Why we should support small fishing boats over super-trawlers, Part 1

Blog home
8

Here’s Part 1 of our interview with Caroline Bennett, founder of ‘Sole of Discretion’, a community interest company that sells fish caught by a collective of small fishing boats in Devon. Here we’re talking about the sustainability and community benefits of small fishing boats, the barriers that they face, and how her business can help you support them.

In Part 2 we’ll talk more about the life of small fishing boat skippers, and in Part 3 we’ll look at how government quotas benefit super-trawlers and disadvantage the small boats.


Today I’m talking with Caroline Bennett of Sole of Discretion. Hi Caroline

Good morning

You’re a co-operative selling fish caught by small fishing boats in Devon. Is that right?

Yes, we’re based in Plymouth and we’re a community interest company, owned by the fishing community. Although we’re based in Plymouth, we take fish from as far east as Eastbourne.

We bought a fish box from you – a ‘family fish box’. We’re very happy with it. 10 packs, a range of different fish – wild salmon, sea bass, mackerel, cod and flounder. It works out at around 2.75 per portion, which is great value, and the fish is high quality. We did get some polystyrene, but I think we can get eco-packaging next time.

It’s £1.50 more per delivery, but all the packaging is made from card.

We promote not just sustainability, but also community. We’re all about sustainable ways for people to get what they need, and ways that people can help decentralise the economy, both in what they consume and how they work. So we’re very interested in supporting small fishing boats. Tell me about Sole of Discretion – why did you set it up? what’s your motivation?

I love your anarchic approach – it’s great. I came to it through my environmental concerns. I was quite dismissive of the fishing community at the beginning. I was worried about the impact that eating fish was having on the marine environment. Then I came across an organisation called Slow Food, helping small producers in the food industry. Through them I found a small fisher on the Lizard in Cornwall, and he showed me the benefits of the small-scale fishing fleet. Slow Food showed me that you can’t have a protected environment without engagement from humans. I came very late to the game in understanding that people need protecting too. I thought it was just the planet that needed protecting.

What was your background before that?

I owned a Japanese restaurant (and still do), which is why I got so into fish. I absolutely loved bluefin tuna. I lived in Japan, and when I got back I opened the UK’s first conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Japanese food is easily available now, but it wasn’t then.

I lived in Japan for a year too. Bluefin tuna was becoming endangered, but I couldn’t find any concern for that in Japan. What’s happening with bluefin tuna now?

Still pretty endangered. But there’s international co-operation now, and at least in our seas, like the Mediterranean, it’s not continuing to fall in numbers.

When did you launch Sole of Discretion?

In 2016.

And how’s it doing?

It was a struggle. I saw that it was easier for a restauranteur to get ethically-sourced fish than a retail consumer. Friends knew I knew about fish, and were constantly asking me where to go to buy ethically-sourced fish. I didn’t actually know – it’s a complicated subject. So it was to plug that gap. You have to make it easy for people.

Yes, I think there’s a relatively small percentage of people who will go out of their way to do something for sustainability or community, but for the vast majority it has to be really easy, and not more expensive.

How does the business work?

There are 3 good fish auctions in the south-west – Newlyn, Brixham and Plymouth. And the Plymouth one especially, seemed to be working for the fishermen. In Eastbourne they were at the mercy of the wholesale markets, and the fishermen were getting squeezed. We had a few problems with delivery partners, and were struggling, but then Covid happened, and business boomed, because people could buy from us online.

I’m hoping there might be a few silver linings.

People were forced to look beyond their local supermarkets for food, and that was an encouraging sign. Less encouraging is that a large chunk of them have now gone back to their old shopping habits. How as a community do we capture those people who were prepared to give us a go when they had to, but dropped us when they didn’t? How do we make it attractive to shop locally? Pre-Covid, local food was talked about more than it was practised. During Covid it was practised more

We used to get fish box from a guy who lived near us in south London. He used to drive to the small fishing towns with a van, and drop fish at pick-up point in south London. It was great. You never knew what you were going to get. It could be crab, shellfish, we had John Dory. We gutted and scaled them ourselves, and learnt how to cook them. It was an adventure. Plus we knew we were helping the small fishing fleet.He was a lovely guy, but maybe not the best businessman in the world. I’m glad to have found you. We want to buy a range of different fish, from small fishing boats.

how do you define a small fishing boat? how do they compare in size to the big ones?

There’s a government definition – ten metres and under. So we stick with that definition. Although there are around 2500 vessels in England, and 500 larger ones. But they only get 4% of the quota.

I wanted to come to quotas later.

OK. But what small-scale means to me is a lower impact on the environment. Nothing is perfect, but the effect boats have on the sea bed is key for me. Even small-scale trawlers – their equipment is so light that they can’t do the damage that the bigger boats do.

10 metres is tiny isn’t it?

It’s measured under the water, which makes it difficult. Some newer boats can be tiny under the water, and then expand above the water. It’s not a perfect system, but where do you draw the line. So we’ve decided to stick with the government definition of a small boat.

The smaller boats are more carbon-efficient too. I always assumed that bigger boats have economies of scale. So per kilo of fish caught, you’d have thought they’d be using less fuel. But actually the complete opposite is true. Some of the most damaging large-scale fisheries can use up to 20 litres of fuel per kilo of fish caught, whereas the small-scale boats use between 2 and 5. That’s still bad, so I wonder what we can do to make fishing more sustainable in that respect.

I guess if you live close to the sea, you can go fishing yourself with a rod and line.

Exactly.

So we’ve talked about carbon, and about damage to the marine environment. But I’ve heard the argument that they’re more difficult to regulate, and so the government don’t know what they’re doing exactly, so they might be less sustainable than the big boats. What do you think about that argument?

I bet a big boat owner came up with it. When quota changed, back in the 90s, the government was caught on the hop about just how many small boats there were. They had no idea. Of course it’s easier to monitor fewer vessels, or fewer giant, monoculture farms, than it is to monitor a disparate group of small-scale farmers or fishers. The government would prefer to throw fewer resources at something, and that requires a consolidation of production. So it’s not unique to fishing.

But you believe that in terms of carbon and habitat destruction, small boats are preferable?

Yes – and also in terms of discards. The small fleet discards virtually nothing. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall brought the discard problem to the attention of the European Parliament, probably ten years ago now.

Then there’s the social equality issue as well. The small boats are owned by the skippers, whereas with the large boats, it’s distant shareholders; and you know that the localisation of the economy is very important. A Canadian marine biologist called Daniel Pauly collects stats on small versus large fishing fleets. He found that they use less fuel; they use fewer subsidies from taxpayers; they use less damaging sea bed equipment; they discard virtually nothing; and they provide just as much fish to consumers. This isn’t what the government or the industrial fishing fleet want you to know. They want you to believe that without these big boats, we’d all starve.

Support small fishing boats over super-trawlers Part 1

Highlights

  1. Small boats’ equipment is so light that they can’t do the damage that the bigger boats do; plus there are far fewer discards.
  2. The smaller boats are more carbon-efficient too. I always assumed that bigger boats have economies of scale. So per kilo of fish caught, you’d have thought they’d be using less fuel. But actually the complete opposite is true.
  3. Then there’s the social equality issue as well. The small boats are owned by the skippers, whereas with the large boats, it’s distant shareholders; and you know that the localisation of the economy is very important.