A conversation with Jack Clarke,
Co-founder and Director
I recently signed up to Soleshare, an innovative weekly fish box scheme. What makes it special? Well, Soleshare aims to reconnect London-based customers with coastal communities. Customers receive a diverse selection of exceptionally fresh fish more or less straight from the boat; British fishermen using sustainable fishing methods are paid a proper price for their catch; and marine environments are safeguarded by helping to make environmentally-friendly fishing more economically viable.
Soleshare was set up in 2013 by Jack Clarke and Theresa Douthwright.
wscf: Jack, I understand you were formerly a marine biologist and Theresa was an aquatic ecologist. What motivated you both to leave your former careers and set up Soleshare?
Jack: Theresa and I had both spent a lot of time in our respective careers campaigning on sustainability issues. But, it can take a long time before campaigning has any noticeable impact. I was fed up with just moaning about things; and I wanted to make a more immediate and practical difference. I thought it would be interesting to set up a company with a business model focused on fairness, and prioritising social and environmental benefit, to see if that could spark debate and change attitudes.
wscf: In some respects the food culture in London (where Soleshare is based) is hugely diverse. Yet one of the problems for British fishermen is that we don’t reflect this adventurousness in our shopping habits, at least so far as fish is concerned. Most of the fish eaten in the UK is one of only five species: cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns. And, as we can’t catch these in sufficient quantities around our own coastline, we end up importing a lot of what we eat rather than buying what British fishermen actually catch. Which doesn’t make much sense for food miles, and presumably doesn’t help British fishermen make a reasonable living.
Jack: Yes, this lack of adventurousness doesn’t help small-scale British fishermen who actually catch a much wider variety of fish. Unhelpful knock-on effects include unnecessary food miles, and the establishment of intensive fish farming methods that are frequently detrimental to the environment.
wscf: Massive industrial vessels presumably help to put cheap fish on our shelves. Are there any problems with this approach to fishing?
Jack: Not all large-scale fishing methods are damaging to the marine environment and fish stocks. But many are. It’s a complicated picture. Large nets can be used to catch fish such as mackerel, tuna and herring that mainly swim in open water, rather than near the seabed or the shore. So long as these nets are used to catch shoals of a particular species, they can be a sustainable way of fishing. But problems can arise, say, if drift nets are lost in the sea. Or if they are so large that they become unselective rather than targeting specific species. For this reason, their use is curtailed or banned in some jurisdictions.
Fish aggregation devices (FADs), where fishing boats don’t simply locate fish shoals but actively encourage diverse fish species to gather in a particular location to make them easier to catch, cause further problems. The danger here is of scooping up unwanted ‘by-catch’, which is wasteful at best and, at worst, can injure or kill endangered species such as sharks, dolphins and sea turtles. And bottom trawling, where a large net with heavy weights is dragged along the sea bed, causes the most serious damage of all to the underlying marine environment by crushing fragile organisms such as algae and ancient corals.
wscf: The Guardian recently published an article ‘Is there any tuna that it’s ok to eat?’, and readers are likely to agree with their comment that “the picture is bewildering”. Can Soleshare customers be confident they’re eating fish that it’s ok to eat?
Jack: The short answer is, yes, Soleshare customers can be confident they’re eating fish that it’s ok to eat.
The fishing industry is incredibly complex, so it’s not surprising that it’s bewildering to consumers. For example, some fish might be on a ‘red list’ suggesting they should never be eaten. But populations of individual species will vary enormously around our coast and actually, occasional catches using sustainable techniques can be fine. On the other hand, if stocks of a particular species are dangerously low, then even sustainable fishing methods are inappropriate. And this may depend on exactly where fish are caught as well as which species. Guidance, such as the MSC blue label scheme, is useful, but it’s only relevant for large retailers buying vast quantities of fish from large fisheries. It’s also worth bearing in mind that smaller operators, such as British day boats, may not be able to afford expensive accreditation schemes.
But it shouldn’t be up to consumers to research each and every item on their shopping list; they should be able to rely on suppliers to operate ethically.
wscf: Wouldn’t it be better if we all just stopped eating fish?
