Community Fishing Projects: Can they work in Britain?

12 Sep 2012
The Community Supported Fishery project was a great success

The Community Supported Fishery project was a great success

Bryan Gibson looks at the small boat fishing industries in the UK and along the USA’s East Coast.

“Convincing a bunch of fishermen to work together as part of a co-operative is like getting a horse to live up a tree”, was Cadgwith fisherman, Jonathan Fletcher’s closing message to BBC2 viewers at the end of the recent TV series, The Fisherman’s Apprentice. Six weekly programmes followed the village fishing community’s way-of-life, spanning the spring, winter and summer seasons at picturesque Cadgwith Cove on Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula in England.

Perhaps BBC2 should have booked an extra seat on the plane for Jonathan alongside his new chum Monty Halls, and Monty’s Cadgwith fishing mentor, Chris (Leggy) Legge, on their mission to Gloucester, Massachusetts to discover how a recently created community fish distribution project is progressing. Monty is a TV broadcaster, explorer and marine biologist, and Chris, who is already no failure as an entrepreneur, also produces Cornish pasties, paints pictures of fishing boats in oils, and is one of the few remaining skilled traditional willow lobster pot makers remaining in Cornwall,

At odds
A handful of local small boat fishermen from the Gloucester fishing community found themselves continually at odds with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), unworkable fishing quotas and the financial stranglehold they considered was being placed upon them by the fish markets. Having arrived at the conclusion that they could achieve a better financial return by supplying a more varied selection of fish species they would previously have discarded as bycatch, they decided to sell their produce directly to the consumer in a fresher and more attractive condition than the traditional American marketplace, the supermarket. So they formed a Community Supported Fishery with the support of the Needham community.

Needham is a small, predominantly middle-class town close to Gloucester. Two-hundred Needham fish consumers were asked to pay $360 (about £230), for a weekly supply of assorted fresh fish for a three month period, according to whatever species the fishing consortium had landed on that day. If weather conditions prevent the boats from fishing, then the customer’s account remains in credit. This new trading method became an instant success and the consortium was able to invest $72,000 (approximately £46,000) into its future growth.

And judging by the project’s apparent success, Jonathan Fletcher was ‘euphemistically’ wise not to park his hire-car under any of the Massachusetts trees due a rash of ponies recently abandoning their paddocks to spend their nights roosting alongside the seagulls and owls, high up in the Douglas firs.

For eight months, Monty Halls joined the Cadgwith fishing fleet of under 10 metre vessels capable of being dragged up the narrow slipway into their tiny village during the extreme weather conditions of winter and he was to learn how Cadgwith’s fishermen still manage to earn a living from Cornwall’s treacherous southern coastline, despite all their concerns surrounding what they claim to be an unfair EU quota system, too slow and inaccurate to be fit for purpose.

It became immediately clear to Monty and Chris, that the sea grass isn’t much greener across ‘The Pond’, and they soon discovered, that the large and varied commercial fishing fleet which surrounds Boston Harbour is being forced to share the Massachusetts and Maine coastline with many more commercial interests in comparison to the seas around the UK.

Stellwagen Bank
The 842m2 expanse of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is at the centre of Massachusetts Bay, right on the doorstep of the Boston fishing industry, The Stellwagen straddles the approach to Boston Harbour and Cape Cod Bay, forming an ecological barrier to the entrances of familiarly named US fishing ports such as New Bedford, Gloucester, Plymouth, Provincetown, Falmouth and Essex.

The Stellwagen Bank, was named after US Navy Lieutenant Commander Henry Stellwagen, who was commissioned to survey the bank to assist the safe passage of shipping approaching Boston in 1854. The bank was designated a national marine sanctuary in October 1992 and in 1996, a large section was closed to all methods of commercial fishing.

As a result of allowing the balance of the local eco-system to recover, and unusually, where fishing bans are concerned, big boat New Bedford scallopers and trawler skippers readily acknowledge, that total cessation of fishing in the area for the past decade is now paying a significant financial dividend to the fleet.

The Stellwagen has also spawned one of the most important eco-tourism industries on east coast USA. The bank has been named as one of the world’s top 10 whale watching sites, especially as it is the destination for migrating humpback whales arriving at The Stellwagen with their recently born calves, to swallow up to 1.4 tons of sandeels every day, and attracting an estimated one million whale watchers each year. Visitors travel from all over the globe to be given a close-up view of humpback, killer, North Atlantic right and minke whales, who represent some of the largest animals on the planet.

In a recent study, Connecticut and California State University researchers found that seafloor wild life communities in one restricted fishing area on The Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary, just like the English Channel, were showing a few signs of recovery from chronic fishing gear impact, but they are not yet fully stable. The damage caused by bottom trawlers, dredges and gillnets can permanently alter the ocean floor, destroying the benthic ecosystems that provide food and shelter for fish, as well as many other marine species.

The Stellwagen is particularly valuable as a place where people can view an entire marine food chain at work. The humble sand eel quietly feeds on clouds of animal-based plankton at river mouths, and is then prayed upon by shoals of bluefish, who, in their own turn become dish of the day for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, who is also well-advised to keep a weather-eye open for the pod of killer whales swimming close behind him, and who’s appetite for bluefin tuna greatly surpasses the most ravenous of Japanese company directors in any Tokyo sushi bar.

