March 24, 2021


Sustainability is a funny word. It means different things to different people. Saying that a fishery is simply ‘sustainable’ or ‘not sustainable’ is over-simplistic and to a large degree, unhelpful. Sustainability is complicated, and it is multifaceted.

At Thule Ventus, we think about sustainability in four ways:

  1. Biological sustainability
  2. Economic sustainability
  3. Community sustainability
  4. Environmental sustainability

Biological Sustainability

This is where a stock or group of stocks, for a single reason or combination of reasons have either migrated away or have been caught/died at a rate that cannot allow for regeneration. This could be a combination of over-fishing, lack of food, pollution or climate change.

At time of writing (May 2020) cod stocks in the northern North Sea and NE Atlantic, particularly around Shetland, are rich and abundant. This appears not to be the case in the mid and southern North Sea. Science indicates climate change induced fish migration as the primary cause. As a precaution, ICES have cut all quotas of Cod, including those around Shetland.

"I am worried about sustainability - should I eat cod?"

This is a very interesting question. We would say “yes”. A sceptic would say that we are bound to say that… but consider:

It is now almost impossible for a British vessel, landing fish in a British port, to sell illegal (over-quota) fish. It is even more difficult to buy such fish. Fishery Protection Officers have pretty much nailed down illegal fishing by UK vessels.

Therefore, you can be confident that any cod which you buy (from a UK vessel or UK fish processor) is 100% legal – i.e. it has been counted within the UK quota and the remaining catch has been reduced accordingly.

Once the quota is finished – no more cod can be landed. In fairness, there are issues surrounding by-catch and being unable to avoid certain species. There are some technological and practical measures in development, and an assumption that the science take this into account.

Fish quotas are set to balance the biomass of reproductive fish with catching effort. The point of raising and lowering quotas is to maintain, through a precautionary principle, the biological sustainability of the stock.

If you broadly trust in science and enforcement, then yes, keep on eating cod.

Economic Sustainability

What do we mean? Simply put, if quotas falls too far then one of two things will happen. 1. The income from the fish will not be enough to maintain a fishing industry, or 2. The fish will become so scarce that the price will be unaffordable to the majority of consumers, resulting in point 1.

Economic unsustainability is far more likely than biological unsustainability.

Community sustainability

This is about small coastal communities – Are we looking towards an industry controlled by a handful of companies operating super-trawlers. Or, are we looking at maintaining a system of licences, quotas, processing and sales channels that allow for small communities in remote locations to thrive? How many jobs has each tonne of fish caught, both ashore and at sea created? Our industry must be competitive and create quality jobs and incomes, but there needs to be a balance. What are we doing as individuals to help put money in the pockets of coastal communities, rather than supermarkets, NGOs and Oligarchs?

Cod stocks on the Shetland fishing grounds have recovered and are now fished sustainably. This is in no small part due to two decades of sustained effort and sacrifice by Shetland and other fishing communities.

Environmental Sustainability

We think this is often confused with biological sustainability. For us, it is two things:

  1. What comes out the funnel, what are the emission, in total and per-tonne of fish landed, and
  2. What is the fishing method doing to the seabed, to juvenile fish and the non-targeted species.

Taking these four sustainable criteria in to account, at Thule Ventus, we say: Keep buying your fish with confidence. We pledge that our fish will be:

  • Only bought from local, family owned boats
  • Only bought from Lerwick or Scalloway Fish Market, Shetland Islands
  • Only fresh, never frozen
  • Only fish that has been caught within 1-3 days of landing
  • Bought by the following catching methods, and in the following priority:
  • Priority 1: Line-caught day boat
    • the most selective type of fishing, in terms of species and size, although the fish can often be smaller
    • not always available due to the small boats used and the exposed fishing areas. Bad weather often limits their ability to fish

  • Priority 2: Seine Net fish
    • a gentler and less fuel-demanding form of fishing by net
    • more seasonal than trawl

  • Priority 3: Trawled fish
    • Available year round
    • Deeper water, can get larger fish
    • It does cause damage to the seabed - the impact is relative to the seabed surface e.g. on mud or sand - negligible.
    • Many trawlers switch to seine net when in season

Who Determines Sustainability?

There are two universal truths…

  1. Fishermen believe fishery scientists are too cautious, or are actually environmental extremists in disguise, and
  2. Environmental groups believe fishery scientists are subjected to too much pressure from fishermen, or are actually in their pocket.

When both environmentalists and fishermen are disappointed in the scientists and quota allocations, then the science probably isn’t too far away. This is perhaps a glib remark, but it does offer an insight into the complexities.

In regard to Sustainability, they're three main players in the public consciousness.

They are ICES, MCS and MSC. These three sit on a sliding scale of public awareness, with ICES least well known and MSC being the self-proclaimed face of sustainability.

ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea)

ICES has been in existence since 1902. Broadly speaking it collates the science from its 20 member states to create a picture of fish stock health in the North Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic Sea. Each state has two delegates.

