Gone Fishin'

Eating fish with a clear conscience? Seek and ye shall find...

Feature by Jon Seller | 16 May 2006

Late last year, the great and the good of Europe put their heads together and, charged with the task of rescuing the EU's devastated fish stocks for 2006, made a brave decision. They decided to ignore the warnings of the world's top marine scientists and instead chose to condemn a number of fish species to the point of no return. British Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw claimed the agreements would "help conserve fish stocks, preserve their marine environment and help the long-term future of the fishing industry".

One would have thought that after the disastrous and total collapse of the Grand Banks cod reserves off the Newfoundland coast of Canada, any warnings would be heeded. However, as an eerily similar situation is acted out around Northern Europe's coasts, it is clear this is not the case. The harsh reality is that the fate of the cod is mirrored throughout the vast majority of the world's fish stocks. Recent research by the UN revealed that 76% of the world's fish stocks was either fully or over exploited meaning that at current rates many stocks would decline irreversibly. It is also clear that the ocean ecosystem as a whole is deteriorating at an alarming rate. A look at the top predators – considered to offer an accurate snapshot as to the health of an ecosystem – reveals startling results. Overall, the number of top predators swimming the oceans has dropped by a staggering 90% whilst the fish still present are not as big as they used to be. For example, the blue shark, found off UK coasts, has shown a drop of 50% in its average weight. These almost incomprehensible figures highlight the plundering that is occurring in the world's oceans where, in general, too many fish are being caught by indiscrimate methods which result in massive losses to those species not actually being fished for. Recent estimates put the amount of bycatch (i.e. fish caught 'by accident' and tossed back over the side, dead) at 7.3 million tonnes and this is actually relatively good news considering previous estimates for 10 years ago put that figure at 27 million tonnes.

Whichever way it's viewed, the oceans are in a sorry state and only a radical change in consumer habits will halt this. Recent media exposure has certainly raised awareness, with information on a more conscious shopping ethos now far more readily available. So what can you do? When all is said and done, fish will only be caught if they can be sold and until there is demand for fish caught through sustainable methods, people will be happy obliviously consuming an undersized cod from an undersized population, caught at the expense of hundreds of other fish returned dead to the ocean. Luckily for the fish, the current media focus on the plight of the ocean's stocks has served to create competition amongst the big supermarkets, forcing more ethically sourced seafood products onto the shelves and some desperate fish species off it (see Asda's recent decision to stop selling cod). This means that us, the consumer, need not go without but just branch out a little and put a bit more effort into our shopping. There are some 37 seafood species which the Marine Conservation Society states are ok to eat, this is more than enough, even for the fussiest of us. Look for the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council – certifier of sustainably caught fish) label on frozen fish and don't be afraid to ask the bloke on the fish counter where his fish are from. If you look hard enough you'll even find a responsibly managed Pacific cod fishery which will satisfy all those who can't bear to go without.

Please check out the Marine Stewardship Council for more information on the best fish to buy and where to buy them