Edinburgh Fish City: A market for local fish

The seafood industry is facing challenging times. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a decline in exports hitting the industry hard with exports falling by £712m (23.3% by value) in the first six months of 2020. Ongoing lockdowns across the four nations have driven down demand from UK restaurants. On top of this, the ongoing problems resulting from Brexit make EU markets increasingly insecure. ‘Challenging’ doesn’t really do it justice for an industry that produces some of Scotland’s most celebrated foods.

Faced with no export market the seafood industry has started to look closer to home to find markets for this prime catch. Enterprising skippers have been selling seafood to their local communities at the end of the pier, often just through word of mouth, Facebook or other social media. Local people , often with more time to cook and eat at home (and less chance to go out for dinner), have been enjoying being able to access the fruits of the sea. For a country that has historically exported what we catch and imported what we eat, seeing locally caught seafood on our plates could be a step towards reducing that reliance on exports.

But where does sustainability fit into the picture? Invariably, any narrative, conversation or publicity for the fishing industry talks about ‘sustainable seafood’. This tallies with consumer opinion; recent research shows that 66% of seafood consumers believe that in order to save the ocean we have to consume seafood only from sustainable sources. Younger consumers are even more likely to have concerns about declining fish stocks and the effects of fishing on the ocean. To get the next generation on board is essential for the future of the fishing industry. However, it is sadly true that some claims of sustainability are not backed up with robust sourcing decisions. In many cases the true origin of a supply is difficult to ascertain.

Here in Scotland the Edinburgh Fish City project has been set up to help sustainable seafood reach a market of local consumers that care about eating fish that doesn’t cost the planet. It requires suppliers to pledge commitment to better sourcing and clear provenance. Based on the Sustainable Fish Cities campaign from Sustain, the initiative has been brought to Edinburgh by the marine conservation charity Open Seas, and the city’s sustainable food partnership, Edible Edinburgh.

The original campaign asked restaurants and contract caterers to take a pledge to source and serve sustainable seafood. Edinburgh Fish City has evolved this concept. It engages with fishermen and businesses earlier on in the supply chain, and works to promote these to potential consumers in the nation’s capital.

With more people buying food locally and online in the Covid-19 era, and boats selling at the harbourside, the project aims to connect the two together with sustainability at its heart. The previous Sustainable Fish Cities pledge has been updated to reflect the importance of improved traceability so that customers can know where their seafood comes from.

Businesses that sign up to the Edinburgh Fish City pledge agree to:

  1. State the catch location and fishing gear used on all fish sales.
  2. Avoid the worst – stop selling seafood ‘red rated’ by the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide.
  3. Promote the best – aim to procure certified or ‘green rated’ seafood by the Good Fish Guide, promote small scale fishing in your purchasing decisions and enable and support consumers to choose green rated seafood products.

Pledgers are added to an online directory of sustainable seafood businesses where people can find their details and buy from them directly. The aim for the website is to become a real hub and information point for whose who want to buy sustainable seafood. And there are plenty of them out there; 87% of seafood consumers across Europe want better information so they can be confident they are not buying unsustainable fish and seafood products.

The campaign was launched just last year. With the first businesses signed up, the vast majority of visitors to the Edinburgh Fish City website are heading straight to the directory, demonstrating the demand for sustainable seafood from consumers. The Sustainable Fish Cities campaign has already enabled 850 million meals to be served by caterers serving sustainable fish. Perhaps the Edinburgh Fish City approach can start increasing the amount of local, sustainable seafood on our plates at home too.

Traceability of seafood is often a challenging area, with a mismatch between the amount of information provided by fishmongers, and the amount of information needed by sustainability rating schemes to identify the sustainable choice. Open Seas became alert to this factor after repeatedly reporting on illegal fishing inside Marine Protected Areas but being completely unable to isolate where the illegal product ended up in the supply chain.

When it comes to getting sustainable seafood into the city, the project is part of a broader- approach to city-wide supply chains. The Edible Edinburgh Partnership has focused on bringing sustainable seafood to Edinburgh as part of its ambition to help drive a shift towards healthier and more sustainable food in the city. The partnership is one of the founding members of the national Sustainable Food Places network, which now has over 50 members nationwide including Glasgow, Aberdeen and Stirling.

Sustainable Food Places aims to promote a systems approach that involves and connects key actors at all levels and across all parts of the food system. This is encapsulated in its framework for action covering six key issues. Edible Edinburgh Partnership is working towards the Sustainable Food Places Silver Award, which includes building public awareness of food issues and encouraging widespread participation in food-related activity.

In November 2019, Edible Edinburgh Partnership launched the Edinburgh Good Food Business Charter. The charter sets out the partnership’s vision for a vibrant food culture in Edinburgh, for healthy people and environment, lively communities and a prospering local economy. Businesses that have signed the Edinburgh Fish City pledge are supporting this vision and helping to turn it into reality. The partnership’s new Economy working group are focused on putting good food enterprise at the heart of local economic development and promoting healthy, sustainable and independent food businesses to consumers.

Whatever 2021 brings the seafood industry is unlikely to be far from the headlines. But when it comes to getting local seafood into our towns and cities and onto our plates, the Edinburgh Fish City approach could be one way to tap into our demand for sustainable, Scottish fish, supporting small scale and local producers in the process.

About the authors

Phil Taylor is the Head of Policy and Operations at Open Seas, the marine conservation charity focused on protecting the marine environment and the things that live in it. Some of their recent work has been investigating potential illegal fishing in Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas and ensuring fisheries meet sustainability credentials. 

Lesley Curtis is the coordinator of Edible Edinburgh, the city’s partnership on sustainable food. The partnership is currently working towards the Sustainable Food Cities Silver Award to demonstrate the positive change Edinburgh is making on a range of key food issues.

Caroline Rye is the coordinator of the Edinburgh Fish City campaign, focused on bringing more sustainable seafood into the city. The project builds on her existing work to get more people eating and enjoying sustainable UK seafood.