This is how we should get our fish: interview with Guy Dorrell of ‘Faircatch’

Blog home
1
Posted Jul 25 2016 by Guy Dorrell of Faircatch

I went to visit Guy Dorrell from Faircatch the other day, and was truly blown away by what he’s up to. Now this is how we should get our fish. Here’s my interview with him.

Lowimpact: So what exactly is Faircatch, and how does it work?

Guy Dorrell: I get fish from small day boats in small towns around the south coast, and bring them to collection points around south-west London – Wandsworth, Battersea, Putney, Wimbledon, and soon, hopefully, Tooting. Customers pay up front for a certain weight of fish – enough for meals for two, four or six people. Customers can collect weekly or fortnightly. I call it ‘Community-supported Fish (CSF)’ or a ‘Fishbox scheme’ – after Community-supported Agriculture and veg boxes. Customers get fish direct from the boats, and they can often eat fish that was swimming in the sea the same morning.

faircatch1

LI: What’s a small day boat?

GD: It’s a small, family fishing boat that goes out for a day and catches lobsters and crabs with pots, and fish with small, static nets. I don’t deal with the big trawlers that kill indiscriminately and damage the sea bed. I can tell customers the name of the boat and the name of the skipper who caught their fish. That’s real traceability.

LI: How did you get into it, and when?

GD: I watched a TV series called the Fisherman’s Apprentice in 2012, presented by Monty Halls. He went to Cornwall to learn how to be an inshore fisherman on a small boat. He found that it was very difficult to make a living. In the last episode, he took a group of Cornish fishermen to the US to see a CSF scheme working. They were inspired, and back in Cornwall, set up a co-op to sell direct to local residents and restaurants. I looked at CSF schemes in the US, where it all started in 2008. In 2011, Defra did a pilot in Brighton called Catchbox. They spent £150k, £50k of which was on research, the rest on delivery – and they built a good social media presence. Catchbox was supposed to be volunteer-operated, but it didn’t really work. One of their members set up a CSF called SoleShare in north London, which is still operating.

I was working in recycling in 2014, and there were still only SoleShare and Catchbox operating in the south-east. I decided to give it a go, and spent a lot of 2014 hanging around the south coast, talking with fishermen, and going out on the boats with them. I’d never been self-employed before, but I started operating in January 2015.

Brill

Brill

LI: What are the main benefits?

GD: I think the big merits of the model are getting people to try new kinds of fish, from as local a source as possible, so low food miles, different species depending on the season, and caught in an environmentally-friendly way.

LI: What’s the difference between this idea and buying fish from a fishmongers or supermarket?

GD: The biggest departure is not getting to choose what species of fish you get, but for my customers, this is all part of the fun. After all, you can just google the species and learn how to cook it. Fish are seasonal – for example, you start to get mackerel of British coasts in summer, sometimes as early as May; black bream come to the south coast around May/June too. Different species have specific migration patterns. Fish are much less predictable than farm crops – sometimes they come early, sometimes late and sometimes not at all. Grey mullet is a summer visitor, cod are around in the winter, but at different times depending on where you are in the UK. Dover sole is around all year – but should be avoided during spawning. If you buy fish out of season, you can be sure that they’ve travelled a long way. It’s a bit like eating strawberries in January.

faircatch6

For example, from April to June, I got people eating cuttlefish for the first time. It’s very good to help people diversify their tastes, because it takes the pressure off fish with low stocks. There was a 2-month ban on catching sea bass earlier this year, for example. Some species don’t have much of a market in the UK, and will often be thrown back into the sea – it’s such a waste. Cuttlefish are often thrown back, as are ‘smoothhound’ (a kind of dogfish) – both are plentiful and good to eat, but not many people do. The same for ‘huss’ – sold as ‘rock salmon’, a name that was made up to make it sound more attractive. It’s good for stews and curries, and again, underappreciated and plentiful.

Also, fishmongers have rent to pay, which means they have to sell at volume, which means that they have to get fish from the big trawlers, as it’s cheaper.

LI: What kind of people are your customers?

GD: Well, definitely people who love food – but also people who are interested in protecting the marine environment. I’ve got a few people from Mediterranean countries, where they’re much more adventurous about what species they eat, and there’s a bigger seafood culture, with people much more used to shopping at fish markets, fishmongers, and knowing people on fishing boats. Cuttlefish is eaten much more, for example, and the Portuguese eat spider crabs and hake, which we don’t tend to eat over here. Things are beginning to change in the UK though. I’ve also got two Japanese customers, who say that supermarket fish isn’t very good raw, as it’s so old when it’s bought, and so is no good for sushi.

Two Japanese customers and their sashimi.

Two Japanese customers and their sashimi.

LI: Is there any special preparation that people need to do after they’ve got their fish?

