Huffin’ and puffin

Fish for lunch…

From the soaring concrete cliffs of Brussels there is an impending explosion of anger. The reason? Look at Charles Sharp’s impressive picture of a puffin, just about to enter the home burrow with a beak full of sand eels. It is the fish, not the bird,  that is fanning the flames, by the way.

For all its comical looks, the puffin is an important indicator in the monitoring of the marine environment around the British Isles. Researchers are particularly interested in the fish stocks that support this distinctive seabird. The  term sand eel is a generic label for a group of about 200 fish species that resemble eels but are not related. They burrow into sandy seabeds and hide from predators while keeping an eye out for their own lunch. Hard to catch in open water, they are easy to scoop up in a dredge, as Danish fishermen have done for centuries.

Puffins are far from being the only bird species to be tracked by scientists. It just happens to be the cutest one of the bunch. The puffins’ lunch, by the way,  is at constant risk of damage from bottom trawling, that is to say beam trawls or dredgers and other devices. Scallops is one species to be caught in dredgers, while cod is a target species for many beam trawls.

Back in January this year, the UK government announced a ban on dredging for sand eels in UK-controlled Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). For the record, bottom trawling is allowed across 98% of the MPAs concerned, suggesting that the state of the seabed has not been a political priority for years. In the North Sea, with its sandy sea floors, there are still  beam trawlers fishing demersal species and small number of Danish dredgers who, between them, hold about 90% of the 160,000 tonne sand eel fishing quota. (UK and EU total) 

The origins of the Danish sand eel fishery go back to the soaring livestock holdings of the late nineteenth century, which set the Danes looking for cheap ways of feeding animals. Initially, small dredges were fitted to inshore boats, scaling up in the early twentieth century to purpose-built diesel powered vessels with an ever greater range. For some reason, as with a number of other fisheries, nobody imagined that the fish stocks would ever decline: until, that is, the catches started to drop. With growing numbers of animals on livestock holdings, the potential earnings from sand eels rose, as did the pressure on the fish stocks. Sand eels, along with other oily fish and suitable bycatch, are the ingredients of fishmeal, an industrial end product turned out in large quantities by refineries that earned a living clearing up after the high value fish processors in fishing ports. 

In the early days of indoor livestock, fishmeal was added at two thirds to one third cereals. As researchers extended their knowledge of livestock nutrition,  the proportion of fishmeal was reduced, making animal feed more profitable or cheaper, depending on your involvement in the process. To ensure an illusion of sustainability for food production in the late twentieth century, the European Commission devised the Common Fisheries Policy, which used its budget to subsidise a rise in the European fishing industry’s tonnage and horsepower, ensuring an ever more unstable fishing industry. 

Fast forward to 2024, and the European Commission is threatening to trigger a dispute procedure under the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). The Commission is acting on behalf of Danish sand eel fishers with fishing vessels to maintain. If agreement is not reached by mid-June, the Commission  can request a judgement on the UK’s  action. While any hearings may be carried over into September, the European Commission is calling for an “evidence-based, proportionate and non-discriminatory” approach to protecting marine environments.  

“The UK’s permanent closure of the sand eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities, but also impinges on basic commitments under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” warned commissioner  Virginijus Sinkevičius. “Measures are already in place to protect this important species, including by setting catches below the scientific advised levels and closed areas for protecting seabirds,” he added. London responded, saying that DEFRA had not authorised any sand eel quota for British vessels for the past three years. Marine protection NGOs across Europe have launched a campaign to end bottom trawling, which is still allowed in 90% of the EU’s marine protected areas (MPAs). Last year Europe agreed to an EU Marine Action Plan that phases out bottom trawling by 2030. This has some way yet to go.

According to the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA) the EU produces between 10% to 15% of the world’s fishmeal and fish oil output. Tonnages of EU fishmeal range from 370,000 tonnes and 520,000 tonnes, while fish oil ranges between 120,000 and 190,000 tonnes. Denmark accounts for nearly half the EU’s total output. In addition to sand eels, EU processors use small pelagics, such as sprats, whiting or herring, all regulated with quotas and topped up with trimmings from fish processors. EU demand for fishmeal has dropped in recent years and is currently hovering around 450,000 tonnes/year. 

Fishy vegan salmon fillet?

Pic: Revo Foods

Watch out for the marketing hype from Revo Foods in Vienna: the company launched a vegan salmon fillet last week and the product is printed on a food grade computer. Vegan it may be, salmon it cannot be, if it is vegan; and fillet it is not, since it is not cut from a larger piece with bone or skeletal structure. The product name follows in the ‘meat and two veg’ tradition of vegetarian foods that routinely borrow descriptions used for butchery products to reinforce their claim to a place at the table. This vegetarian meal product’s claim to fame is the world’s first computer-printed food. This poses more questions than it answers, not least over the use of butchery terms for plant products, which is a long-running discussion at the European Commission. Share your thoughts in the comments box.