Jack: Some people deal with concerns around sustainability by deciding not to eat fish at all. But that’s probably the least helpful response so far as British fishermen are concerned. If customers who are interested in sustainability stop buying fish then more and more consumer power is in the hands of people who aren’t that interested, which in turn hands more power to large-scale industrial fishing operators who are more driven by profits than concern for coastal communities or ecological issues.
Soleshare’s approach isn’t to focus primarily on individual fish species but on better ways of fishing, and on better ways of eating fish. It’s a more holistic approach. Eating a range of different fish rather than the same old favourites, and eating fish when it’s available rather than incentivising the industry to over-fish declining stocks, is key to a sustainable fishing industry.
wscf: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight highlighted the seemingly wasteful practice of throwing back overboard fish which might be alive or dead. This generally happened when the catch took fishermen over the quota allowed by the EU, or was low value in comparison to other fish. The reformed Common Fisheries Policy now bans discard practices, and requires fishermen to land such fish for monitoring purposes, although they still can’t sell them if the catch would take them over their allocated quota. But we hear much less about the food waste resulting from fishmongers and supermarkets throwing away unsold fish that is still edible. Is all the fish Soleshare buy sold to customers, or is any of it discarded?
Jack: The discard ban is one of the reasons operators of small day boats are so disgruntled with the EU. It’s clearly beneficial in terms of waste to discourage large vessels from high-grading (the process where they throw back low value fish such as haddock in order to maximise the catch of fish which will obtain higher profits at market; for example, cod). But by-catch (untargeted and unwanted catch) and discards are much less of a problem so far as small day boats are concerned. Whereas larger trawlers use fishing methods which mean fish are usually already dead or dying when landed on the boat, small day boats are likely to be using static gear meaning any fish caught are likely to still be alive, and to grow and reproduce if returned to the water. The discard ban is an example of how a ‘one size fits all’ approach can penalise smaller fishing operations who didn’t cause the problems in the first place.
This isn’t to deny that waste is a huge problem in the fishing industry. According to a 2015 study, 47% of edible seafood is wasted in the USA each year, whether as by-catch, during distribution and retail, or thrown away by consumers. It’s likely there are comparable levels of waste in the UK.
One of the advantages of the Soleshare model is that there is no waste whatsoever. Because we simply give our customers whatever has been caught that week, we don’t have the problem of trying to predict what they’ll want and we can buy the exact amount of fish we need. If there is ever any fish left over, we freeze it to use in workshops where we demonstrate how to prepare fish for cooking, or we cook it ourselves for promotional events.
wscf: I like the ‘catch of the day’ aspect of Soleshare. There isn’t the huge selection you’d find in a fishmonger or supermarket. But it’s actually made me try a much wider range of different seafood than I would have done otherwise. And it’s made me think more about the fact that fish are ‘seasonal’ in a similar way to fruit and vegetables, although probably even more unpredictable (at least a grower knows exactly where to find their crop). The way Soleshare operates reflects the fact that fishermen can’t guarantee what they’ll catch or, sometimes, if they’ll even catch anything at all. In our ‘on-demand’ culture have you found it challenging to introduce a scheme which relies on less choice, more variety? And, if so, how have you tackled this?
Jack: We’ve found we attract customers who enjoy finding out about different types of fish. We plan to make sure everyone gets a good variety on a week-by-week basis. And we aim to increase their confidence in cooking unfamiliar seafood by providing recipes at pick-up points and online. Having to collect the fish can be inconvenient for some people depending on their work patterns and other commitments. But others love the opportunity for a more meaningful shopping experience, and the chance for a face-to-face conversation about the catch of the day.
Marketing is also important. We pay our small-scale British fishermen a fair price for their catch, which can make it more expensive than other options. So it’s vital that Soleshare customers understand our basis for pricing. Conventional pricing ignores hidden costs such as EU and government subsidies to the fishing industry, social security benefits for fishing families who can’t earn a decent living, or the cultural and economic cost where entire regions lose their traditional industries. At the end of the day, if consumers don’t pay a fair price, then the taxpayer eventually picks up the tab. We think it’s fairer to everyone to reimburse fishermen for the actual costs, and physical risk, of catching our fish supper.
wscf: There don’t seem to be that many fish box schemes in the UK at the moment. Do you think this will change? Could a community fish box approach revolutionise the way we buy fish, and transform the prospects for small-scale British fishermen? Or will it always be a niche alternative to conventional sources of seafood?
