The Mixed Blessings of Celebrity – The Fight for Fish

10th January 2011 in Media

This week sees the start of a major Channel 4 campaign focused on fish and fishing. In a series of TV programmes over the coming week celebrity chef big guns, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Arthur Potts Dawson, each focus on some aspect of the fishing industry and of fish consumption, mixing campaigning zeal with practical recipes using underutilised species.

This week sees the start of a major Channel 4 campaign focused on fish and fishing. In a series of TV programmes over the coming week celebrity chef big guns, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Arthur Potts Dawson, each focus on some aspect of the fishing industry and of fish consumption, mixing campaigning zeal with practical recipes using underutilised species.

The fishing industry is still weighing up whether this attention is something to be welcomed and embraced, or something to be feared. The answer is likely to be, like celebrity itself, a mixed blessing.

Certainly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign on discards has so far turned a useful spotlight on the scale of discarding generated by the requirements of the Common Fisheries Policy. It has highlighted the gulf between the Commission’s hand-wringing over discards and its practical policies which make large-scale discarding a legal obligation for vessels in mixed fisheries. It also has drawn attention to the hugely encouraging progress that can be made in reducing other types of discards when the right approach is taken – in for example the 50% project.

On the other hand, the fishing industry has good reason to fear the arrival of instant experts, with their preconceptions, over-generalisations, need for drama and instant solutions.

The Federation recently helped the star Times and Sunday Times food writer A.A. Gill find a berth aboard a North Sea trawler, in the hope that he would then be able to write in a fair and objective way about the realities of fishing today. Like most people he was horrified by the sheer waste involved in the discards required by the vessel to stay on the right side of the law. But when it came to solutions A.A. had the answer – follow the Norwegians, they have replaced quotas by a days-at -sea regime. In fact the Norwegians do not have a days-at-sea regime and would pour scorn on anyone who suggested that they should. Getting it this wrong, when it comes to instant prescriptive solutions for the fishing industry, takes style and panache and a deep lack of respect. A phone call could have checked that particular fact. But that call was never made.

This is the fear that the industry has as we go into Channel 4’s Fight for Fish week. In the public mind the UK fishing industry is likely to be tainted by association with unsupportable practices elsewhere in the world; and instant A. A. type non-solutions will be promoted because they are easy to explain in a 3 minute clip to camera.

The new recipes using underutilised species, created and demonstrated by some of the biggest celebrities of our time are a brilliant idea and could do a lot of good in expanding the British palate (as well as saving consumers money). But even there the pre-broadcast blurb suggests that the reason that consumers might want to use coley as an alternative, is because cod and haddock are not being fished sustainably. Haddock for goodness sake! Why? ICES advice is that North Sea haddock is at or around maximum sustainable yield. And whilst it is true that some cod stocks in EU waters face severe problems, those fisheries have only ever provided a tiny fraction of the cod consumed in the UK. What is the point of scaring consumers? The big cod fisheries are at Iceland and at North Norway and have been for centuries, and there is no suggestion that those fisheries are in any kind of trouble – quite the contrary

So, tighten your seat belts. We are in for a rocky ride. This degree of media attention can open doors, increase understanding and promote good causes. It can also generate misconceptions and corner politicians into knee-jerk reactions. A mixed blessing indeed.