Preparing a cuttlefish is like wrestling a bag of offal with an ink cartridge inside: it’s not for the faint-hearted. And it’s far more involved than opening a bag of calamari.
In April, I signed up to take part in the UK trial of Catchbox, the UK’s first ‘catch share’ scheme, where consumers pay money up front to one or more fishermen for a regular ‘share’ of their catch.
Aimed at encouraging consumers to eat a wider variety while getting more money directly to fishermen, the UK trial scheme is being run by NGO Seaweb with funding from Defra. As the trial in Brighton and Chichester draws to a close, how viable is it as a scalable model? Does it offer value for money? And how user-friendly is it?
Catchbox currently has 78 members in Brighton and 27 in Chichester who collect their fish from a set meeting point each week or fortnight. The catch varies depending on season and availability, as well as market prices outside the scheme (not all of the fishermen’s catch is sold through Catchbox). In week one, I had mackerel, pouting and gurnard (there were other species on offer), week two, cuttlefish (there was also plaice), and week three, golden-eye mullet.
“This isn’t going to feed the world. It would be nice but it would be a bit complicated”
But while it has an emphasis on under-utilised species, that doesn’t mean the scheme is the holy grail of fish sustainability. Catchbox does not guarantee the sustainability of the fish and doesn’t carry any third-party accreditation such as MSC.
The theory is that if you look after the fishermen, they, in turn, will look after the fish to safeguard their own economic wellbeing. “We’re supporting a responsible form of fishing. If everyone fished like that, I don’t think we’d have the sustainability problems that we’re faced with,” says Catchbox co-ordinator Jack Clarke.
Being faced with a whole fish you’ve never prepared before is daunting but the Catchbox website hosts recipes and videos showing how to fillet and prepare the species you’re likely to get. The cost stacks up favourably against supermarket fish. I paid £46 for 6kg of fish over six weeks. Excluding the £10 membership fee, the fish works out at £6/kg unfilleted. At the time of writing, Morrisons was selling whole mackerel at £4.99/kg and squid at £10.99/kg. I chose to fillet my own fish but members can opt to receive filleted fish.
The downsides? The time spent filleting. And as well as ‘sharing’ in the fishermen’s catch, you’re also sharing in his misfortunes. When, in Chichester, the catch was small, some members went without, although they received more fish in future weeks to compensate.
Clarke admits Catchbox is in a “very privileged position” thanks to Defra funding and the willingness of volunteers, but is confident that future schemes can stand on their own two feet without state aid. Catchbox is turning a £200 a week profit, he says, which would be enough to pay for an administrator or someone to man the collection points.
On paper, things are looking good for Catchbox, which is already preparing for a second season in Brighton and Chichester and looking at other locations. But Clarke’s realistic about the scheme’s potential. “This isn’t going to feed the world. It would be nice but it would be a bit complicated. It’s about supporting sustainable fishing,” he says.
One thing’s for sure though: to ensure fish and fishermen are around for future generations, retailers, suppliers and consumers need to start thinking outside the box.