GD: There are different levels of prep involved. Sea bass and grey mullet will need de-scaling and gutting, for example. However, all flatfish get gutted on the boats. There are physiological reasons for this. Flatfish live on the bottom, under pressure, so on the surface, the pressure is lower, which means that the contents of the guts can seep into the flesh if they’re not gutted straight away. Flatfish will still need de-scaling and skinning though, but I can show people how to do that, and there are plenty of videos online. Some people like the extra prep, as it feels much closer to nature (and it is).

LI: Is anyone else doing this?

GD: It’s very popular in the States, where the model is more mature, and where there are now forays into CSF restaurants. There are still only three schemes in the south-east – myself, SoleShare and Catchbox – you can search for them online. There are other schemes that are mail-order, but they hold stock and the fish won’t be as fresh, and their fish almost definitely won’t be as traceable. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was going on in Scotland.

faircatch5

LI: How can people get their fish from you?

GD: See my website for details – http://faircatch.co.uk/

LI: What are the prices like?

GD: At the moment, prices are somewhere between supermarkets and farmers’ markets or a posh fishmongers – but the product is hugely superior for lots of reasons I’ve highlighted here. People who care about their effect on the environment are often happy to pay a bit more for a superior product. As I grow a bit more, I should be able to drop the prices, but probably not to supermarket prices – but supermarket prices mean environmental damage.

Small day boats are launched from the beach at Hastings.

Small day boats are launched from the beach at Hastings.

LI: How can people be sure the fish are caught sustainably?

GD: I only deal with small fishing boats that use lobster pots and static nets, not big trawlers that damage the sea bed and catch and often kill lots of creatures that are thrown back into the sea, like dolphins and sharks etc. There’s a certification scheme, run by the Marine Stewardship Council – so there’s an eco-labelling system with sustainability ratings. It’s not perfect though. A ‘fishery’ is certified – which is a group of boats in a given area. So for example, Hastings (where boats are launched from the beach) has around 25 boats. Lots of research goes into certification, and it’s expensive to obtain, so it only happens in places that can apply for the appropriate funding. Hastings had a lot of government money made available to revitalise the town and attract tourists. So Hastings has MSC accreditation, but Newhaven, further down the coast, doesn’t. No-one on their council has applied for grant funding for accreditation, so their fish are not so attractive to environment-conscious customers. But they use exactly the same methods in Newhaven as they do in Hastings. Because of my track record and my small customer base, people know that I only deal with small fishing boats using sustainable methods, whether they’re accredited or not.

faircatch7

LI: Is it replicable? Can other people do it?

GD: Yes. It’s a very cheap business to set up – you just need a car or a van, a phone and some friendly fishermen. I started with zero knowledge of fish and fishing, and I learned everything from scratch, really quickly, and with very little money. I hope I can inspire other people to do this in their towns.

LI: Are there any barriers?

GD: Maybe the biggest barrier is that Brits seem quite scared about preparing, cooking and eating fish that they’re not used to. I think it’s slowly changing though, with all the cookery programmes on TV, and the fact that people travel and eat more exotic food.

Garfish

Garfish

LI: What’s to stop big companies buying you out, or taking over the market?

GD: I’m still very small – I’ve got 10 collection points (in local pubs, butchers etc, so I don’t have to be there), and 40 members. I’m hoping to eventually have around 10 people for each collection point, and that’s it. 100 customers will be fine for me. I’ll still know everybody, and there will be a sense of community. We can learn and grow together in the mean time. That’s just too small for the big boys to be interested in. It’s also too fiddly for them. They just want to deal with big trawlers, huge trucks and supermarkets. For commercial reasons and for reasons of scale (no pun intended), it’s just not interesting for them.

LI: Anything else interesting you get up to?

GD: I’m involved in education about fish and the environment. Urban kids, especially, famously don’t understand where their food comes from. Research done by Asda found that one in ten kids thought that fish were grown in supermarkets, and (apparently) 25% of kids thought that haddock was a footballer. Unless kids live near a fishing community, they’ll never meet a fisherman. So I rang a few local schools to ask if they wanted me to come in to do a presentation for the kids – and I did. I took different kinds of fish in, talked about sustainability and why super-trawlers are bad, I showed them a video of a fishing family from Emsworth in Hampshire, and talked about why eskimos don’t have heart disease and lots of other things. Next I want to show them how to fillet fish, make fish fingers and cook and eat them. I’m trying to get around regulations that prevent that at the moment – and it might mean doing it at an after-school club. Kids can be taught about eating different species of fish too – our kids eat skate wings, for example, which are very good for kids. You just scrape the flesh off the cartilage and give it to the kids – there are no bones to worry about, and it helps develop kids’ palates so that they might grow up trying different kinds of fish.

faircatch8

Also, this autumn I’m going to run fish filleting and cookery workshops in a community cafe in a church in Earlsfield.

NB: I left Guy’s with 2 Dover sole that I de-scaled, skinned, pan-fried for 5 minutes each side, and served with sauteed potatoes, and onions, peas, with a butter, lemon and parsley sauce. My partner was impressed, but I just followed Rick Stein.