A Future for Great Solent Seafood?

Native oyster © Jon Oakley

When was the last time you ate a whelk? Or sampled some "sepia" - the cuttlefish equivalent of calamari? Did you know that both of these delicacies are caught right on our doorstep here, or that Solent oysters were once caught in vast numbers and eaten across the water?

Last month, Penny Mordaunt, MP for North Portsmouth, held an important meeting for all those interested in the future of fisheries in the Solent. I went along with my colleague Rayner Piper to represent Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, find out more and to make sure that the importance of marine conservation for fisheries was represented. I think we were all pleased and relieved to see Penny actually arrive as, the previous day, she had been promoted to the Cabinet as International Development Secretary.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about, living next to and working in the marine environment around Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, I'm always aware of fishing activity going on all year round, but the sad thing is that I suspect that most people turn a blind eye and just aren't aware of the seafood that is caught and landed locally, but tends to be shipped away to London for restaurants and the overseas markets.

The meeting looked at a number of concerns as the first step towards establishing a task force to work for a better future: the state of the fisheries themselves and the lack of awareness and consumption of locally caught seafood and both the threats and opportunities which might arise from Brexit.

In the room we heard from local fishermen and wholesalers, many involved in the shellfishery which operates, for example, in Portsmouth and Langstone harbours. There were representatives from the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Blue Marine Foundation was there to provide an update on their work to restore the Solent's native oyster fishery, once the largest in Europe but currently in a state of collapse, subject to wide closures and barely functioning. This project, works with the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA), which manages all our local inshore fisheries, Portsmouth and Southampton Universities and a large group of stakeholders, including the Wildlife Trust.

We all ultimately want to see the same outcome - healthy, productive and well managed fisheries

As you might imagine, it can be a complicated and conflicting situation. Fishermen want to be able to catch more fish with fewer regulations, businesses want to be able to sell what the public wants and can find developing new markets challenging, everyone, seemingly, wants cleaner seawater and we have to make sure that the marine environment is looked after, stocks are managed well and the impact of damaging activities is minimised. Money and influence is not always the solution because oysters and crabs are not impressed and respond better to healthy habitats and careful management, but the attention focused on our local fisheries is most welcome.

The most encouraging thing was that the debate was heathy and informative. I'm sure that, like me, everyone in the room learnt a great deal and that, although we may be approaching this problem from different directions, we all ultimately want to see the same outcome - healthy, productive and well managed fisheries. At the end of the meeting, there were a number of priority areas identified and a plan for a report on the meeting to set the task force in motion.

How does this affect Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust's marine conservation work? We support sustainable fisheries both locally and nationally and understand that the more people understand and benefit from locally sourced seafood, the more likely they will feel a connection with their local seas and their importance and wider value. The Wildlife Trusts' recent report on the future of our marine environment after Brexit, The Way Back to Living Seas, sets out our belief that the best future for sustainable fisheries lies in restored stocks, maintained at a higher level than currently and the integration of the fishing industry with the management of our growing network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the wider planning of marine industries and recreational uses.

Right now, the future of our fisheries is centre stage both nationally and locally and it is an exciting time of risk and opportunity. Nationally, our exit from Europe and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is being met by the development of a new Fisheries Bill which will have to define how the UK manages its own fisheries and how we share and manage fisheries with our neighbours, and between the different sectors within the industry.

We also have to balance the needs of the fishing industry with the vitally important aims of achieving sustainable, low-impact fisheries which are compatible with and benefit from a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Some fishing activities can cause serious damage to marine habitats and have to be managed carefully to avoid those impacts and all fisheries have the capacity to overexploit stocks if the amount being caught is more than can be replaced by reproduction and growth. Together, managing impacts and stocks are the keystones of sustainability and if done well, can ensure a healthy fishing industry. This is why the Wildlife Trusts have taken the stance that, after Brexit, the legislation which eventually replaces the CFP and other environmental legislation like the Birds and Habitats Directives, should not be weakened, but be as good or better than they are now.

Despite our fishing and seafood heritage, as a nation, we seem to have turned our backs on what out seas provide in favour of imported fish from just a few fisheries, not all of which are managed well and stocks (or farmed fish) may not be harvested or farmed under sustainable conditions. To help rectify this, over the next 4 years Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust will be working closely with the fishing industry and fisheries managers in order to:

  • Increase the availability of Solent seafood sold in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
  • Help consumers make the right choice when purchasing seafood and using the power of their purchase to drive change
  • Encourage retailers and restaurants to source from local low impact stocks
  • Provide information on the way seafood is captured in the Solent
  • Influence fisheries managers and decision makers

Our goal of sustainably fished, healthy stocks and locally produced seafood can be a part of restoring a healthy fishing industry and securing our diverse and productive living seas for the future.