How plaice fishing can turn into a sustainable business opportunity

In this interview, Chris Van Assen, Marine Advisor and Elies Arps, Senior Advisor Seafood Markets from WWF Netherlands explain why WWF engages with important industry players such as the Ekofish Group, a major Dutch plaice fishing company. They also shed light on the biggest remaining conservation challenges to overcome in this highly lucrative fishing business.
The Ekofish Group represents 7 percent of the total North Sea plaice quota (amount of plaice that fishing companies are allowed to fish) allocated by the European Union. The company, whose 13 cutters land yearly more than 5,000 tonnes onshore, sells its fresh and frozen plaice to large retailing companies and supermarkets, primarily in the Netherlands and Germany.

Five years ago, WWF decided to join forces with the Ekofish Group.

Q: What´s the main problem with fishing plaice?   

Chris: Plaice (Plueronectes platessa) is a highly wanted European flat fish species. The fish lives at the bottom of the sea where it hides in the sand and can be found at depths of 200 meters from the North Sea up to the Mediterranean. Because plaice lives on the bottom of the sea, fishing boats tow trawlnets along the sea floor to catch the species. Unfortunately this type of fishing, called bottom trawling, can seriously damage the seafloor bed and destroy marine flora and fauna on its way, whilst dragging other fish and animals in its large nets, such as cod, sharks or rays which are often thrown back - dying or dead - at sea (also called bycatch).

Today, fishing companies and scientific institutions are working hard to find ways to reduce the damage caused by bottom trawling. New fishing techniques with lighter gear or even electric pulses are being launched to avoid heavy contact with the sea bottom. However, despite these efforts, many fishing companies just stick to their “business as usual”approach.

Q: What made you decide to collaborate with the Ekofish Group? Has this brought any positive results so far?

Chris: In 2008, Mr. Louwe de Boer, Director of the Ekofish Group, asked us for advice on how the group could steer a more sustainable course. The company wanted to apply for Marine Stewardship Council certification (MSC) that rewards environmentally responsible practices through certifying fisheries. Most consumers know the MSC from the blue ecolabel on seafood and fish products that they can find on the supermarket shelf.

We saw great value in his demand. We had just signed an agreement with the Dutch fisheries government and the fisheries sector (mostly trawling companies) to get the Dutch trawler fleet certified according to the MSC by 2012. We decided to get on board with Mr. de Boer and help prepare the company for MSC certification, advising and providing technical support for the assessment process. The full assessment process, in which we were actively involved, took place from 2008 until the first half of 2009. We visited the fishing area to be certified, raising concerns about the poor bycatch and bottom trawling data available at the time of the assessment. Our main concern was that three out of five vessels owned by the Ekofish Group were then using bottom trawling gear in the Dogger Bank, a proposed Natura 2000 marine site, which means it benefits from special protection because of its high ecological value for the marine environment. In the end, agreed was reached to include “voluntary closed fishing areas” in the MSC certificate. This means that the Ekofish group would not fish in the Doggerbank.

Today, the Ekofish Group continues to keep its trawlers out of this marine conservation area. This is a real win-win situation and a great example of how, in the absence of strong regulation, impacts of bottom trawling on vulnerable marine seabed floors can be managed through voluntary agreements between fishing companies and NGO´s.

Elies: Over the last years, the Ekofish Group has become a frontrunner in moving plaice fishing towards sustainability. Consumers and seafood lovers are becoming increasingly aware that if companies do not change the way they fish, soon there will be no plaice left on their plate. One in three Dutch consumers know the blue MSC label; the Netherlands is the second largest market, after Germany, for MSC products. Buyers and sellers are increasingly asking for MSC-certified products in their shops and restaurants. The Ekofish Group is a great example for other companies because they do not only supply MSC certified plaice but have also taken voluntary, additional measures to include “no-go fishing” zones in their MSC certificate.

Q: Will efforts to mainstream sustainable practices in the commercial fishing industry succeed in the longer term? In your view, what are the greatest challenges?

Elies: From a markets perspective, the more fisheries are certified, the better it is for our marine environment as it contributes to making fishing practices more sustainable. Today, we have two more MSC certified North Sea plaice fisheries, and also the Cooperative Fisheries Organisation (CVO), including North Sea plaice and sole, recently obtained MSC certification. Another challenge, in addition to MSC certification, is the introduction of certified Tilapia and Pangasius according to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards. WWF´s overall goal is to generate market access for both sustainable wild-caught and farmed fish and seafood. Which means that we support both MSC and ASC certification because we believe they are valuable market-based systems that help drive sustainable seafood markets.

Chris: Overall, conventional bottom trawling practices used to catch benthic species (fish living on the bottom of the sea) are harmful to our marine environment. This needs to change. Measures such as applying “no-go fishing zones” should not only happen on a voluntary basis as is the case now, nor should it only take place in marine protected areas. One way to reduce negative impacts on the sea bottom is to use smarter gear (for example new techniques with lighter gear or electric pulses). But we also believe that the MSC standard should have stronger criteria for the impact on species, as part of the certification process.
 / ©: WWF Netherlands
Chris van Assen and Elies Arps from the Marine Team at WWF Netherlands
© WWF Netherlands

Fact sheet MSC North Sea Plaice

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