Jack: I’d like to think there could be more fish box schemes in the future. Buying as directly as possible from small-scale fishermen reduces the costs of complex supply chain intermediaries such as agents, auctions, distributors and outlets. More of the price paid goes directly to the fisherman. Also, widely publicised concerns about declining fish stocks mean people increasingly want to know where their fish comes from, and buying directly from small-scale fishermen increases transparency for consumers.
wscf: The debates during the referendum highlighted the challenges for British fishermen. What impact do you think Brexit will have on small-scale British fishermen?
Jack: It’s become apparent that the proponents of leaving the EU had no actual plans for that eventuality, so it’s practically impossible to say what the consequences for the fishing industry will be. But even the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) have warned that it may be difficult to secure improvements in trade deals and quotas proposed by Leave campaigners. The UK actually has little bargaining power for reasons to do with how ‘our’ waters are defined, and our ability to ‘protect’ them.
Territorial waters extend out 12 nautical miles (around 22km or 14 miles) and this is the area prohibited to international fishing vessels. But it’s not cheap to monitor, or easy to take effective action against vast fishing operations that ignore this boundary.
The ‘exclusive economic zone’ extends much further, to 200 nautical miles (around 370km or 230 miles), and is the area over which any coastal nation has control of resources including fishing. Historic agreements mean that the UK shares this area of the seas with international fishing operations. In theory, the UK could renegotiate these agreements. In practice this could be difficult to achieve. Why would other countries give up their existing rights without recompense, such as tariffs on imports and/or exports? This could counteract any benefits of gaining more ‘control’ over those waters.
wscf: Even given the uncertainty around Brexit, can you hazard a guess on worst-case scenarios? And the best-case scenario?
It depends partly on whether the UK government focuses purely on overall industry profitability or takes wider public benefit into account. A worst-case scenario is that fishing quota continues to be treated as a financial investment rather than as a national resource. In this scenario, small-scale fishermen continue to find fishing so economically unviable that they sell off their remaining quota entitlement and leave the industry entirely. Possible consequences of a reduction in the number of British day boats include economic devastation of coastal communities, and fewer options for consumers to buy responsibly caught fish.
Of course, small-scale fishermen wouldn’t have come out in support of Brexit if they didn’t believe the UK government would take advantage of new opportunities to improve their situation. The government already has control of how quotas are distributed and previously elected to give only 4% to British coastal day boats (even following a legal challenge from Greenpeace to increase this percentage on social and environmental grounds). The hope of small-scale fishing operations is that the government agency, DEFRA, would give small-scale fishermen a bigger slice of the quota pie in a Brexit scenario. A relatively small increase in quota could make a big difference to our inshore fishing fleets.
Selective application of discard bans would stop penalising small-scale day boats for unsustainable practices of massive industrial fishing vessels.
Also, in the interests of free trade, EU regulations currently prohibit promotion (though not labelling) of fish as being ‘British’. Brexit opens up possibilities such as specifically labelling fish as ‘caught sustainably by British day boats’, enabling a premium to be charged which would, in turn, make small-scale, environmentally-friendly methods more economically viable.
wscf: Where do you think Soleshare will be in five years time? Ten years?
Jack: We’re so busy concentrating on the day-to-day practicalities of setting up and running a small business that it’s hard to think that far ahead. It’s difficult to get capital funding to develop Soleshare; potential investors want us to grow the business and then sell it within a couple of years so they can make a profit on their investment. And, of course, we didn’t set up the business just to sell it. We wanted to get a debate going on the real costs of fish, and to demonstrate that fairer business models can work in the long-term. We don’t want to get so big that we lose our close involvement with our customers, or the connection between customers and coastal communities, but we could be London-wide in ten years.
wscf: And finally, can our day-to-day shopping choices have a positive impact in helping safeguard coastal communities and marine environments?
Jack: Yes I think they can. Buying from a fish box scheme directly supports coastal communities. If it’s not realistic to join a fish box scheme then buy from a fishmonger who can tell you where their fish has come from, and ask specifically for fish caught from British day boats.