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The uncomfortable truth about fishing

Whenever we ask what else you would like to buy from Riverford besides veg, the answer is always ‘fish’. So, with Brixham (England’s biggest fishing port) just 15 miles away, we started asking for a definition of sustainable fishing. After meetings with fishers, traders, environmental organisations and marine biologists, the only method all could agree on was line-caught fish from day boats under 10m long.

Fishing with lines from a static boat avoids the damage to the sea floor caused by beam trawling, and allows you to target sustainable species (unlike indiscriminate nets), as well as reducing pollution and saving on fuel. This method accounts for a fraction of UK fish, and is highly weather and season dependent, which is why we have such a limited offer. Anyone offering you a continuous range of fresh, day boat-landed fish is lying, but don’t be surprised; this is a murky industry, where regulation has failed, and lying and illegality are endemic.

Last night I watched Seaspiracy (the Netflix documentary on the impact of fishing). Despite hating the film’s out-of-context quotes, misleading statistics and generalisations, I found it hard to disagree with the main conclusion: that there is almost no sustainable fishing, and the labels claiming sustainability fall a long way short of delivering it. Beam trawling destroys the sea bed, causes more CO2 emissions than the entire global aviation industry, and contributes to the 10-50 per cent (depending on where/how you measure it) of marine plastic that is derived from fishing tackle.

Brixham fishing port in Devon is home to a range of vessels. Image Mark AC Photos. 

Drift nets are too often lost, entangling and killing wildlife. And this is all before you consider the effect on the target fish, and the by-catch, including marine mammals. Who could possibly argue that this is sustainable? Although, I am painfully aware that a fisher could say the same about 99 per cent of agriculture.

So should we just not eat fish, as the film says? I would argue that, just like in farming, we need effective, enforceable, national and international regulation – not misleading labels and uncontrolled market forces. We need marine reserves where all commercial fishing is banned. Disturbance of the sea bottom should be illegal. Quotas need to be redistributed to smaller, local boats. Plundering of fish stock in the developing world by large foreign boats must stop, and fossil fuels must be taxed. If that is politically undoable, then yes, we should stop eating fish.

On a brighter note, it seems you can eat as many (non-dredged) mussels as you like. 



    1 Week 1 Day

    Hey Guy (if it really you) you definitely should list Fish4Ever. I'm in exchanges right now coincidentally on another of your blogs re carbon/climate change which we are in the process of trying to address in terms of our personal footprint. On fishing we were outraged by the simplistic conclusion reached by Seaspiracy and have published our own blog response here:-

    The New Economic Foundation, one of the best NGO's around published this:

    As Fish4Ever we've addressed every single issue that the documentary raised in terms of sustainability, confronted fake logos yonks ago, campaigned and engaged, above all brought an organic set of values right into the heart of "sustainable" fishing. if your customers are asking for fish, you definitely should list Fish4Ever This year we're sponsoring a scheme with one of the best organic retailers in Europe for our tuna to become plastic positive and two years ago we managed to get it certified Naturland. Naturland is a leading organic certifier and farmers group based in Germany (as you probably know) like Demeter or the Soil Association - but with a wild fish certification. it's the only Naturland certified tuna in the world.

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    6 Days 19 Hours

    Agree with Charles about Fish4Ever: and it tastes fab. Our favourites are Wild Sprats in Springwater which we currently source from

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    5 Days 20 Hours

    I agree with Guy: ''If that is politically undoable, then yes, we should stop eating fish.''.
    A brave, honest thing to say.
    Some fish may taste fab, but they suffer in many cases, a horrible death, just to satisfy our gastronomic requirements. I so often feel ashamed of the human species and our propensity for ignoring the pain and cruelty inflicted on those unable to defend themselves, especially, when non-animal alternatives are available.

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    5 Days 20 Hours

    I was going to watch Seaspiracy because I wanted to confirm my suspicion that it would be a load of bunk - I studied fisheries science. Thanks to Charles for saving me the effort.

    @Splendiferous I think you need to remember there are millions of people in the world who live off the sea, and if they don't get the fish, then something else in the food chain will. Nature is sometimes cruel and humans have many generations to go before we can evolve ourselves beyond that cruelty. Our so-called humanity is but a thin veneer over a savage, under-evolved ape.

    2 Replies

    view replies

    a cruelty-free zone

    4 Days 15 Hours

    I am truly curious to know what you think the 'something else in the food chain' is that could possibly rival humanity in its supremely innovative methods of inflicting pain and destruction? Ecosystems are finely balanced and nothing in nature, except human beings, takes more than it needs. Humans use up as many resources as possible , destroying as much as possible in the process, and throw away roughly 1/3 of what they produces/catches. I don't see whales and dolphins learning to use trawlers anytime soon, so how about we catch what we need and leave the rest where it belongs?

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    4 Days 13 Hours

    I'm all for catching what we need. Not sure the first part of your comment was relevant to what I said about horrible deaths.

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    4 Days 15 Hours

    I take your point Adam42, about nature and cruelty, but agree with the other reply, well put by cruelty free zone. We cannot be sure that a fish not caught by a human, will inevitably die by some other creature in the food chain. It could live a much longer life perhaps, just as we want to do.
    I understand many have no choice but to live off the sea, but those who do not, can make the compassionate choice, to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain, and choosing non animal food. I hope our so-called humanity somehow goes beyond the savage, I hope we can improve, who knows.

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    5 Days 19 Hours

    So as not to be all negative, here's some good news about the seas:

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    5 Days seems to go a long way towards meeting your requirements. An evening email lists fish landed that day from a selection of day boats, and you place an order which arrives around 36 hours later. Rough weather can mean very limited listings!

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

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