COMMENT – Fish fighting celebrities and environmental protection

Channel 4 has drafted their team of celebrity chefs in the war against unsustainable fishing practices.  The Big Fish Fight season combined investigative journalism with the more traditional watch-me-cook-this-food-whilst-you’re-sat-on-your-sofa format of the cookery programme.

Purse seining and other unsustainable fishing practices are under scrutiny.

Over the last few weeks we have seen the chefs fighting on multiple fronts. Gordon Ramsay travelled to Taiwan and Costa Rica to expose the wasteful and destructive nature of shark fin fishing (only the fins of these magnificent predators are eaten, the rest is discarded).

No stranger to an ethical consumerism campaign, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took on a more weighty challenge that had him fighting on three fronts. Fearnley-Whittingstall challenged our reliance on just three species of fish – cod, tuna and salmon constitute more than half the fish we eat.  Hugh’s Fish Fight focused on North Sea discards (throwing valuable dead by-catch overboard, a practice enforced by EU law), indiscriminate purse seine fishing in the Indian Ocean and Scottish salmon farming.

Meanwhile Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal were left to fight on the home front, serving up recipe ideas in a bid to increase the sustainability of our fish use.  The lesser known chef and eco-friendly restaurateur Arthur Potts Dawson took to the high seas with a team of trawlermen to see if the blokey camaraderie could challenge his preconceptions.

Approaching this series with preconceptions of my own, I was ready to spend a few hours picking apart disreputable science.  However, while some detail was lacking, the core themes are all grounded in established principles and were accurately communicated.

Hugh and a fleet of disgruntled British fishermen sailed past the Houses of Parliament in a publicity stunt for the campaign.

While the accuracy of the scientific content is commendable, it is far from breaking news.

The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992 propelled the issue of our decimated fish stocks in to the public eye. In the intervening years research institutions around the world have been studying the impacts of commercial fisheries and an army of NGOs have been established to protect our oceans.

Unfortunately scientific research does not always lead to change, often failing to involve industry (fishermen) and policy makers (fisheries ministers i.e. Richard Benyon).  As Hugh’s Fish Fight clearly demonstrates many quotas, ostensibly set to protect fish stocks, are farcical and unworkable.

The Big Fish Fight plays an interesting role in bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and general knowledge, integrating multiple formats to bring these issues back into the public consciousness.

The campaign harnesses the cult of the celebrity and the might of the mass media alongside social media and viral videos. This holistic approach can garner popular support and effect real change, something academic papers can fail to achieve.

If the initial success of this fight is sustained, celebrity-led multi-media campaigns may become increasingly important in invoking the legal and cultural changes needed to safeguard our environment.

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