North Sea Fisherman Try to Save Stocks

The fishing trawler FMS Susanne is not a very pleasant place for fish—or humans. With a crew of only six, the captain and his seamen rarely get a chance to sleep, and their quarters are only slightly larger than the bunk beds they hold. Every four or five hours, the alarm clock goes off, and they lift the net.

Saithe, a relative of cod, is brought on board from the stern in nets bulging like balloons. The fish flop onto the deck and whiz down a hatch directly into the processing equipment made up of a slaughtering machine, a conveyor belt and slides. Fresh from the catch, the fish are gutted, sorted according to size and placed on ice. The Susanne can store a good 100 tons in one outing, and it can bring in that amount within just a few days.

The ship is 40 meters (130 feet) long and has one of the largest catch capacities in the North Sea, with an official annual quota of 2,300 tons of saithe. More importantly, it has proven that it can fish in a way that both conserves fish stocks and is environmentally friendly.

The fact that those things are so uncommon in the North Sea makes it noteworthy. The North Sea used to be one of the most abundant fishing seas in the world, but now it stands out for the fact that it has been exploited in a particularly ruthless way. Plaice fishers plow the seabed with heavy metal gear and leave underwater lunar landscapes in their wake. And the fishermen dump tons of fish overboard like garbage when they don't have a commercial license for them.

As a result, the everyday fish of yesterday has become the rarity today. Herring has been on the verge of extinction a number of times and recovered only after strict catch bans have been imposed. Now cod are scarce, so what used to be standard fare in the cuisine of northern Germany has now become an expensive delicacy.

Continuing to pursue dwindling fish stocks will lead to the extinction of endangered species. Fishing fleets from eight countries—from France to Norway—are competing for ever-shrinking stocks. And not many of them seem overly concerned with environmental awareness and voluntary self-restraint.

Eco-Friendly Fishing

But not all of them are this way. Kutterfisch-Zentrale is based in Cuxhaven, a town located right where the Elbe River flows into the North Sea. The company, which owns the Susanne and 11 other trawlers, is the first and only German fishing company to receive a sustainable seafood eco-label for its saithe-fishing practices from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a nonprofit organization based in London. The company's products—fresh and frozen fish fillets—can now be marketed with an oval MSC label that shows a checkmark and a fish symbol on a blue background. The label is meant to assure eco-conscious customers that they are not playing a role in exploiting the seas.

The MSC was founded in 1997 as part of a joint initiative of the environmental-protection organization WWF and the food giant Unilever (UN). At the time, the latter was the parent company of Langnese-Iglo, a major German manufacturer of frozen foods. Iglo was responsible for inventing fish sticks 50 years ago and is one of the leading frozen fish brands in Germany.

Iglo's attempt to go green initially aroused suspicion, but it has proved to be a successful example of the organized conservation of fish stocks. In fact, estimates now hold that over 10 percent of the world's population recognizes the MSC label, and the organization has certified about 4 percent of the global fish catch.

The guidelines for earning the MSC distinction are very strict. Companies vying for the seal of approval must meet several requirements, such as staying away from fishing areas with overfished or at-risk stocks, working with large-mesh nets that let smaller and younger fish pass through, using seabed-friendly bottom trawls and documenting their operations in minute detail.

Good for the Environment, Smart for Business

Kutterfisch applied for the MSC eco-label for saithe-fishing in 2005. At first, the company didn't think it would be a very involved or difficult process. For example, since the company wanted large fish for processing reasons, its fleet was already using nets with very large mesh. In reality, though, the certification process took three years and cost the company more than €90,000 ($129,000).

Kai Arne Schmidt, 44, was the driving force behind the company's environmental initiative. He is the youngest of the company's three managers and, with 26 years of service, he is also the most senior of the three.

"It's the right way," he says. "And if we don't do it, who will?"

But Kutterfisch is not a place for tree huggers with fantasies about saving the environment. Behind the quaint corporate logo is one of Germany's largest processors of fish from the North Sea. The company catches and sells 10,800 tons of saithe per year, over two-thirds of the German quota. The company has also applied for MSC certificates for its cod-, herring- and flounder-fishing operations.

Schmidt wants to prove that what would seem like a contradiction to many—that fishing on a large scale while conserving stocks can actually work. And it certainly drives the company's business strategy. "Over the long term," he says, "only companies that meet these standards will be viable."

Pressure from the consumer side is also increasing. For example, starting in 2012, Dutch retailers are considering selling only MSC-certified North Sea seafood.

