FEATURE ARTICLE – Indicating sustainability

Scientists from the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO)​, share their experiences from a project developing an indicator-based assessment tool for measuring, monitoring, and visualizing the sustainability of the Belgian fishing fleet.
Published: 9 May 2017

​​​​​​​​​​Arne Kinds, Lancelot Blondeel, Kim Sys, Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO)​, Animal Sciences Unit, Fisheries and Aquatic Production

Like most EU fisheries, the Belgian fishery has undergone considerable transformations in the past decades. These transformations include a dramatic decline in the number of fishing vessels, a shift in gear use away from the traditional heavy beam trawl, increased consideration of the environment, and ultimately also a change in fishing behavior and fisher mindset.

Since the late 1980s, the European Union (EU) aimed at reversing negative trends in stock biomass by reducing capacity through a number of consecutive decommissioning programmes. These subsidized 'scrapping rounds' resulted in a 60% decline in the number of Belgian fishing vessels between 1990 and 2015. The incentive for vessel owners to accept these subsidies may be sought in the rapid and profound change that was taking place in the fishing industry in this period. With the introduction of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 1983 came not only a new set of regulations, but also changes in the organization of markets and increased competition with the fishing fleets of other member states. These changes resulted in uncertainty about the future of the fishing industry, which led many fishers to sell.

In addition to this, numerous family-owned fishing businesses went bankrupt in the wake of the 2008 fuel crisis. In the 1980s and 1990s, the beam trawl was considered the best fishing method to maximize catch and profit. This gradually shifted in more recent years, as fishing companies suffered grave economic losses due to steeply increasing fuel prices and volatile market prices. In particular the fuel-intensive beam trawlers were severely impacted, with some years even resulting in a net financial loss. In a first attempt to reduce fuel consumption, surviving businesses changed their fishing behaviour by reducing steaming time, using lighter gears, and reducing towing speed. In a second stage, fishing vessels invested in new fishing gears (mostly fuel-saving derivatives of the beam trawl such as beam trawl with roller shoes, SumWing, and Ecoroll). Vessel owners also received subsidies for engine replacement, which further reduced capacity.

Towards sustainability?

In 2010–2011, a couple of Belgian retailers adopted sustainable sourcing policies as a reaction to increased consumer awareness about overfishing, habitat destruction, and bycatch. The first tendency was to exclusively source fish products certified against the principles and criteria of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This posed a real problem for the Belgian beam trawl fishery, which accounted for 84% of landings in 2011. The beam trawl was not considered eligible for MSC c​​ertification due to its low selectivity and high seabed disturbance, despite the adaptations made to it in recent years (for example it being lighter and having more hydrodynamic gears, escape panels for roundfish and benthos, and larger mesh sizes).

In order to valorize these efforts and demonstrate best practices on the market, a covenant 'for the promotion of a sustainable Belgian fishing sector' was signed by the fishers' producer organization (Rederscentrale), an environmental NGO (Natuurpunt), the Flemish Department for Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO). In this context, ILVO was asked to develop an indicator-based assessment tool for measuring, monitoring, and visualizing the sustainability of the Belgian fishing fleet.


In the VALDUVIS project, a tool needed to be developed to measure the progress towards the 2020 sustainability goals defined in another project (VISTRAJECT) that was introduced at the same time. A second objective was to visualize and communicate sustainability to the market.

At the beginning of the project, most fishers were skeptical towards the term 'sustainability'. They argued that they were already fishing sustainably, as they were respecting quota and other regulations. In addition, they were unhappy with how an earlier initiative (a seafood pocket guide issued by a retailer in 2010) failed to recognize their efforts to make the beam trawl more environmentally friendly. In VALDUVIS, the aim was to recognize previous efforts while at the same time setting the bar high for a sustainable Belgian fishing sector. Fishers also stated that they were missing economic and social aspects in other sustainability schemes.

The tool was co-developed in a participatory process which involved fishers and their representatives, government officials, NGOs, fish auctioneers, distributors, processors, retailers, and researchers. This resulted in an assessment tool made up of 14 indicators: eight environmental, three social and three economic.

The tool uses detailed descriptions of fishers' actions as recorded in the electronic logbook to make trip-based sustainability assessments. This level of detail is based on the observation that fishers greatly differ in their fishing tactics (for example gear modifications, preference for a certain species mix or fishing ground) and that two fishing trips are never the same (for example tow duration, towing speed and choice of fishing ground). This also has the advantage that the assessments can be communicated to interested parties soon after landing.

Getting the objectives straight

Of course the VALDUVIS tool was not developed overnight. Many discussions have shaped its present form and applications. In hindsight, agreeing on how to implement the tool was by far the most challenging part of the process. The main problem was that the scope changed numerous times along the way. This was due to a rather weak engagement of some key stakeholders (especially in the beginning of the process) as well as personal agendas. Also, only eight fishers had participated in the discussions. This resulted in uncertainty among fishers about what would finally happen with their sustainability assessments. They feared that they would be given to market players without their permission.

A step-by-step approach has always been defended by researchers, with progressively increasing levels of fisher engagement. In a first step, individual assessments are used as a tool to explain sustainability to the fishers, to validate source data and to establish a relationship of trust between researchers and fishers. In a second step, pooled sustainability assessments (anonymous, for example per fleet segment) can be used for monitoring the progress towards sustainability goals. In a third step, fishers can choose to communicate their efforts to the market with the help of a market recognition scheme based on the VALDUVIS tool. By building in low-threshold participation with actual decision-making power, the expectation is that more fishers will take ownership of the tool and decide about its applications themselves.

Next steps

Recently, a concept for a Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP)​ was accepted by the stakeholders, based on the step-by-step approach explained above. In 2017–2018, this concept will be implemented on a voluntary basis in the Belgian fishery (learning, monitoring and market application). The project is supported by the producer organization and barriers to participate were kept at a minimum to ensure a high degree of participation.

The tool can be easily adapted for use in other fisheries. The strength of the approach lies in the use of readily available data and the bottom-up engagement of stakeholders. However, project leaders should be wary that the latter actually takes place and is not replaced by a mere presence of stakeholders on meetings. The extent to which stakeholders take ownership of the tool depends on a number of factors that are often context-specific. 


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FEATURE ARTICLE – Indicating sustainability

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