IT started as a voluntary code designed to save 90 square miles of reef off the Dorset coast.

Three years on, it is more than repaying fishermen, who are reaping the benefits of replenished fish stock which is selling for top prices in London restaurants.

Conservation charity The Blue Marine Foundation has launched a scheme that allows fishermen to sell their catch under a new brand, called Reserve Seafood. 

Fish reaches restaurant kitchens hours after being caught – and because it’s placed straight onto ice as soon as it’s taken from the sea it is kept as fresh as possible.

Because boats are traced, chefs are able to buy fish knowing they can tell their customers down to the nearest square metre where it was caught.

Speaking at the launch event of the brand in Axmouth Harbour, Neville Copperthwaite, Lyme Bay Reserve Project Coordinator, said 99 per cent of commercial fishermen in Lyme Bay have signed up to the scheme – and it’s been so successful it could be rolled out in other areas of the country in the future, including Weymouth Bay.

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Mr Copperthwaite said: “There is now anecdotal evidence of an increase of almost every type of fish on the reserve. The fishermen are getting 30 per cent more through the Reserve Seafood brand than they would if they sold their catch through traditional methods.”

He added that the co-operation between fishermen and the charity had taken a long time to build.

“At our first meeting in a café in West Bay they threatened to throw us in the water. One of the biggest challenges was getting them to trust us.”

Tim Glover, UK projects director for the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The fishermen respect what we are trying to do. It’s for them – it’s to protect the future of the fishing industry.”

He added that sustainable food sources are increasingly popular – and believes it is a trend that will stick around.

“As a world population we are becoming more aware of the environment.”

Laky Zervudachi is the director of sustainability and epicurean at Direct Seafoods, the fish merchants who collect the day’s catch and supply it to restaurants.

Fishermen are free to sell their catch to other suppliers if they wish.

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Mr Zervudachi said London restaurants buying Lyme Bay seafood include Le Gavroche and Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants.

He added: “We’ve been getting some very positive feedback from chefs. Conservation is something that people are really interested in, they want to know where their food comes from, and this is putting Lyme Bay on the map.

“We want this partnership to work for everyone.”

Chiller units have been installed at some Lyme Bay ports and are due to be installed in Lyme Regis and West Bay soon. 

Fishermen collect ice boxes to take on their boats, which are then returned full to the chiller unit.

Mark Newton, a part-time fisherman himself, collects the catch and drives it to London. During this time, chefs are called to let them know what produce is available and sales are made.

The process is so efficient that the boats come ashore at 4pm and the fish is being prepared for the table at 8am the next day.

Fishermen appear to be just as enthusiastic about the project.

John Wallington, who has had a commercial fishing licence since 2003, said last season was his ‘best ever’.

“The thing with Lyme Bay is that we are far away from fish markets. The expense of going to Plymouth, for example, after you’ve already been out on the water to get your catch can be crippling – plus it’s a three hour round trip.

“Now we can target our catch based on what the restaurants want, and the quick turn round means you are getting something that’s really fresh to them. In Axmouth alone we have had three new fishermen come into the industry since this began.

“It’s definitely been welcomed.”

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Decline in scallops began trawling ban

THE government banned scallop dredging and bottom trawling in 90 square miles of Lyme Bay in 2008 after it was discovered that some species had declined by up to 50 per cent.

In 2012 fishermen signed up to a voluntary code called the memorandum of understanding, which limits the number of pots put down by any one boat. The code was drafted by a working group of fishermen, scientists, regulators and the Blue Marine Foundation.

With the roll out of the Reserve Seafood brand, the agreement has gone one step further. In return for using the brand and chiller rooms, fishermen have agreed to sign up to a strict conservation code and electronic monitoring.

Every boat uses the mobile phone-based inshore vessel monitoring system, which records the boat’s position and catches. This information can then be relayed to chefs who buy the seafood, meaning they can tell their customers exactly where it was caught.

Further scientific research is being carried out so fishermen can use the maximum amount of pots without damaging the marine life.

The Blue Marine Foundation is working on similar – though less advanced – projects in Solent and North Devon, and the scheme could be used as a model to help other areas.