More than 20 UK fisheries are now accredited as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, and the number is steadily growing. Tom Vaughan visits Stornoway, where, in a bid to join this list, Young's Seafood is pioneering its Trace system
It's 7.15am on langoustine trawler the Sharon Rose as the morning's first light cracks a moody sky, sending dusty orange beams on to the fishing boats scattered below. In the distance sits the Scottish mainland, jagged and notched, like chunks of Toblerone on the horizon. The Rose‘s skipper, Murdo MacDonald, presses a weathered thumb to the computer screen, signalling the start of the trawl, and his three-strong Latvian team scuttle on deck, all cries and rugged gloves as they lower the huge langoustine nets into the deep green sea.
The trawler has just three hours to gather its haul, explains Malcolm Blanthorn, procurement manager at Young's Seafood, for whom the crew fish. "Langoustines are a fine balance of salt and sugars," he says. "As they get caught in the net they get incredibly stressed and fight like billyo to get out - converting sugars into energy." Any longer than three hours in the net and necrosis (the physical result of this stress) sets in, reducing the quality of the meat significantly. A day at sea might result in three, four or even five trawls, but none of these is permitted to exceed three hours before the langoustines are hauled in.
MacDonald's touch of the screen records not only the start and finish times (he'll press it again when the trawl's done) but also information on the GPS location of the boat.
The process is just a small part of Young's Trace system: new technology developed in conjunction with Glasgow University that allows for complete transparency between fisherman, manager and customer, recording all details of when, where and how their fish are caught.
The Trace system is central to a bid by Young's to have the Stornoway langoustine fishery on the Isle of Lewis, 30 miles off north-west Scotland, accredited as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). A preassessment has already been completed, and if they achieve their plans, they will be the first fishery to be accredited on a trawler-by-trawler basis, meaning only those operating from the fishery with Young's Trace system on board will be approved as sustainable.
Their target, langoustines - or nethrops norvegicus to give them their official title - go by many names: Dublin Bay prawns, Norwegian lobster, scampi, whole prawns. Call them what you will, they are bottom scavengers who live in burrows, can live for anything up to 15 years and represent the most lucrative component of the Scottish seafood industry. The whole UK langoustine industry is worth £200m, compared with the paltry £22.5m value that UK cod now totals.
According to the Scottish government's Fisheries Research Services, they are considered sustainable and, in fact, the UK's 2006 quota of 48,000 tonnes went unfished by 8,000 tonnes. Langoustine mothers hatch eggs in the autumn and burrow underground to lay them in spring, usually remaining there for months, surviving on metabolic reserves. The hatchlings leave the burrow only when sexually mature, so although langoustines caught in EU waters must be at least 20-25mm in size, specimens any shorter than this are rarely caught in large numbers.
For anyone who's tasted the smooth, lobster-esque flavour of a langoustine it might be hard to believe that 60 years ago they were considered useless in culinary terms, most often tossed back into the sea. Then, in 1952, Young's invented scampi, the breaded delicacy that is a cornerstone of British pub menus, using langoustine tails and named after the Italian name for the shellfish - scampo. Suddenly the white flesh was in popular demand, and UK landings hit 30,000 tonnes at the turn of the millennium before growing interest from chefs saw it rocket up to just shy of 50,000 tonnes last year.
Young's Trace system has existed in various forms for three years now, and the Sharon Rose has helped to develop and test the technology. When the nets go down and MacDonald touches the small screen that will eventually be standard in all Young's langoustine boats (it has langoustine fisheries in Kilkeel, County Down, and Annan, Dumfriesshire), the system prints off stickers for the langoustine containers documenting the GPS location, the date and time, the boat's name and even the name of the skipper. If a customer is curious about his catch, he can see immediately where, when and by whom it was trawled from the sea bed.
The trawl speed and depth are also recorded and sent to a central Young's system, so if there are any quality issues, they can identify anomalies in the trawl process. Blanthorn pulls up a map showing MacDonald's trawl locations over the past months, and it's easy to identify where his favourite spots are and even where he goes when the wind direction varies slightly.
This process ensures that every morsel of information concerning the trawling is documented and visible. It also means that quality checks can be made regularly, monitoring the reasons why, for example, a big batch might have returned beset with necrosis.
Stornoway has helped pioneer the system, and the plan is to roll it out on all Young's langoustine trawlers in the near future. Although it's not confined to such vessels, says Blanthorn tuna boats in Sri Lanka are also testing the system, and the plan is to introduce it wherever fishing techniques will allow. Furthermore, they have no plans to hoard the technology. "We're happy to share it," says Blanthorn. "We want this to be a help to the wider industry."
The company has also worked with seafood restaurant chain Fishworks to help set up screens in various restaurants displaying pictures of Young's langoustine trawlers with a live screen showing their current position off the Stornoway coast.
