Stevie WilliamsComment

A real showstopper

Stevie WilliamsComment
A real showstopper

Monday 12th February


Fish and Seafood


Following last week’s class on agriculture and Brexit, we certainly weren’t tackling any smaller an issue this week by investigating the UK fishing industry.


Being a part of the European Union (EU), means being a part of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which was introduced in the 1970s to manage fishing fleets and conserve fish stocks. Fishing fleets have equal access to EU waters, up to twelve nautical miles from the shores of member states, and quotas are set in order to control how much is caught. As with the Common Agricultural Policy (as discussed last week), when the UK leaves the EU, we will also be leaving the CFP. At the moment, British fishermen are only landing 40 per cent of the fish within 200 nautical miles from the shore, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), meaning it is likely that foreign fleets will still be allowed access to these waters.


The UK is the ninth biggest importer of seafood, despite having good fishing waters surrounding the whole country. In 2015, the most exported fish was salmon, however it was also the fourth biggest import to the country. Perhaps changes to fisheries policy post-Brexit might reconsider how much of our own stock we keep in the country.


Across the world, we farm as much fish as we catch, and aquaculture is now practised in around 50 countries. Much of the fish that is caught is being used to feed farmed fish, as it takes 5-6kg of wild fish to feed just 1kg of farmed fish. Fish have now become their own biggest predator.


There are a range of ways in which fisheries are being conserved in Scotland. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are specialist areas of conservation, for protecting animals, habitats and sites of historical importance. No Take Zones are areas where no fishing is allowed so that the marine life can regenerate. The Marine Stewardship Council marks certified sustainable seafood products with a blue MSC label, which you are likely to have seen in the supermarket. Policy regarding the discarding of fish that are under the minimum size for sale, has now changed. These fish are now used for oil or fish meal, fetching a lower price, but still coming out of the overall quota.


In the afternoon, we were joined by Jess Sparks, Scotland Regional Manager for Seafish. The mission of Seafish is to support “a profitable, sustainable and socially responsible future for the seafood industry”, which they do by promoting the consumption of fish, enhancing the reputation of the fishing industry, and providing data to inform decision-making. The majority of their funding comes from a levy paid on the first sale of seafood products in the UK, which is based on how much is purchased.


Jess explained the fishing process to us, highlighting the difficulties of life at sea. After leaving harbour and finding a suitable place to fish, the gear is set for fishing to commence. The catch is then brought aboard and any necessary repair work done to the nets, before the gear is set again. The catch is sorted, gutted and washed, before being weighed and boxed up. Crew may then be able to cook, eat and sleep, until the process of hauling the gear and bringing the catch aboard starts again. After around a week, the boat steams home and the catch is landed. Whether the crew are paid or not depends on whether they have caught enough. The BBC’s Trawlermen series offers an insight into this unique way of life.


Jess believes that people are not eating enough fish. The recommended amount per week is two portions, although for many, this target is not being met, partly due to people being unsure about how to prepare the product, but also due to media portrayal of the state of the world’s fish stocks. Price is an issue that will continue into the future, and Jess’ suggestion was to eat more pelagic fish (e.g. herring and mackerel) as they are cheaper. He told us that there are 70 commercially-landed species in Scotland each year, which he said would be too much to certify, however I wonder if it’s possible that more certification might lead to more consumer trust in what they are buying, and perhaps more sales.


Following this, Nick Underdown from Open Seas came to speak to us. Open Seas is a Scottish charity campaigning to protect the marine environment through the introduction of more sustainable fishing methods and regulation of fisheries. Their board is chaired by Hugh Raven, who we met during our trip to the Isle of Mull.


Nick explained that Scotland’s coastal fisheries focus on shellfish, primarily scallops and prawns. Of all the scallops caught, only 5 per cent are hand-dived, and 95 per cent caught by dredgers, metal-toothed rakes that are towed along the seabed. Most prawns are caught by trawlers, nets that bounce over rocks with trawl doors that impact on the seabed. Nick pointed out that there are now no pristine habitats on the continental shelf.


