Legs braced, casting pole and line into a churning ocean, Fish4Ever’s fishermen catch tuna one-by-one from one of the smallest boats in the global tuna fishing industry, as they have done for generations. In contrast, industrial fishing employs huge trawlers to hunt its target (and anything in its way) with military-like precision, its technology outstripping nature’s ability to replenish fish stocks.

Founded by Charles Redfern, Fish4Ever was born of necessity. Charles founded Organico Realfoods in 1991, sourcing organic Mediterranean produce from traditional farmers and workers’ co-ops. When he wanted to add canned fish to his range, he found organic passion and ethics sorely missing. “It was awful in terms of looks, taste and environmental impact,” says Charles. “A product that could be great was ruining our tastebuds, and the planet.”

Using his experience in the organic food world, he developed a roots up approach to canned fish, assessing every link in the chain to create a transparent, ethical and sustainable model.

Fish4Ever was launched in 2001, the first sustainable canned fish brand in the world. Its mission: care for land, sea and people. Charles pioneered evidence-based sourcing policies, developed with experts and NGOs, to achieve full traceability from catch-to-can. This includes setting strict standards for zero by-catch and discard, and not working with long-distance foreign water fleets thus avoiding the risk of illegally-caught fish.

All of Fish4Ever’s land ingredients are 100% organic. “This ensures the product is as near to its natural state as possible, to conserve nutrients, as well as taste and quality,” says Charles.

Organic farming practices – that avoid nitrate poisoning and conserve natural resources – are a vital part of Charles’s vision. In May 2012, he organised the UK premiere of the documentary, Symphony of the Soil, by The Future of Food filmmaker Deborah Garcia, and is organising future screenings in London.

Like land food, the industrialisation of fishing drains natural resources without respite. At the same time, seafood issues are unique. Farm animals are contained on a farm that stays put, owned by a party who can be held responsible. In contrast, the oceans are vast, the fish wild. Fish stocks deplete or replenish, and attention needs to focus on overall current numbers of a fish species, as well as how it’s faring in particular areas. Seafood sustainability takes constant vigilance. It is subtle, nuanced, ever-changing.

The Marine Stewardship Council’s global certification programme, introduced in 1997, was a big step forward in charting the waters of seafood certification. With Charles a huge champion, Fish4Ever was the first canned fish brand to be MSC-certified. However, MSC has been criticised for not taking into account the locality of fish stocks, or the livelihood of fishing communities. Balancing up the source criteria of Land, Sea and People, Charles sometimes takes a more finely calibrated and holistic approach.

For Charles, this must include the human dimension – small fishing communities are as endangered as some fish stock. His commitment sometimes means less happy-clappy PR choices, as the yellowfin issue shows.

Yellowfin tuna is endangered due to industrial fishing’s wasteful practices. Charles does not, however, agree with a blanket ban because it impacts on responsible fishing, often in poor countries. “We don’t feel local boats should be punished for the consequences caused by global fishing,” he says. “Our fishermen are fishing in their own waters, avoiding juveniles and with zero by-catch. We source our yellowfin from named boats in a highly precise part of the sea.”

This human dimension also includes support of local canneries, often the mainstay of a fishing community. Charles’s approach is in contrast to some big brands, which may trumpet an idyllic-looking pole and line range but are less vocal about its packing operations thousands of miles away in less than ideal factory conditions.

Fish4Ever’s pioneering efforts have paid off. The 2010 Ethical Consumer canned fish tuna guide gave it the highest ranking, while Greenpeace Australia has ranked it top for tuna, for the third year running. In 2012 Charles Redfern was nominated an international Seafood Champion, by the Seafood Choice Alliance.

A founding member of Sustainable Fish City, Charles works towards making London a beacon for fish sustainability. As an active member of the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC), he is also agitating for industry-led change.

At the same time, he believes voluntary codes are not enough. Appearing as an expert witness in Bristol’s mock Marine Ecocide trial in June he argued that while there is clear evidence of consumer demand for sustainable fish, the situation is too severe to leave to the market alone. Scientists recommendations are ignored and quotas are set too low. The system favours large fishing operations, putting sustainable small fishing boats out of business. As the recent EU debates on Common Fisheries Reform highlighted, there is an unwillingness to consider the long-term consequences of short-term profiteering.

These waters are further muddied by the ‘blue-washing’ practices of certain (by no means all) big brands. It’s depressing to see pole-and-line techniques being advertised as a sustainability feature when the rest of the company remains as wasteful and destructive as ever. Misleading labels don’t help either. ‘Dolphin friendly’ has no minimum criteria, and may be used to label fish not even swimming in the same waters as dolphins. As Charles puts it, “You might as well put ‘dolphin friendly’ on chocolate and it would mean the same.”

Rather than painting a few leaves blue, Charles has created a company that is sustainable from the roots-up. And it shows. Sustainable food translates into exceptional taste, and so it is with fish that is carefully caught and quickly landed. You ‘can’ (excuse the pun) taste the difference.

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