The revelations about illegal catches in Scotland in 2002-2005 have caused alarm, but such activities may well be long gone

The UK likes to think of itself as a leader in seafood traceability and good fisheries management.

Examples of exemplary UK fishing practice have even been highlighted during the recent Common Fisheries Policy reform negotiations.

But damning new details have emerged about the biggest fishing scandal the UK has ever seen, involving numerous skippers and three fish factories, which cast doubt over that whiter-than-white reputation.

In a scene reminiscent of the movie Whisky Galore, The Guardian last week revealed shocking fresh information about the ongoing saga involving fish illegally caught in Scotland, claiming that the operation was so advanced it even stretched to underground pipelines and secret weighing machines.

So how worried do retail fish buyers (and consumers), need to be about fishing practices in the UK in 2012? Has the situation moved on since the scandal (it took place between 2002 and 2005 after all)|? And how, if at all, will the CFP reforms, as they stand, ensure that it improves?

It wasn’t the first time that details of the case have hit the headlines, but as the litigation drags on, it continues to plague the industry and tarnish its hard-fought reputation. As Peter Hajipieris, chief technical, sustainability and external affairs officer at Iglo Foods Group - owner of Birds Eye - puts it: “This news is a major disappointment to those of us who place the fish industry’s reputation at the forefront of everything we do on a daily basis.” He asserts that the case is not a reflection of the overwhelming majority of the industry, who know that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is “cheating on securing a sustainable future for the fish industry”.

Of course, that’s not to deny or to underplay that there have been problems in the past. Seafish - the seafood industry body - admits that in the early 2000s, there was “real government concern” about fish landings and compliance with quotas. But operations director John Harman argues there has been a sea change in fisheries practice in the sector since the beginning of the century, when the practices that were the subject of the case came to light. “The market for landing black fish - the term used for IUU fish - is absolutely minimal. It’s a complete door closure compared to where we were.”

The pelagic fish sector - in which the skippers involved in the case operated - in particular has since worked hard to put its house in order, Harman adds. He also believes that fishermen recognise, more than ever before, that landing illegal fish in any form undermines the pricing structure of the market - it might result in increased volumes for fishermen in the short term, but as that fish becomes a commodity of a lower value, it leads to less cash in the long run, he says.

Shift in transparency
Harman claims that the introduction of the Registration of Fish Buyers and Sellers and Designation of Fish Auction Sites Regulations 2005 has resulted in “a step-change in the behaviour of fishermen.

They’re now comfortable with the buyers and sellers system and they recognise that operating outside the law undermines markets.” The legislation obliges every buyer and seller of first-sale fish and shellfish to register with their local Marine Management Organisation office.

And suppliers are going further than just towing the legal line, says Hajipieris. “We are one of the few companies that has a dedicated expert who boards vessels that supply us in order to check that our quality and traceability specifications are being met.”

Suppliers also point out that they are by no means acting alone, and that the more collective nature of fisheries management is yielding results. “In recent years there has been the emergence of Fishery Improvement Projects where we work to improve the management of a fishery together with the fishermen involved and the scientists and regulators that manage them,” says Nigel Edwards, technical director at Seachill, own label supplier and owner of The Saucy Fish Co brand. The major seafood suppliers also work together in forums such as the Common Language Group - a cross-sector group that meets to discuss common issues affecting the industry. “When we are talking together within forums such as the Discard Action Group, the emotion runs high as we are determined to get lasting solutions to these issues,” Edwards adds.

Harman agrees. “I would actually say that the current systems of traceability, increasing linkage with MSC chain of custody, forensic analysis taken by the Marine Management Organisation, and matching landings to purchases, mean you’ve got a pretty rock solid supply chain in the UK.”

And the pending Common Fisheries Policy reforms look set to further discourage illegal fishing, according to some. The existing IUU regulations have already been a great driver in changing behaviour across the EU, says Hajipieris. “There will be a continued focus on monitoring, control and surveillance and new incentives to further improve observation on vessels for different fisheries management initiatives, so we believe this will discourage it.”

Slippery operators will always find ways to slip through the net, but the message from suppliers to retail buyers and indeed consumers is that the industry is more ship-shape than ever before. As Edwards says: “The norm is an industry that cares about its reputation and is leading the world in setting the highest standards for traceability and supply chain auditing, to allow consumers to buy, with confidence, the healthiest and most nutritious food available.”

In the dock

  • On 24 February at Glasgow High Court, 17 skippers and former fish factory Alexander Buchan fined £960,000 for undeclared landings
  • Three fishermen pleaded guilty to false declarations of fish landed at Peterhead. The value was £3.5m
  • Three fishermen pleaded guilty to landing undeclared fish at Peterhead. Two pleaded guilty to landing undeclared fish at Lerwick. Together, they totalled £6m
  • Fresh Catch pleaded guilty to assisting vessel masters to submit false landing declarations totalling £10.5m in value.