Are UK retailers falsely advertising their environmental impact with scampi scams?

Campaigners have accused British retailers and seafood companies of dishonestly advertising “responsibly sourced” scampi or langoustines. They claim that a five-year initiative aimed at decreasing the industry’s £68m environmental impact is not achieving its goal.

Several companies, such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Young’s, and Whitby Seafoods (the leading provider of breaded scampi to British pubs, restaurants, and fish and chip shops), are involved in a fishery improvement project (FIP) with the goal of promoting sustainability in the UK langoustine industry.

However, according to Open Seas, a Scottish charity, the project is on the verge of failure and will not achieve its goals by its scheduled end date of April 2024.

Langoustines, also referred to as Dublin or Norway prawns, are a type of small lobster with a coral color. They reside in burrows on muddy seabeds in the North Sea and northeast Atlantic. Most are captured through bottom-trawling, a destructive fishing method that uses weighted fine-mesh nets pulled along the seabed.

Their juicy tails are highly valued and often sold as scampi, a popular staple in UK supermarkets. These tails are typically combined with other types of fish, additives, and breadcrumbs.

According to Open Seas’ report on the langoustine industry in the UK, the FIP has not led to any tangible advancements. The industry is still considered a significant danger to endangered, threatened, and protected species such as sharks and rays, many of which are in danger of disappearing. Additionally, the industry produces a significant amount of “bycatch” where non-target species are unintentionally caught and then thrown away.

According to the statement, a significant number of ships catching langoustines are not being monitored, which could potentially harm delicate and safeguarded ocean floors.

The organization Seafish, which collaborates with the UK industry, rejects allegations that the fishery causes excessive bycatch. They state that 80% of the catch in the nephrops “mixed” fishery is actually commercially valuable and should not be considered as bycatch.

According to Nick Underdown, the leader of campaigns at Open Seas, UK supermarkets and food companies are deceiving their customers by creating a false perception of sustainability and accountability. He claims that these businesses have made minimal efforts to back up their environmental claims.

He stated that it is unacceptable for retailers to label ongoing “improvement projects” as such if they do not actually result in any positive change for the oceans.

He urged retailers to refrain from selling scampi until certain sustainability standards are met. These standards include ensuring that all fishing boats are closely monitored, bycatch is documented and minimized, and that the boats avoid areas where fish reproduce and grow.

According to Fishery Progress, a third-party evaluator of the FIP, 91% of the tasks have yet to be completed and their overall rating has been lowered from an A to a C.

The Marine Stewardship Council, which oversees the Nephrops FIP, acknowledged that there are still many actions that need to be addressed according to the findings of Open Seas. However, they also recognized that progress has been made.

The progress on actions has been delayed due to the uncertainty in politics and legislation following Brexit, according to the statement.

These include management plans to determine the future sustainability of the industry and the rollout by the Scottish government of a requirement for vessels to carry remote vehicle monitoring systems to track and record the industry’s environmental footprint.

Lisa Bennett, the senior manager of fisheries outreach for MSC UK & Ireland, acknowledged that promoting sustainability in fisheries can be challenging and time-consuming. Despite this, progress has been and continues to be made through the implementation of the FIP.

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Although many actions in the FIP are not meeting their targets, we are still dedicated to helping UK fisheries make the necessary improvements to show their sustainability.

When asked for a reply to the report, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Tesco, and Young’s directed the Guardian to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

A representative from Waitrose stated that they prioritize responsible sourcing and are taking the concerns seriously. They are collaborating with the fishery to address any outstanding issues and exploring other possible solutions.

The chair of FIP, representing Whitby Seafoods, stated that the recommendations made by the FIP will not only address Open Seas’ concerns, but also lead to additional improvements. It is hoped that the government will take action to implement these recommendations.

The evidence of our actions speaks for us and we vehemently deny any accusation of deceiving people about our dedication to this significant matter.

According to Sophie De Salis, a sustainability policy adviser at the BRC, retailers in the UK are committed to responsibly sourcing seafood products.

She stated that their members collaborate with stakeholders and suppliers to frequently assess fishing practices within the supply chains, ensuring they adhere to the highest standards. They are also actively promoting and pushing for improvement to bring about the required change.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government stated that the Nephrops FIP’s progress has been affected by the uncertainties brought about by Brexit and the pandemic. They expressed disappointment in this setback and affirmed their ongoing involvement in the industry-led initiative.