Fish, chips and a side of celebrity

08 February 2011

The Fish Fights campaign, headed by old-Etonian turned sustainable food champion Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has been making waves in the UK, drawing attention towards the upcoming EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform in 2013. Celebrity involvement in campaigning is nothing new but has recently been attracting a lot of attention in the development blogosphere. Celebrities have helped publicise Fish Fights, but what next for the campaign?

What's Hugh on about?

The Common Fisheries Policy was originally conceived in 1970 to provide a common market for fish in the EU. Though the policy has undergone a number of changes since 1970, concerns about the effectiveness and sustainability of the policy remain.

The primary focus of the Fish Fights campaign is the issue of ‘discards’. Currently fishermen have set allowances for the amount of fish they can catch. If they go above the allowance or catch the wrong sort of fish they have to throw them overboard. This leads to massive waste. Fish Fights suggests that 40–60 per cent of all fish caught in the EU is discarded — though estimates do vary.

TV programmes hosted by celebrity chefs Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver have not only looked at the discards issue — they have of course tackled the way we consume fish. And they seem to have had some impact. Sainsbury’s have reported a 167% increase in sales of Pollack since the programmes aired — reducing consumer demand for species like cod that are being overfished. But it will be important to watch how these consumer trends develop over time.

Celebrity scripts

Recent debate on the Guardian development blog and has looked at celebrity involvement in campaigning. Renowned development economist Bill Easterly has been particularly pointed in criticising Bono and his involvement in development work. He argues that celebrities are best left to challenging the status quo, like his adolescent hero John Lennon, and that it is dangerous and unproductive for celebrities to position themselves as ‘experts’.

While the specifics of Easterly’s criticism are interesting, I don’t want to start comparing Hugh with Bono or Lennon.

Casting their nets

Celebrities have helped to publicise the Fish Fights campaign and it has gained momentum — with over half a million signatories to the petition and 200,000 Facebook ‘likes’ in the last few weeks. The EU’s own public consultation, in comparison, received a total of 382 submissions — 114 from the public.

Such support is impressive but people are beginning to ask what next?

Battering down the doors

Discards are just one part of the Common Fisheries Policy and a successful campaign for reform will have to engage with the broader issues of sustainable fisheries. The campaign has acknowledged this, and celebrities have deliberately avoided being ‘experts’ preferring to defer questions to partner NGO’s such as WWF, Greenpeace and the Marine Conservation Society.

The role of the celebrity in this campaign has not been as ‘expert’ or overtly political challenger — rather as communicator. This has been aided by the deliberately narrow focus of the initial campaign. Easterly would be pleased but it does highlight a potential limitation — the message might be too simple. As ownership of the campaign is handed over to partner organisations we have seen more detailed suggestions on wider reform.

Questions remain though.

The half-a-million strong support offers a potentially powerful voice but maintaining levels of public engagement will be hard. How the campaign manages this support and fosters the debate on wider fisheries reform is very important. The campaign has opened the eyes of many to the unsustainability of fishing, and celebrities have played a vital role in doing so. The next stage of the campaign will be critical — and this is where the role of the ‘expert’ NGOs involved will become crucial. I hope that it can move beyond the discards issue and push on — full-steam ahead.



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David Hebditch's picture