ICES mixes science and politics to arrive at recommendations for the setting of quotas in EU and neighbouring coastal state waters.

ICES has witnessed many booms and busts in the fishing industry, some due to its recommendations, others, because their recommendations were ignored.

It draws equal and opposite criticism from fishermen and environmentalists… but one cannot deny that for all the criticism, after 118 years of science and wrangling, there remains reasonably healthy fish stocks and a reasonably profitable fishing industry.

MCS (Marine Conservation Society)

MCS state on their website “We believe too much is being taken out and too much is being put into our seas". Newton’s Third Law of Motion is as applicable to sustainability as is it to anything else. It is the natural starting point for an environmentalist who hears a fisherman saying, “Plenty more fish in the sea”.

Thule Ventus can’t help but note that in the lifetime of Sir David Attenborough, the world’s population of human beings has gone from 1 billion to 9 billion. In the same time, the power of the average fishing boat has probably gone from 30 horse power to nearer 900. There simply has to be science, quotas and enforcement. The demand for fish and the ability to catch it requires it. And, there has to be people holding the fishing industry to account.

MCS operate the ‘Good Fish Guide’. This is a traffic light system of 1 (green) to 5 (red). In MCS’s view (as at May 2020), NE Atlantic Cod is a 4 to 5. Therefore, in the view of MCS, cod should be avoided – this is a reflection on the cod quota cuts we mentioned above.

Thule Ventus does not concur with this view – the quotas have been cut, so you can keep buying it – all that will happen is you’ll pay more for it. Fishermen will not be permitted to land beyond the allocated quota.

Deciding not to buy cod will not help increase cod numbers. The quota structure is the governing factor in cod recovery, not the consumer’s desire to eat it. The consumer’s desire only impacts on the price…

It is however an interesting and informative guide. By all means, buy something else from time to time. This will help reduce the price of cod, but will elevate the price of another species… for every action there is an opposite reaction.

MSC (Marine Stewardship Council)

Like most people in the fishing industry, Thule Ventus saw attaining the MSC Blue Tick for North Sea cod as a good thing. It was the gold standard. A great marketing tool. Give confidence to the consumer, and all that. Sadly, we no longer hold this view, and not because MSC suspended North Sea cod from their scheme.

The reason we do not have regard for MSC is based on experience. We asked MSC to include under-8m day boats, catching line-caught cod around Shetland in the MSC Blue Tick scheme for North Sea Cod. We tried, but we got nowhere.

There was a scheme, but under-8m boats were not included, nor was line caught cod. Perhaps an oversight. Under-8m boats have 0.04% of the UK cod quota. It is generally accepted that line caught fish is the most selective, least destructive method of fishing. It supports local communities. The fish they catch is from the same quota controlled stocks as the larger trawlers in the scheme.

The area, the quota, the boat, the method of catching all have to be defined in the MSC scheme. As does the primary and secondary processor. Everyone in the chain has to pay 0.5% to MSC for the pleasure.

Adding the under-8m boats would have been easy. And would have not skewed the scheme, as the fish taken was from the same quota area.

We were left with the impression that 0.5% of 0.04% wasn’t worth the MSC’s getting out of bed for.

There is a very good chance the fresh fish in your local supermarket has a ‘blue tick’ on it… But look more closely… is it really fresh? Or has it been frozen at sea, thawed and sold as fresh? The label will say. Have a look for the MSC number on the label, especially if it says caught in the Barents Sea or Bering Sea.

When you go home search that number, look at the super-trawlers that caught your ‘fresh’ fish. Consider the crew conditions, the nation that operates the boat, why is it so cheap, why does it look so different to the quality fish in my local fishmongers and what about those food miles?

Of the two boats below, MSC will tell you the Russian super-trawler (below) is sustainable, but the 8-metre Shetland boat (below) is not. Really?

MSC have long fostered the notion that they are the one true arbiter of sustainability. It is a business model that has served them very well. It allowed them to gross £26.3 million in the year ending 31st March 2019. £17.6m came from “Income from Charitable Activities” – which includes 0.5% of every fish product you buy with the Blue Tick logo on it.

In fairness, they need £26.3m per year, given they have 34 staff earning between £60k and £100k, 4 staff earning between £100k and £140k and one more earning between £210k and £220k… this regurgitating the science of ICES, piling bureaucracy on the fishing industry and “duping” consumers is a tough business.

Thule Ventus has some sympathy with the Greenpeace view that consumers are being “duped”, see more here:

As for MSC and the fishing industry, what can I say… “Nice fishery, shame if something was to happen to it”.

Thule Ventus Conclusions?

  • Don’t stop eating any species of fish. It comes down to affordability.
  • You can broadly trust in ICES, the quota system (imperfect though it is) and MCS
  • Don’t assume that something without an MSC blue tick is by default "unsustainable", or vice versa.