Why we should support small fishing boats over super-trawlersLow impact living info, training, products & services

Here’s Part 2 of my 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 talk about the life of small fishing boat skippers.

In Part 1 we talked about sustainability and community benefits of buying from small fishing boats, and the barriers that they face; and in Part 3 we’ll look at how government quotas benefit super-trawlers and disadvantage the small boats.

Lowimpact: So the big boats get subsidies?

Caroline: Yes – fuel subsidies, but also in terms of decommissioning, when they have to take capacity out due to overfishing, they get paid to do it. We’re basically subsidising damaging fisheries.

Yes, we’re interested in both sustainability and community, as I said. The small boats will keep wealth in communities, while the big boats suck wealth out to pay shareholders (nb: not smallholders, as I said in the video!).

The fishermen will be going straight to the local pub and spending it there.

There you go! It feels awkward saying fisherman. They might all be men, I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound very 21st century. Is fisher a good alternative?

In the Slow Food community they tend to be called fishers, but I’ve never met a female fisherman that doesn’t want to be called a fisherman. There are a few of them, and they say that they’re fishermen.

I guess it’s the traditional name, and they want to hang on to it?

They’re out there on the sea – they don’t really bother with political correctness.

What’s it like being a skipper with a small fishing boat?

They’d say that everything is stacked against them. They’re up against the elements, and the bigger boats can go out in weather that a smaller boat can’t. And even in the 5 years I’ve been operating, without a doubt the wind has got stronger. They don’t care about the rain or the snow. It’s the wind that prevents the small-scale fishermen from going out. We’ve seen the frequency and intensity of storms growing year on year. But they feel compelled to go out to fish, because they need to pay the bills, but it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. The reason they have to go out is because they have very little quota. For the first two or three years we were operating, they were all complaining of the lack of quota. They’ve stopped talking about quota so much now, and they complain that they can’t catch as much, because of overfishing. It may be that the big boats are coming in an hoovering fish stocks up before they get a chance to come inshore – so there’s not enough fish left for the small-scale guys.

The other thing is that they’ve had to diversify. They might have said that they’ll do potted cuttlefish from April to August, then we’ll re-gear our boats to do herring from September to March. That’s what they were geared up for and what they were good at. Now there is so much fragility in the system – for example the cuttlefish catch has been decimated by the big beam trawlers in the last 3 years. They can’t rely on that fishery, so they have to become adept at changing the gear they use, and trying different methods, areas and species. That’s not good for the fishers or the environment.

They’re such a disparate group. Even within the same community, if you get 10 of them in a room, they wouldn’t agree with each other, let alone with government or bigger fishing vessels. So it’s difficult to represent them or to market their catch. That’s what we aim to do, but it’s not without its problems.

I guess you know a lot of them personally?

Yes.

On your fish packs you name the person who caught your fish, which I think is great.

That’s one of the things I like – transparency and traceability. In the absence of something like the Soil Association to certify that your meat or veg is organically produced, how can the consumer really know? And there is more demand than we can supply. The temptation for me if we haven’t been able to meet demand is to say ‘just this once we’ll get fish from a beam trawler’, but we’ve decided never to do that. We do freeze some of our fish however. Does that matter to you?

Well it’s down to necessity, isn’t it?

It is! Because boats can’t go out every day, if we don’t sell it the day we get it, we blast freeze it, which guarantees supply on days when the fishing is bad, and it also locks in the quality. A lot of people associate frozen with lack of quality, but it’s not true – and you can re-freeze too, without any health problems or loss of nutritional quality, as long as it’s done within its use-by date. So that’s another battle for the small boats.

But their biggest problem is that small fishermen’s instinct is to not overfish, but to go home when they’ve got enough. But when they see these huge super-trawlers sitting at the 6 mile mark, they think that they have to catch more, because tomorrow, all the fish will have been hoovered up by the big boats. That’s not their natural instinct. They do it as a lifestyle choice. They have to make a profit – enough to sustain them and their family. But they’re not looking to get rich.

Are young people coming into the industry?

Well, we are privileged to be in Plymouth, where there’s a great university, and we’ve currently got two marine biology students working with us – processing fish. Good on them. They could be doing something behind a desk, but they’re interested, and want to help.

But to be a fisherman, do you have to be born into a fishing family?

You don’t have to be, but it certainly makes it easier. It’s expensive to buy a boat and arm it with quota. The average age of a fisherman is now I think around 55. So we have to think about how the small fishing sector will continue. This is why I want to help support the small fishing fleet – otherwise we might end up realising that there are no longer enough fish in the sea to support supertrawlers, so let’s go back to small boats – they were better for environment and society. But that won’t be possible if they don’t exist any more. But it’s not something you can pick up in a 6-month training course. You’ve got to learn to read and interpret the sea, the wind, the currents and tides. It’s a big job to keep yourself safe out there.

It’s a lifestyle rather than a job isn’t it?

Yes – a vocation. But actually, the more sterile people’s working environments become, the more boring their job, the more they’re tied to a desk or a screen, the more attractive setting out to sea in a small boat becomes.

It would certainly make you feel alive, wouldn’t it?

For sure.

There are other companies doing similar things aren’t there? For example, I know Sole Trader have drop-off points in north London (nb – actually it’s SoleShare). Let’s see if more can develop around the UK.

Let’s come back in ten years and see what’s happening then. We’re working with people in Eastbourne to try to create something similar. But it’s difficult if the small fishers don’t know when they’ll be able to go out because of weather. It’s not like farming.

Highlights

  1. We’re basically subsidising damaging fisheries.
  2. The small boats will keep wealth in communities, while the big boats suck wealth out to pay shareholders.
  3. Small fishermen’s instinct is to not overfish, but to go home when they’ve got enough. But when they see these huge super-trawlers sitting at the 6 mile mark, they think that they have to catch more, because tomorrow, all the fish will have been hoovered up by the big boats.

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