Project Aim: Sole of Discretion is an ethical fishmonger. It is a social enterprise owned by and benefitting the fishing community. It will create a stable market and distribution system for a network of small-scale fishers from around the coast of the UK, starting in Plymouth.
Fishers will get fair prices, boosting their local economies, and be rewarded for fishing with environmental sensitivity.
Customers will get honestly priced, high quality fish direct to their homes around the country via one of the UK’s largest organic veg box schemes.
The business will support scientific research helping minimise the fishers’ impact on the marine environment.
What's the motivation?
Have you ever wondered why controversy about commercial sea fishing never seems to go away? Do you wonder whether the fish on the restaurant menu is really local? How old do you think fish is by the time it is on your plate? Did you know that for the cod, haddock and plaice in the supermarket at £15/kg or more, UK fishermen get £1.20-2.40/kg? Double that to allow for filleting and it’s still not very much, is it? Are you really sure that the fish are caught without damaging the environment? And did you know that if fish smells fishy, rather than of the sea, it’s way too old to eat?
All this and more has been part of my life for years having owned Japanese restaurants since 1994. It has led to a love for everything to do with the sea, and particularly the coast: marine life, the fishing boats and fishers, the local food, the colour, the contradictions and the passion.
Caroline Bennett, founder of Sole of Discretion
Redressing the balance
There are many good fishers out there, looking after the quality of their catch and fishing with environmental sensitivity. And yet they get the same market driven prices as everyone else – many are on the verge of giving up. Furthermore, the mainstream supply chain slows down the delivery of fish, and just isn't geared up for keeping track of catches. Even despite some significant progress in recent years, such as the Marine Stewardship Council's Chain of Custody scheme, many fish counters can't tell us when their fish was landed, or by which boat, and sometimes even in which country!
So this is where Sole of Discretion comes in. We want to create a mechanism to financially reward the fisherman who are the best custodians of our seas.
And we'll get fresh, high quality fish despatched or frozen within hours of the catch being landed. No more niggling doubts, no more smelly fish, no more ripping off our fishers. Sole of Discretion will put provenance, quality and fairness at the heart of its business model.
Who we are
Sole of Discretion is the brainchild of restaurateur Caroline Bennett, who opened Britain’s first rotating sushi restaurant in London in 1994. She became increasingly concerned about the state of our fish stocks, beginning when she came across the plight of the blue fin tuna back in 1997. Since then, she has been a pioneer in putting ethically sourced fish on restaurant menus – and the political agenda.
More recently, she teamed up with one Cornish fisherman and started to purchase many of her white fish solely through this traceable source. From lone fisherman, he now supplies fish from numerous other fishers, all happier with the prices, and recognition, he can offer them for their catch. Sole of Discretion is a consolidation of Caroline's efforts to support our struggling small-scale coastal fisheries, and bring ethically caught fish to the nation's dinner tables.
One of the first fishers to join up with Caroline in this new venture is Graeme Searle. He fishes out of Plymouth, and up and down the channel from time to time. His main fishing activity is "netting". That's a specific way of fishing by using either tangle or gill nets that are usually fixed to the seabed. It's a very low impact fishery, as there are very small amounts of discarded or immature fish caught and probably half the time zero discards. Also by using this method of fishing he doesn't need a large powered engine, so fuel consumption is approximately a third of a similar vessel engaged in trawling.
How we will operate
Founded as a 'Community Interest Company' - wholly owned by the fishers themselves, and thus ensuring the benefits are retained in the fishing community - Sole of Discretion will create a completely new supply chain.
Initially, we'll build a small hub in Plymouth where the fishers can pack, dispatch or freeze super fresh fish. This will be delivered to restaurants, and also to homes across the country via one of the biggest organic home delivery companies in the UK.
The deal is: fishers that team up with Sole of Discretion get a fair price for the fish, agreed in advance, and the customer at the other end gets fantastic quality for the price. Plus some money goes into research conducted in conjunction with Exeter University's marine biology department. The outcomes of their research will help make our fishers' boats even better environmentally, the quality of the fish even higher, and help others working on the same issues.
Collectively, we deal with every step, from going out to sea to check our fishers' methods and the kinds of fish they're catching, to developing new ways of turning disregarded fish into wonderful dishes that we can recommend to customers via the organic box scheme.
