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ISSUE 17 ARCHIVE - ECO CHAT WITH BITEBACK

Juliet Savigear

Anyone that is not aware that we have a worldwide fishing crisis going on is truly living in a bubble. Most of you divers have probably watched ‘The End of the Line’ (and if you haven’t then go watch it now).

Modern technology, the demands of a constantly growing world population, fishing practices and many other factors are leading to a situation that now means 76% of the world’s fishing stocks are over-fished. The future is looking bleak as the powers that be debate and rarely agree on what worldwide measures should take place, there is one man who really is trying to make a difference here in the UK.

Graham Buckingham is a rather quiet, unassuming chap, and not a person that you might envisage would take on the battle with some of the big names and companies out there. However it all started in 2004, when Graham walked past a local Chinese restaurant promoting shark meat on

a blackboard outside the premises. Rather than walk onto the station, Graham decided to pop into the restaurant and chat to the chef. His gentle, yet knowledgable tone as he spoke to the chef about the overfishing of shark led to the restaurant taking shark meat off the menu. It was from this moment that his campaign began and Graham set up the marine conservation charity Bite-Back. The charity has seen many successes through approaching well-known restaurants, large supermarkets and other retailers to remove vulnerable fish from their product ranges.

So in this issue I talk to Graham Buckingham, who believes that all of us individuals can play a part and really make a difference.

What is Bite-Back about?

I guess you could say that Bite-Back is about greed

and selfishness. It’s selfish because, as divers, we want to enjoy an underwater environment that’s abundant, healthy, colourful and protected. And it’s about greed and what commercial fishing is doing to ruin our underwater playground.

It’s the first part that provides the passion and the second part that shapes our shark and marine conservation campaigns to inspire the country’s retailers and restaurants to re-think the fish they sell.

You could argue that the fish selection on a supermarket counter is there because that’s what customers want. But when Bite-Back prompted ASDA to stop selling 100,000 portions of mako and big eye thresher shark every year, we didn’t see thousands of shoppers in arms or, indeed, ASDA’s profits slump as a result. In fact the only result was less commercial demand from the UK on two species of shark we would love to encounter underwater. That’s just one example of the kind of conservation breakthroughs Bite-Back has already achieved by simply uniting thousands of divers to encourage big supermarkets to put conservation before commerce. At the same time, we’ve developed some exciting and successful campaigns to devalue a dead shark by eliminating profit opportunities from shark-derived products including shark fin soup and shark cartilage capsules.

What are your current key campaigns?

By way of background, Bite-Back’s campaigns are underpinned by the fact that over-fishing is the single biggest threat facing the marine environment. Removing any key species of fish from the marine food web is like removing a block from a giant game of Jenga. At some point it will tumble and fall, taking with it the ocean’s ability to produce more than half of the planet’s oxygen plus the absorbtion of around a quarter of all man-made CO2. A chilling thought when some experts predict the world will run out of fish by 2048.

If that statistic is shocking, then so is the announcement from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that 76% of the world’s major fish stocks are now over-fished combined with independent international research that suggests that 90% of the world’s large fish including shark, swordfish and marlin have already been wiped out.

Knowing that, our online supermarket campaign sets out to invite the country’s biggest retailers to end the sale of key species known to be at threat from over-fishing, most specifically swordfish, monkfish plus skates and rays. Considering that supermarkets sell 90% of all the fish consumed in the UK we think it is their responsibility to make sure it is sustainably caught.

In truth, we think that supermarkets and shoppers have forgotten that fish are the only truly wild produce for sale in store – and we’re here to remind them. After all, these fish are as wild as the birds in your garden – they’ve not been bred, reared, fed or nurtured – they’re just free. Just imagine how quickly the British bird population would plummet if we had an industry that set nets and traps

for them every day. It doesn’t bear thinking about yet it’s happening underwater right now.

Bite-Back’s second campaign – to end the sale of shark fin soup in Britain – is in its infancy but is based on an existing track record that has already inspired twenty or so restaurants in the UK to stop.

