As the seas got rougher and nights got darker last month, something to celebrate appeared through the looming fog of winter; Cornish hake won the Ocean Hero award, which recognises leadership in furthering the sustainability of fisheries.

We spoke to fisherman Andrew Pascoe, who accepted the award on behalf of the fishery and has been involved in its progress over the years, to understand the work that went in behind the scenes and why in particular, as he said in his acceptance speech, “the story of the Cornish hake fishery is one this industry can be proud of”.

“Getting the MSC accreditation itself was three or four years of hard work” Andrew began, “which is where most of the work that went into the award has come from”. The fishery was first accredited MSC status in 2015 and then re-certified to the latest version of the MSC fisheries standard in December 2020.

However, before this period, Andrew painted a picture of a different landscape.

Towards the late 90s, hake stocks were low and in need of new management measures to allow populations to recover. This fishery was under pressure and recognised the need to collaborate with the fishing industry and scientists to make a change. The European hake recovery programme came into effect during the 2000s which, according to Andrew, was “probably one of the biggest other aspects to the stock recovering” and introduced regulations to increase fishing net mesh sizes for the first time. This ensures only the larger fish are targeted, giving younger fish a chance to breed.

This accompanied the introduction of the MSY, or Maximum Sustainable Yield, which has helped populations of hake recover and measures the largest catch that can be taken from a species’ stock over a certain length of time. Andrew said, “The science has really improved over the years and makes it a lot easier to base the quotas on, which get changed each year depending on what biomass is there”. This ensures the hake stock is well managed and continue to be sustainable.

“It’s up to us to manage the hake fishery in a way that’s going to be sustainable for years and generations to come”

Sustainability is at the heart of how the fishermen manage the hake fishery, so it’s no surprise that they go the extra mile, or mesh size, to protect future hake populations. One of the fishery’s strengths is the use of gillnets, which have a larger mesh size than the legal requirement.

“The minimum fishing net mesh size you are allowed to use to target the hake is 120mm” Andrew told us, “The smallest any of our boats are using at the moment is between 124-130mm, and I suppose the average is probably 126mm.  So we’re voluntarily well above the minimum mesh size, which has helped the recovery of fish populations. The smaller fish can get through then and maybe breed for one or two more years before we actually catch them.”

A gillnet in use onboard an MSC Cornish hake vessel. CREDIT: Marine Stewardship Council


The fishermen aren’t just conscious of what they want to catch. Looking beyond their target catch and working to protect the wider ecosystem, Cornish fishermen collaborated with St Andrews university to trial and pioneer new, effective technologies to prevent dolphin interactions with fishing nets.

“This was a big part of getting an MSC label in the first place” Andrew said.  In 2019, the fishery reported zero interactions with marine mammals.

The demand for fish domestically has really put people’s hopes up in the industry and kept people going”

The catch sector has had a rough 18 months, navigating the stormy seas of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, but Andrew says from this turmoil some optimism has sprung.

One of the things we have seen from Brexit, which has really got people’s hopes up, is the amount of fish being eaten in this country now, which is a phenomenal amount.”

About 15 years ago the Spanish market dried up, Andrew said, which was a huge loss: “95% of the hake went to Spain. We’ve been promoting hake in this country now for over 10 years which has slowly built up a good market.”

“But now everybody’s on holiday in this end of the world and eating fish while they’re here. The domestic market has really taken off for all fish, especially hake, which has been a saviour really.”

CREDIT: Marine Stewardship Council

For the fishermen involved in the vital improvements at the fishery, Andrew said the award is a very welcome recognition of their efforts.

“It’s great recognition for the work and the effort they’ve put in. Fishing in general seems to get bad press quite easily. The good press never really gets out and there’s plenty of it in industry!

“At the end of the day, it’s our future and we’re the ones who will be around in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time and need fish to be in the sea. So it is up to us to be able to manage it or help manage it in a way that’s going to be sustainable for years and generations to come.”

Of course, we couldn’t let Andrew go without asking for his favourite way to cook hake!

“Just simply pan fried.” He said, “But another favourite would be baking it in the oven with a little bit of milk and a few onions on top of the fillet in tin foil. That’s quite nice. That’s something that we used to do quite a lot when I was younger. That’s a really nice, simple, quick recipe.”

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