The journey from the langoustines scavenging on the sea bed to their appearance four days later on a restaurant plate is nothing if not efficient. When the allotted three hours is up for the Sharon Rose‘s trawl, MacDonald's Latvian crew return from their brief sleeps in the hull - the boat can be at sea for days on end, so they catnap between and during trawls - to haul the mighty catch from the sea. A full day at sea can gather more than 700kg of langoustines and by-catch at this time of year.
Plaice, dogfish, monkfish and halibut are among the fish that get swept up in the langoustine trawl. Young's, however, is testing new nets that will reduce the amount of by-catch. Longer lines will give the fish a better chance at avoidance, while more escape holes will mean that, once caught, they can still swim out before becoming entangled.
Once the haul is in, a job that takes about half-an-hour, the by-catch is sorted from the langoustines into various containers, the majority of which end up in local fishmongers and restaurants. Only then does the tailing commence.
Stornoway is the only Young's fishery that catches langoustines to sell whole, although 99% of these go abroad. To this end, the larger, better-formed specimens are put aside and packed in ice to slowly go to sleep so their last few hours aren't beset by necrosis-inducing stress.
The remainder are tailed on board: a simple process but a grim one for the langoustines. MacDonald and his Latvians gather along a production line, facing piles of live langoustines whose meat they tear by hand from the bones. The odd one will thrash about as he nears his end and a few will trot off once their tail has been severed, strange crab-like creatures confused by their lack of balance. Ultimately, though, their fate lies back in the sea, what's left of them destined as lunch for the gathering swarms of seagulls and plump seals.
Heston Blumenthal visited a Young's langoustine trawler recently, Blanthorn tells me, and not satisfied with merely tailing the langoustines, decided to extract their kidneys to make a sauce on board. It proved so tasty that the Young's resident chef borrowed the recipe and served it at a meal for the company's directors.
The tails and the whole langoustines are packed into a chiller to ensure the quality does not deteriorate. As the majority of the trawlers are day boats, they return that evening, sometimes as late as 1am, only to turn out again three hours later.
From the harbour, the langoustines and tails go to the Stornoway factory, where 60 staff work most hours of the day to clean, sort, devein (the fiddly process of removing their small, vein-like digestive system) and freeze the tails. As the boats can return so late, the operation rarely adheres to social hours.
Frozen and packaged, the tails depart on lorries the following morning, stopping via Grimsby to arrive in London within two days. The whole langoustines on ice and the live langoustines, packed in tubes, then in boxes with water, follow a similar route, stopping off at a London depot before turning up at restaurants such as the Ivy.
Mitchell Tonks, co-founder of Fishworks, says the sustainability issue can no longer be ignored. "When I started in seafood restaurants 10 years ago no one used the word sustainable. Now it's on the tip of everyone's tongue and is set to become one of the most important parts of this industry's future. Sustainable sourcing is more important than sourcing just on quality, because if something is handled well in a sustainable fishery, it will be excellent quality anyway."
But sustainability is a loaded term. If everything goes to plan, Young's Stornoway trawlers will be MSC-accredited by the end of summer 2008. But standing on the deck of the Sharon Rose I ask MacDonald - whose father and grandfather were both fisherman - why his crew are Latvian. "Young lads round here don't have that much interest in it any more," he says. "These guys are reliable. You need to know your crew'll turn up on a Monday morning."
His own son has shown interest in following in his footsteps, but he's doing his best to discourage him from the sleepless, nomadic life of the trawler fisherman.
With local interest dwindling, who'll skipper the boats when this generation hang up their sou'westers? "I don't know," he replies. "Maybe there won't be a fleet any more."
Sustainable accreditation goes some way to ensuring tomorrow's catch, it seems, but nothing in the wind-swept seas of fishing can be taken for granted.
The EU definition of traceability
For their products to qualify as traceable producers should have systems to ensure:
- Any potential risks with the product are identified (including batch sampling).
- The product is traceable (including batch marking).
- The product can be withdrawn.
- The product can be recalled from customers.
- Distributors can show the documentation for traceability.
- The port of origin is documented.
Data recorded by Young's Trace system
- Time of shooting nets
- GPS position if shooting nets
- Length of trawl
- Length of haul
- GPS position at end of haul
- Time at end of haul
Each fishery that applies to be accredited as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is audited, to MSC standards, by an independent assessor. In the case of the Stornoway fishery this is being carried out by certification organisation Moody Marine.
The process begins with a preassessment, which will advise on the chances of gaining accreditation and any changes that would need to be made. This process has already been completed at Stornoway.
The full assessment then commences, and all reports are published for the public. All stakeholders in the fishery are involved - fishermen, government bodies and environmental groups. The assessment looks at three main criteria: the stock levels of the fish, the management of the fishery, and the impact on the marine environment.
Each of these criteria is broken down into subsections, which are marked out of 100. For a fishery to be successful in its bid it must average 80% in each of the main criteria.
At the end of the assessment the full report is published and stakeholders are given the chance to object to any findings, which would then be individually readdressed.