The Price of Sustainability

So far, however, this gentler method of fishing has had a number of drawbacks. For example, stock-conservation measures reduce the number of catch days. Likewise, the fish nets on the trawlers have a mesh size of at least 120 millimeters (4.7 inches), although the EU permits the use of 100 millimeter mesh sizes for saithe-fishing. The footrope of the towed net that scrapes over the seabed is normally weighted with chains or metal balls. This makes for a bigger catch, but damages seabed fauna. For this last reason, Kutterfisch's trawlers use a much lighter footrope that runs on rubber wheels. And for all these reasons, according to Schmidt's estimate, the net brings in 30 percent fewer fish.

To make up for the losses associated with being environmentally progressive, the fishermen simply put in more effort. Manfred Rahr, the 58-year-old skipper of the Susanne, is one of Kutterfisch's most experienced captains. He skillfully scours the North Sea with his crew of five. In order to collect the annual quota, he needs to be out at sea for about 230 days a year. The net is in the water day and night, almost without interruption. Likewise, the team gets infrequent but well-deserved rest. Captains with good catch rates and a bit of luck can pull in more than €150,000 ($215,000) a year, and their crewmen earn far better salaries than land-based blue-collar workers. Were Rahr and his crew to use nets with a mesh size of 100 instead of 120 millimeters, they would make the same amount of money—and have three free months a year.

Still, the fact that sustainable fishing means more work doesn't bother Rahr. Since fishing is also his passion, he is in favor of the stock-conserving method—because only then will his profession have a future.

Bycatch and Discard

Still, Rahr and his crew are fishing in a difficult political environment. As they see it, the consequences of the EU-wide ban on selling bycatch—that is, seafood species brought up in the nets that the vessel has no license to catch—are especially absurd. Whoever brings these fish into an EU country must pay a fine. Under these circumstances, the fishermen usually throw the "unwanted" fish overboard on the high seas. Even though this is also prohibited, it is still hardly monitored.

This form of disposal, known as "discard," is considered to be one of the least desirable developments in modern fishing. The WWF estimates that, each year, millions of tons of fish are needlessly destroyed in this way across the world.

In the North Sea, cod is especially affected by this practice. Cod is classified as overfished. But since cod like to mingle with other fish, they frequently get caught by accident. And since there is no cod fishing quota, they are tossed back into the sea as waste. For 2008, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea estimates that 21,800 tons of cod—or almost the entire EU quota for that year—were thrown overboard in the North Sea.

Still, practices currently used in Norway show that there is a way to resolve this problem. While the government imposes the MSC standard of using 120-millimeter mesh nets when fishing for saithe, fishermen are not fined for anything extra that goes into the net.

Schmidt, who serves as a liaison between Kutterfisch and EU authorities, has long lobbied for what he calls "the Norwegian scenario." There, he says, everything is settled much more cleanly and simply. "The EU rules for the North Sea include 240 pages of fine print," he says. "But the Norwegians use only 30 pages with larger letters that are easier to understand."

Going the Extra Mile

Kutterfisch's fleet of saithe-fishing boats has an annual bycatch quota—and one that must not be exceeded—of 300 tons of cod, or roughly 3 percent of its total catch. The nets that Kutterfisch uses provide the unwanted fish with good escape routes. Unlike saithe, which flee to the side, cod dive down, and the fact that the light footrope hovers over bumps allows the cod to avoid getting caught in the nets.

Schmidt estimates that Kutterfisch will hold its cod bycatch to under 2 percent of its total catch in 2009. Doing so will satisfy the German government—but not the MSC. Companies that have the MSC eco-seal are required to show consistent improvement—so Schmidt is making it a priority to keep reducing his fleet's bycatch.

Schmidt also commissioned the development of a half-floating ("semi-pelagic") trawl net, whose ultra-light footrope is designed to disturb the seabed as little as possible. It also has extremely large meshes in the net to provide wide avenues of escape for cod.

On August 22, Captain Rahr tested the new net for the first time in the depths off Norway. The test run only lasted less than an hour, though, because the net sensors reported strange signals.

The crew immediately hoisted the trial net on board. Having not been a match for the rocky seabed, the delicate net had been completely torn—at an estimated damage of roughly €10,000.

Seeing the net, a MSC employee on board looked embarrassed.

The captain took the opportunity to let off a little steam. "If we do everything your way," he said, "we'll be fishing our asses off."

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