We were told about how the decline of cod and haddock in the Firth of Clyde has caused an abundance of prawns, due to there being few predators around. The fishing industry in this area has now become reliant on prawns, which can bring in good prices. However, the lack of biodiversity has a knock-on effect on the whole marine environment around, with the seabed being destroyed by trawling, and prawns becoming more susceptible to disease.


A huge threat to the fishing industry, and to food security, is Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated (IUU) fishing, which, staggeringly, counts for around 15 per cent of the world’s catches. Research by Open Seas has revealed that there have been 78 reports of illegal fishing in MPAs. They are looking into the sourcing decisions of companies buying seafood, and talking to supermarkets about sustainability, to check that they are meeting their own requirements. Nick explained how one supermarket is selling scallops from Shetland, which are under the blue MSC label but are being dredged. Other scallops are from an uncertified dredge fishery, meaning it is unknown exactly where the vessels are fishing. With so little information, it is very difficult for consumers to be sure that they are buying sustainable fish. I suppose we can only hope that post-Brexit policy may offer some solutions, and that improvements in technology might increase transparency in the system.



Tuesday 13th February


The Media and Celebrity Chefs


On Tuesday, we were delighted to be joined by Queen Margaret University’s Chancellor, Prue Leith. Now probably most famous as a judge on The Great British Bake Off, Prue has been a restauranteur, caterer, writer, journalist and businesswoman, opening Leith’s School of Food and Wine in 1975, and previously being a judge on The Great British Menu. Amongst many other achievements, she is Vice President of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and used to be Chair of the Royal Society of Arts, during which time she set up the charity, Focus on Food, and successfully campaigned for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square to be used for changing art installations.


Prue Leith with Queen Margaret University's Principal,  Professor Petra Wend

Prue Leith with Queen Margaret University's Principal, Professor Petra Wend


Today was our chance to hear from, and question, Prue about her role as a celebrity food personality, and as a campaigner in food education. Prue discussed how much has changed in food media since she began working, with social media being the main form, and most people consulting Google for recipes rather than cookbooks.


She stressed that current attitudes towards diet will be incredibly difficult to change in a society where the advertising budget for large fast food and confectionary corporations dwarfs the entire budget for organisations trying to promote sustainable farming and healthy eating. Although she recognised that there is no simple answer at the moment, she is hopeful about the new enthusiasm for good food. Prue highlighted the problems of reliance on supplements and fad diets, and emphasised the need to understand food as medicine, in order to make hospital food better, and to make sure that fewer people end up in hospital in the first place.


Prue pointed out the Soil Association’s Food for Life as an amazing example of food communication, which has worked really well to recognise schools (and now hospitals, care homes, colleges and other workplaces) that serve freshly-prepared meals using ingredients from sustainable and ethical sources. She also praised Jamie Oliver for his efforts to improve school dinners.




When asked about The Great British Bake Off, Prue acknowledged that her appearance on the show might be seen to contradict her work to get children to cook and eat healthy food. However, as well as being good fun for her, she stressed that the point about cooking is that it’s a joy, and many people find that joy via baking. She thought that some of the reasons that the show has become such a phenomenon, with an astonishing 15,000 applicants this year, are that it’s comforting and quiet, and the contestants aren’t there to be laughed at. She also maintained that, as lovers of sugar, the next best thing to eating it, is looking at it.


Prue believes that although food education starts with learning to cook and making food together, it’s not really about cooking; it’s learning to eat. As food is what keeps us alive, cooking is more, or at least as, important as other school subjects. She advocates the multidisciplinary study of food as taught on the MSc Gastronomy, stating that this approach demonstrates the best kind of food education. Which leads me to point out that the university are currently recruiting for budding gastronomers to start this September. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far and would like to learn more, do apply. Who knows, you might be making lunch for Prue Leith next year!




Photo credit: main group photo by Charlotte Maberly