Q&A: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The chef-turned-campaigner on why the Fish Fight battle continues

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In January, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall exposed the extraordinary wastefulness of EU fishing policy and inspired over 700,000 shocked viewers to sign an online petition demanding change.

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Now Brussels has pledged reform…

Congratulations, Hugh. Are you celebrating?

Anything in the way of a celebration would be premature. We are delighted that the announcement has been made, but it is an announcement of intended policy. Because of the way Brussels works, there are now 18 months of discussions and a danger that some of the proposals will be watered down.

So it’ll be a year and a half before we know whether the campaign has achieved legislation, even longer before we know whether the legislation has the effect we hope out at sea. That’s why we need to keep the pressure up.

What are the proposed reforms?

The key change is that discards will be banned under the new policy. In other words, the fish that are currently being thrown back into the sea – the majority already dead – must be landed. The non-quota fish landed would then count against the quota, which should motivate fishermen to avoid catching them.

How can fishermen avoid catching non-quota fish?

Pilot projects have shown that using the right techniques and gear can really reduce the amount of by-catch. In the end, what we want is not for the discarded fish to be landed but for them not to be caught in the first place – that’s where the real conservation happens.

So the Fish Fight has had a big impact in Brussels. What about back home?

We were also campaigning for the supermarkets and big brands to stop selling tuna caught by purse-seiners using fish aggregation devices (FADs), because that also involves catching a lot of turtles, sharks and even occasionally dolphins.

The breakthrough happened when Tesco decided to go pole and line. One by one the other supermarkets and Princes – who we put a lot of pressure on – pledged to do the same. That left John West as the only really significant player in the market not committed to phasing out FADs, and they finally agreed to a few weeks ago.

It’s an extraordinary change that will have a real effect out at sea: fewer sharks, fewer turtles, fewer dolphins and less of the wrong species of tuna will be caught by those supplying the tuna-canning industry.

Weren’t you encouraging us to eat less tuna?

True. I want to end our obsession with cod, tuna and salmon, which dominate the marketplace. Excitingly, supermarkets are reporting massively increased sales of what used to be relatively obscure fish like pouting, gurnard and dab. Which is great for fishermen because, at a time when they’ve problems with quotas for fish like cod, this gives them another commercial opportunity.

Have you forgotten the chickens?

I didn’t want to focus on fish until I felt we’d made some progress with chickens, which took three years, and I’m still involved in dialogues with the poultry industry. One of the great things about the Fish Fight was working with Jamie and Gordon again. The chicken campaign more or less happened by accident.

Jamie and I, unbeknown to each other, were both about to start a project that involved chickens. It wasn’t until Channel 4 brought Jamie’s plans to my attention that we got together, went back to the channel and said: why not make this into a season? Why not get Gordon involved? And the same happened with fish.

It’s been a busy six months. Have you managed to do much cooking?

Every day. I’m halfway through filming a new River Cottage series for the autumn, so that’s involved plenty. But even after I’ve been cooking in front of the camera all day, I cook when I get home. It’s how I unwind.

TV dinner of choice?

A hot mackerel sandwich: mackerel fillets in a bun with a bit of tartar sauce.

Hugh’s Fish Fight: the Battle Continues will be broadcast on Monday 8 August on Channel 4 at 9pm

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Visit the Fish Fight website here