Through Sole of Discretion, you will be able to buy ethically caught, high quality fish with delicious recipes and cooking tips along side, delivered directly to your door through the organic box company. It couldn't be easier.
But this all takes money - around £75,000 to build one pack and dispatch hub, plus all the other paraphernalia to get our fish direct to homes. Nevertheless the economics all stack up and we have financial backers. But they, not unreasonably, want to see evidence of public support.
So that’s where you come in - we want your pledges. But it doesn’t have to be much and you get something pretty good in return, ranging from tea towels, cook books and veg boxes, through to private dining and boat trips with our fishers or a day spent with a marine biologist. Equally importantly, your support will demonstrate the public demand for a new and fair way of doing business with our small-scale fishing fleet.
Timing wise, our fishers are ready to go, our organic box delivery customers eagerly await fish as an additional option in their weekly boxes, so we’d like to be up and running by the Spring.
We have some wonderful fishermen, and yet more often than not their fish is out of your reach.
Please help us change this by putting our fish on your plate.
Does this really help the environment?
Absolutely. Small-scale fishers use nets that do little damage to the sea bed, they land everything (providing they have quota for it) so don’t throw away perfectly edible fish, dead, back into the sea. Their nets also tend to have larger holes so they can be more selective about what species and size of fish they catch. Moreover, with climate change potentially reaching a tipping point, their static net fishing is far more carbon efficient.
Does this help coastal communities?
It sure does! We've been involved in a pilot scheme with a wonderful Cornish fisherman for a number of years. He catches and packs the fish himself and has it couriered overnight to restaurants in London – the fish gets from boat to kitchen in less than 12 hours. The business now directly employs over 12 people locally, and an increasing number of other fishers in the area choose to sell to him rather than to traditional ports. I was told a few years back that his annual income had doubled, but the volume of catch had remained the same from one year to the next – not only is this an environmental success but it also helps fishers make a better living.
Why hasn’t it been done before?
A tricky one, and a question we ask ourselves often! Our conclusion is that, like so many other food systems in the world, the market tendency is to drive for volume and consistency so that fish are turned into commodities, and therefore easier to ‘trade’ from a financial perspective. This goes against the reality of fishing – the last wild harvested food in the world. Mother Nature is just not inclined to be governed by the rules of commodities and markets. If we want to eat well, and tread as lightly as possible on this planet, we need to develop food systems that work alongside nature, rather than try to control it.
A bit more from Caroline
I first became concerned about the sustainability of fish stocks when I learnt of the plight of the blue fin tuna back in 1997. We took it off our menu, but I realised then that blue fin tuna were the tip of the iceberg – most fish in the sea were vulnerable to over exploitation. Having made the decision that I didn’t want to compound the problems of the sea by owning a sushi restaurant, I turned to the fish supply chain to help me make improvements.
Introduced through a wonderful organisation called Slow Food, I found the fisherman off the Cornish coast who completely opened my eyes to the reality of being able to work with fishers who both care about the marine environment and have pride in the quality of their catch.
We also found that many fish were disregarded and undervalued for no good reason and went to waste, so we took species that we’d never tried before, and because the fish was so fresh it all tasted delicious, and we were even able to use parts of the fish that hitherto had gone to waste, such as the liver and the bones.
These small scale fishers laugh when I talk about endangered fish stocks, saying they are equally endangered! And for sure, the population of small scale fishers in the UK has fallen from around 10,000 to around 2,500 in just ten years, and the average age of a fisher is in the mid-50s. My worry is that if we don’t reward these fishers for fishing with sensitivity to our seas, their skills will be lost forever. Knowing that it’s possible to eat fish that has been caught with awareness, I simply don’t want to eat fish any other way. I’m sure that together we can demonstrate I’m not alone.
The Social Impact
There are far more small-scale fishers than large-scale vessels in the UK; In England, 2,566 vessels are under 10 metre, while 521 are larger.
The 2,566 smaller vessels get only 4% of the fishing quota allocated to the UK by the European Fisheries Commission each year. 96% goes to the big boats. This is grossly unfair.
1. Numbers of vessels (small versus large) per port
2.The number of fishermen has fallen from over 9,000 in 1996 to 2,460 a decade later in 2006. Small scale fishers are a declining industry.
3. Small scale fishing boats employ far more people per ton of fish caught than larger vessels do. GN1 static gill nets are the highest employment / landing of all the types of fishing gear, and these are the fishers SoD will work with.
Source : MMO