The humble sand eel has become almost extinct in many areas of the globe, and the once massive shoals who spend their entire lifecycle around many a heavily polluted river are known to be ingesting dangerous levels of poisonous POP’s (persistent organic pollutants) and PCB’s (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), who pass them on to the fish and mammals who prey upon them, to eventually end up in our own human food chain.

Trouble
Many large farmed species are fed fishmeal made from ocean herring and other less valuable species. Those fisheries, particularly herring, are themselves in trouble. The herring catch near Boston has been severely cut back in recent years due to overfishing and now the US bluefin tuna catch is heavily regulated and restricted, however, 200 miles off shore a boat can catch whatever it chooses, especially when a large bluefin in pursuit of prey can swim at 50mph. If a shoal of tuna were swimming safely off the Stellwagen Bank yesterday, today, they’ll be fair game for the boats eagerly awaiting their arrival over the eastern horizon.

Just as the fishermen of Cadgwith Cove were invited into the living rooms of millions of potential UK fish eaters to demonstrate the pleasures and pitfalls associated with sustainable commercial fishing around Cornwall’s English Channel coast, east coast American small boat fishermen have been managing to get their own message of conservation and sustainability across in a more tangible manner, assisted in no small measure by their ability to utilise a faster, more efficient American roads system, especially as a result of Gloucester’s close proximity to a large and prosperous city such as Boston.

What Monty may have forgotten to mention, was the massive boost to potential commercial success, ripe for the picking, due to the close proximity of many thousands of high-earning white collar workers who live a short drive up the main road from Gloucester and its Community Supported Fishing Project. So what better support could any fisherman ask for?

Maybe, what this group of American small boat fishermen have managed to achieve in the 21st century, is to have re-invented the methods of the 16, 17 and 1800’s, when the sustainability of such a small industry was maintained by the size of their boats and the amount of sail canvas the crew was capable of handling The fish never needed to travel far over land because it was salted, barrelled, smoked, or crushed for its oil, a few yards away from the quayside.

Boston suburbs such as Needham (named after Needham Down in Suffolk) whose population, according to the 2010 census, consists of 28,886 people who occupy 10,341 households. 92.3% are white, 7.1% are Asian, only 0.2% Native American and 1.4% are black American (and yes, it has been noticed that Wikipedia’s population figures add up to more than 100%). And so, unlike Cornwall’s predominantly low-level of wealthy residents, and with only one main road running through the centre of the county, it’s socio economic demographics bear very little resemblance to the fact that, on face value, only rich people seem to live near Boston.

The average annual household income for a typical Needham family is just over $144.000 (£91,000). Little wonder Gloucester Community Supported Fishing Project customers can afford to pay “that little bit extra” to increase the project’s profit margin by 30%. And unlike the British, Americans already have an insatiable appetite for fish and shellfish and in some cities demand often outstrips supply.

Risks
Anyone who has been in business, especially one that involves producing, processing and delivering an easily spoiled food product directly to the consumer, and with a shelf life of no more than three or four days, and only stays edible by remaining chilled or frozen, is probably taking on more risks than he originally bargained for.

Fish and shellfish have always played a more important role in the North American diet, probably due to the fact that most immigrant Americans still have Mediterranean or Scandinavian blood running in their veins so they are well accustomed to visiting fish, crab and lobster eating houses at highwayside shopping/restaurant centres, where they enjoy equal popularity and trading prominence with their steak house and fast-food competitors.

Monty Halls, perhaps unwittingly, but no less succinctly, ended up highlighting, that like it or not, the Cadgwith fishermen’s continued ability to sell a small proportion of their catch into a more profitable marketplace, is only possible because a massive sales and distribution infrastructure already exists to take the lion’s share of what they have caught, to restaurants, supermarkets and fish mongers, in far away places they have probably never heard of.

Back in Newlyn, Looe, Plymouth or Brixham in the UK, as soon as the auctioneer’s hammer goes down, the commercial fisherman is paid what his catch was worth on the day and he is free to return to sea to do what he does best. All the logistical problems of collection, distribution and selling an easily spoilable food product has been removed by a thoroughly efficient local fish market system, or at the fisherman’s home port, where all the fisherman has to do is to help the driver load his fish boxes into the wholesaler’s lorry.

It would take a very long time for any small fishermen’s co-operative to recoup all the infrastructure costs associated with a large scale, direct to the consumer delivery system, other than being supplied to the customer in small polystyrene boxes on a very localised basis.

Possibly the biggest problem facing the UK fishing industry, is that there are not enough people in Britain whose first preference is a relatively costly meal of fish. British people only eat about 1.8 kilos of fish per year, representing a mere six portions of cod, plaice or haddock, compared with the American average consumption of around 16 to18 kilos.

Without an inordinate amount of costly marketing to advertise the fact that all fish does not always arrive covered in batter and served with chips and peas, it may never be possible to convert millions of dyed-in-the-wool British meat eaters, especially when many of the places where it is sold or cooked, smells…well…so damnably fishy!

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