries and it’s about time the UK and devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) made the most of this technology as well. Cameras are a cost-effective alternative to having observers on vessels which collect vital data which can be used for accurate stock and species assessments. Cameras also have the added benefit of being able to collect data 24/7 and require far fewer resources than your average observer. Additionally, they can play an important part in ensuring compliance with fisheries rules like the discards ban and requirements to use certain types of fishing gear. I think a commitment to rolling-out REM with cameras gives us the best chance to achieve sustainable ‘gold standard’ fisheries management and could revolutionise the UK’s fishing industry. As the new Fisheries Bill is still making its way through Parliament we now have the ideal opportunity to achieve this and secure a commitment to using REM with cameras in the final version.

We’re part way there, but a few more improvements to the Fisheries Bill could get us even closer to finally achieving healthy seas around the UK. It could also make it that little bit easier for everyone to make sustainable seafood choices, confident “UK caught” means “sustainably caught”.