The only way is ethics: sustainable shellfish

Categories: Behind the stalls

Darren Brown of Shellseekers Fish and Game on the role of the local fishing community in ensuring the sustainability of shellfish

“I don’t step on his toes, he doesn’t step on mine,” Darren says of the man who catches his crabs and lobsters. As ethics go, it sounds basic at best: a gentleman’s agreement between two fishermen not to steal each other’s business—yet beneath it lies something more serious: a commitment to community, tradition, sustainable practices, and a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Darren—the man and the manpower behind Shellseekers Fish and Game—is from Dorset. It’s where he was born, it’s where he lives now and it’s where he makes his living, line fishing for sea bass and diving for scallops. What he doesn’t catch himself, he buys from local suppliers—family businesses whose profound knowledge of the sea and its bounty has been passed down through generations: when to fish, where to fish and, equally as importantly, when and where not to. “He’s on a small boat out there in the Channel, fishing by himself. He knows where to put the pots and at what time,” Darren continues. “It’s not a big operation—not like a factory ship that’s taking thousands of produce out the ocean. It’s a long line of tradition—his great grandfather, grandfather and father all had his boat—and it’s one he wants to be able to continue to pass on.”

It’s why Darren is keen to support him—not just because this way of catching lobsters and crabs is so much more sustainable, but because communities like Darren’s need people like this fisherman. When he goes, his knowledge and experience goes with him. “I could use a cheaper supplier, a farmer, or I could pick lobsters up off the sea floor when I’m fishing for scallops!” he says—hence the comment about stepping on toes. “But why would I take that industry away from someone who has been doing what he has been doing for generations? I would sooner support local industry and pay this guy what he deserves.”

Local industry and community
The same goes for the mussels, cultivated on ropes hung in deep water so as to avoid dredging wild mussels off the seabed, a practice which damages the bed and results in mussels full of grit and sand. “Ours grow in clear waters in the south-west, so they are of a far higher quality,” says Darren. The prawns he buys off local fishermen, who catch them from West Bay harbour when the natural populations are high. They are a world apart from those prawns imported from overseas farms, where issues of staffing and pollution can be dubious—not least because their flavour is so much more pronounced. “Just as with wild salmon and farmed salmon, the flavour of wild prawns is totally different,” he explains —and once again, he’s supporting a local industry and community which might otherwise struggle in the face of an increasingly globalised world. “Ultimately the only way I have control over what’s on my stall is knowing where everything comes from,” Darren shrugs.

Recently his good judgement received independent verification, when the historic Poole-based Clam and Cockle Fishery—from which Darren sources his clams and cockles—received a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable fishing certification, awarded for improved analysis of shellfish stocks, better protection for environmental features, and a drastic reduction in illegal fishing activity. In addition, 14 vessels from the fishery recently achieved Seafish Responsible Fishing Scheme-certified status, adding to their MSC certification. This means that the fishery has been recognised for best practice in environmental sustainability, while its skippers and their vessels have been recognised for their own high standards and social responsibility. “These are people who are passionate about their product and who are investing heavily in the social and environmental responsibilities around it. They are proud to be supplying high end restaurants and places like Borough. They really care.”

Darren is best known for his scallops, hand dived and sold at Borough as a vital, sustainable and delicious counter to the environmentally ruinous practice of dredging the seabed and scraping up anything and everything that lives there. But far from being the main event, the scallops are the cherries atop a stall of one-man-and-his-boat lobsters, rope grown mussels, and locally caught prawns: a stall with sustainability and community at its core.