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Seafood Insight: Waitrose counts on sustainable fish for the future

As part of its awards programme for 2014, our UK team present Seafood Insight, a new series of interviews with seafood industry insiders. Jeremy Langley from Waitrose talks about award-winning sustainable seafood sourcing and commitments.
Marine Stewardship Council on November 3, 2014 - 4:27 pm in Sustainable seafood
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As part of its awards programme for 2014, MSC’s UK team present Seafood Insight, a new series of interviews with seafood industry thought leaders. This week, we hear from Jeremy Ryland Langley, aquaculture and fisheries manager at Waitrose.

Waitrose has made substantial commitments to certified sustainable seafood, including the Marine Stewardship Council. What’s the greatest challenge in keeping those commitments?

As one of the Waitrose Way Commitments we have said that “By 2017, all Waitrose fish and shellfish will be independently certified as responsibly caught or farmed to a recognised third party standard”.

Our current position is that in volume terms 78% of the seafood we sell is certified to one of our recognised schemes.

Depending on the time of year, we sell between 80–100 species of fish and shellfish from around 40-45 countries and one of the biggest challenges in meeting our target is that there’s not a certification scheme that covers all of the seafood species we sell.

What’s the difference between responsibly and sustainably sourced seafood?

We insist that responsible fishing methods must be used to minimise bycatch of vulnerable and non-targeted fish species (i.e. coral, seabirds, marine mammals). Fishing practices that minimise discards and  avoid capture of immature or undersized fish should be encouraged. In practice we evaluate all the methods we use for all species of fish that we sell. In the case of lemon sole and plaice we insist that they are caught using Danish seine, which has less impact on the environment and produces a higher quality fish.

All our cod and haddock is MSC certified and we are really proud of that.* Our Responsible Fish Sourcing Policy also says that all our cod and haddock should be line caught, so the fact that both the Icelandic and Norwegian MSC certification included all fishing methods was fantastic news.

Wild caught fish must be fully traceable to catch areas defined in legislation and from known fishing vessel operators that fully comply with legislation designed to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing).

Waitrose has 5% market share in grocery retail, but 12% of market share for retail fish counters. Why do Waitrose fish counters perform so well?

Freshness, quality, value and customer service are at the forefront of our customers’ minds when purchasing fish from Waitrose. While responsible sourcing may not be, we do know through talking to them that they expect Waitrose to have done that work for them.

We’ve got the next 2.5 years to work our way through the final 20% towards meeting our 2017 target. It’ll be the hardest part according to the 80/20 rule. The bulk of our sales are still in the big five: cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna. We’re in a great position in that all our our farmed and wild caught salmon is independently certified, all our cod and haddock is MSC certified as is our skipjack tuna, not just the fish found in tins, but also the tuna found in our salads, sandwiches and fishcakes. All our coldwater prawns are also MSC certified.

We’ve found over the years that we get a much more consistent high quality fish with hook and line caught cod compared with trawled fish. There’s an added benefit too with fuel costs, as long line boats tend to be more fuel efficient than trawlers towing large and heavy gear. So there are lots of benefits to fishing responsibly, it’s not just about benefit on the environment and the cost of fishing; we have found over the years that we get the best product quality as well.

How will you apply your sourcing policy to the ‘harder to reach’ fisheries?

One of the biggest challenges in meeting our target is that there’s not a certification scheme that covers all of the seafood species we sell. So the question is what do we do with these smaller fisheries?

For example, we take a Thai squid that’s caught by very small fishing vessels who fish at night. The squid are encouraged to the surface by hanging lights over the side of the boat and then caught but using hand and dip nets. By its very nature this is a fishery that meets all of our current responsible sourcing policies. It’s very small scale, has minimal impact on the environment, it couldn’t overfish the stock, every boat is fully traceable and everything is recorded. The challenge is how do we get a fishery like that through some sort of certification scheme.

To help us with this we have developed the Waitrose Responsible Seafood Sourcing Programme. The programme’s objectives are to ensure that Waitrose procures seafood from the most sustainable sources available. The programme has been developed jointly with SAI GLOBAL in collaboration with the Waitrose Fish Forum Technical Committee. The committee is multi-disciplinary and includes marine biologists, fishery and aquaculture experts and Waitrose Corporate Social Responsibility and Technical departments. They are tasked with evaluating the latest scientific data and emerging knowledge to inform sourcing policy decisions and commissioning independent fishery assessment projects.

What role do retailers play in influencing consumers to shop for sustainable fish?

Retailers clearly have a very important role to play in sustainability. I think it’s fair to say that retailers have been leaders in delivering change in sustainable seafood. If you look at what was going on 20 years ago there were only two retailers at the time taking this seriously, one of which was Waitrose.

Back in the 1990s we had serious concerns over the state of our native fish stocks, particularly North sea cod and at that time we started to develop our Responsible Fish Sourcing Policies. The Brussels seafood show 20 years ago was all about selling fish. You go to the Brussels seafood show now and it’s all about selling sustainable or responsible seafood. And that’s a massive change in such a small period.

Does the fiercely competitive retail sector help or hinder promotion of sustainable seafood?

Retailers have an important role in driving change at a consumer and government level at times it’s really important that retailers put aside the competitive nature of our business. We are much stronger together than a group of individuals, for example retailers working together on Fishery Improvement Projects.

Is Waitrose policy more effective than EU policy?

They are complementary and we welcome the changes in EU policy particularly on discards, but it is incredibly challenging particularly in the EU because of mixed fisheries. There are some species of fish that are considered threatened such as some sharks and skates, which can be live when landed on the boat and I would suggest enforcing fishermen to land these fish is the last thing we want. We actually want them to put them back.

It’s about a common sense approach, if you’ve got a quota for one species and are catching a lots of another species which you do not have quota for then I would have to ask “Are you using the right fishing method?” If you have a high bycatch of fish that you cannot land legally, you have to ask why.

How helpful is the MSC logo in communicating to Waitrose customers?

We only use one fish ecolabel – the MSC. Why? Well very simply, it’s the most recognisable of all the schemes. Customers are time poor, so if they see that blue tick on the packaging or counter tickets they can make a quick and informed decision on which seafood to buy.

We have made the commitment that we will source MSC certified fish as long as the fishery meets the requirements of our own Responsible Fish and Shellfish Sourcing Policy.

What does the recognition of the MSC UK award for Best Fish Counter 2014 mean?

We’re very proud of the award. It’s recognition for the hard work of our Commercial and Technical teams as well as our suppliers and it’s great for our customers because it reaffirms our brand values and gives them the confidence to continue to buy fish at Waitrose. Any award that highlights the responsible element of our business is always fantastic and reinforces everything that we’ve been telling our customers over the years, about Waitrose sourcing policy and our support for the MSC.

Are you optimistic about the future of the world’s oceans?

The big thing for me is that they are not our fish – we can’t just exploit the marine environment as we have done in the past. They are not our fish – it’s not for us to do what we want with them, we’re the caretakers for future generations. For me it’s about ensuring that there are plenty more fish in the sea – it sounds a bit corny but it’s key.

There are always challenges, but the whole business of responsible seafood is a moveable feast, it’s moved so quickly in the last 20 years. Not so long ago you were hearing that cod was threatened and would be off the menu. Now we have two massive fisheries in Norway and Iceland that are fully MSC certified across all fishing methods – this has been a dramatic change.

It’s an exciting journey and I don’t think we’ll ever get to the position where we can say the job is done, there will always be more to do.

* Not all of Waitrose’s cod and haddock marked with the MSC ecolabel.

Marine Stewardship Council

Our mission is to use our ecolabel and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognising and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood, and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis.

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