No diver can help but be horrified by images of fins being removed from a living shark before it’s tossed back into the sea to drown. It’s such a needless, barbaric and shocking end to a shark’s life but, it’s with that vision in mind, that we hope to rally support and backing for this campaign.

The first stage of this new project is to identify and expose every restaurant in the country currently selling shark fin soup. Already, we know of over 80 restaurants selling this controversial dish. Details of these restaurants now feature online in Bite-Back’s ‘shark sightings’ Google map of the country.

How do you go about your campaigns?

The answer is a heady mixture of education, inspiration and intervention. But it’s when all three combine that we enjoy the most success.

And remember the bit about ‘conservation before commerce’? That’s certainly at the core of every engagement we have with retailers that are selling fish known to be at risk from over-fishing.

But what really makes our campaigns stand out is that they’re brought alive by our supporters. In fact you could argue that Bite-Back works to identify the worst retailers, develops a plan of engagement and then alerts the ‘troops’. After that it’s these brilliant individuals who then deliver the campaign’s message via email, Facebook, Twitter and in person.

As a result there’s a genuine feeling of community and pride when a victory is secured.

Is this successful?

Time and time again. Bite-Back and its supporters have now successfully negotiated the removal of certain key fish species from ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Somerfield, Tesco and Waitrose.

Together we recently encouraged the last multiple retailer of shark meat in the UK, MAKRO, to end its trade in 18 stores and we’re also responsible for inspiring Holland & Barratt to remove shark cartilage capsules from 550 stores.

Not only have we prompted dozens of Chinese restaurants to stop selling shark fin soup – including the country’s only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, Hakkasan – we’ve shamed Innocent Drinks to drop 50 on-pack shark fishing prizes and embarrassed a Facebook application to remove shark from a list of 100 foods to eat before you die.

And our shark fin soup campaign got a lift when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsay, Martin Clunes, Ben Fogle, Charles Clover and Frank Pope all agreed to co-sign our downloadable shark fin soup letter.

Thankfully too, some of the scuba industry’s most exciting and forward-thinking players including blue o two, Simply Scuba and Dive Worldwide have backed our programmes. Without their support we’d struggle to make ends meet.

What can our readers do to get involved and help make an impact?

It’s so easy to get involved. I’d ask that they go to the web site and do these five things:

  1. Send off the supermarket campaign emails
  2. Tell us if you see any shark item for sale either

    online or in the high street

  3. Download and present our celebrity-signed shark fin soup letter to offending Chinese restaurants
  4. Sign up to Facebook
  5. Make a donation, buy a Bite-Back t-shirt or sign up to a sponsored event.

The first four things won’t cost a penny and it’s entirely up to an individual if they want to buy a t-shirt or put a couple of quid aside each month to fund Bite-Back’s work.

Most importantly, we need more people to get involved and take responsibility for defending the oceans. Instead of moaning that “10 years ago there were tons of sharks on this reef”, take an active interest in ensuring that sharks and marine life is worth more alive than dead.

And don’t keep Bite-Back a secret from your non-diving friends. As consumers they have a huge role to play in making our programmes and campaigns successful.

A number of fish on your list have MSC approval – surely this means they are OK to eat and sustainably sourced does it not?

Only swordfish. Currently no UK supermarket is selling MSC certified swordfish.

With regards to sharks - is there anything we can do to help the global campaign as to make a real impact the practice needs to stop in China and other countries in South East Asia?

Of course Hong Kong, China and South East Asia are the biggest consumers of shark fin soup but who’d have thought that 80 plus restaurants in the UK were selling the controversial dish? The problem exists on home turf too. It’s now our plan to eliminate the shark fin soup problem in the UK and replicate our experience in Asia.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know before they double check the menus at their usual favourite takeaway?

First of all, divers can’t expect conservation efforts to succeed without their support. Sure, they can swap their cod for coley and they can choose pollock and not prawns, but divers have to remember that the environment they enjoy is theirs to protect.

And as a simple rule of thumb, just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean it’s ethical or sustainable.

BiteBack website

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