(Added September 21) On reflection, the most probable end users will be long haul space missions. I struggle to imagine products like this being served up in classy Viennese restaurants, not least because of the fact that it is neither meat, nor fish, nor fowl. But this kind of delivery system would be a good for intrepid astronauts who fear nothing…

Packing them in

An unmistakeable sign of the impending holiday season turned up this morning in the form of an email from Thierry Jourdan, boss of the family-run cannery La Quiberonnaise in Britanny. Founded in 1921 by Thierry’s grandfather, the fish canning business packs sardines and mackerel landed by local inshore boats as well as taking in yellowfin tuna to pack a range of cans in domestic sizes.

Such canneries were a common sight in seaside towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, there are still a number of survivors in what used to be a crowded market. As the fleets dispersed and catches waned, the importance of the tourist trade was recognised by canneries along the French coast. The 1930s saw the establishment of paid summer holidays for French workers: it was the salvation of resourceful canners.

They greeted holidaymakers with open arms and tasteful souvenirs. Local artists are still engaged to create designs for annual editions of elaborately decorated cans of fish, with the promise of a fresh series the next year. Themes range from gently humorous picture postcard subjects to classical offerings that are as likely to end up in an art gallery as a kitchen. Canned fish as an art form has some unexpectedly well-known devotees. Food critic Jean-Luc Petitrenaud always takes a decorated can of sardines for his host whenever he is invited to dinner.

Stiff fines no deterrent

Sea cucumber. Pic: public domain.

Criminals fishing for sea cucumber to the south of Japan are ignoring the increasingly harsh penalties for their coveted catch. Japanese police arrested five poachers with a 625 kg catch of sea cucumbers last week. Valued at around 10,000 pounds, the haul was one of the largest in recent years. Sea cucumber is an overfished delicacy that faces sharp declines in population if current levels of exploitation continue. Unfortunately, there is no reliable way of calculating the sustainability of surviving stocks.

Shelling out

Members of the public eating oysters and other shellfish generate large volumes of shells, most of which will end up in landfill and incinerators. Local authorities on west coast of France are taking the opportunity to encourage householders to recycle empty shells at local recycling centres. Their work is simplified because the local economy already includes a significant proportion of the nation’s oyster producers.

The adjacent estuaries of the Charente and Bordeaux’s Gironde are the beating heart of France’s ostreiculture sector and generates huge quantities of waste oyster shells. Local processor Ovive converts oyster shells, grinding them down into a poultry industry supplement for laying birds. Operations director Coline Saunier told the local France Bleu news team that the company processes about 3,000 tonnes of oyster shells a year, of which 95% comes from industry professionals.

Oyster ponds at Marennes, on the estuary of the Charente.

Further south, alongside the Gironde estuary, local authorities are using oyster shells to make a special mortar for use on the roads, filling in damaged roadsides. There are no tonnage figures for this use of oyster shells.

The cost of collecting shells from householders in the Charente departement all the year round then, is incremental rather than requiring capital expenditure. Waste contractor Cyclad gathered 71 tonnes in 2021. But as the consumer waste stream grows, so will the time spent sorting and cleaning the shells.

The professional waste stream needs to be sorted to make sure that stray lengths of polypropylene rope, metal fragments or glass are removed before processing the shells. Compared to these fairly basic requirements, the consumer waste stream brings with it an unknowable quantity of ring pulls, party napkins (the stronger felt-like matted ones) lemon slice debris, not to mention plastic cutlery.

A major risk for shell processors is picking up the stainless steel wires used to turn ordinary oysters into easy-open gourmet mouthfuls. The wire is thin and the easy-open components are easily missed on a busy sorting line. While the consumer waste stream is counted in tens of tonnes, the additional sorting requirement can be carried by the revenue earned on the industrial waste stream.

The feasibility of setting up a consumer-specific sorting line in parts of France without an existing industrial user base is a very different proposition. It will be more onerous than adding a modest increment to existing capacity and will be a challenge to future planners.

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What Mona Lisa tells us about sardines

Sardines in the Mediterranean are now smaller and lighter than 20 years ago.  Mona Lisa is a European project which has been studying sardine populations in the region and has established that the average lengths of sardines had fallen from 15 centimetres to 11 and the average weight has nosedived from 30 grams to 10.

Researchers attribute the dramatic decline to a 15% drop in stocks of micro-algae in the bay of Biscay, which has lowered the nutritional value of plankton. The study carried out by the French marine institute Ifremer was able to rule out overfishing and natural predators such as dolphins or tuna. It also established that there was no virus to blame for the dramatic decline.

The  changing composition of plankton was investigated using a controlled sardine population  of 450 fish divided into four groups and fed differing strengths of plankton. This is the largest project of its kind anywhere in the world.

The sardine is one of the most heavily fished species in the world. The high demand from canneries creates a commercial value for sardines within a certain size range. Changing the size of sardine cans would entail substantial costs for retooling packing lines, not to mention major revisions to packing and cooking protocols for the autoclaves.