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How to buy sustainable fish

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Sue Todd Sue Todd | 14:40 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Top chefs, environmental groups and the government are all keen to see us try new types of fish. This is to take the pressure off fish like cod and make the most of ‘bycatch’ fish that often gets discarded. Choosing sustainable fish helps protect fish stocks from over-fishing and guards the marine environment, but it can be confusing and the detail difficult to remember. Is this type of fish ok to eat? Where should it come from? How should it have been caught?

Fortunately the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) produces a pocket guide that summarises both fish to eat and those to avoid. This is being turned into an even handier smart-phone app, due this summer. And if you need more detail see the FishOnline website for information on over 150 fish. 

Mackerel on toast with salted cucumber and horseradish

Mackerel on toast with salted cucumber and horseradish

Dr Peter Duncan, Aquaculture and Fisheries Programme Manager at the Marine Conservation Society says: “If you have the option, choose a fish that is line-caught. This is a more sustainable way to catch fish and there is less unwanted ‘bycatch’. It’s also good to look for certification schemes. There is a wide spectrum of ways that fish can be caught or farmed, and certification schemes help you choose the better standards.”

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo


The well-established Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is used for wild fish. Their blue tick label indicates that a fish comes from sustainable waters, is not over-exploited and is not endangered. A similar certification scheme for farmed fish and seafood is being developed by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and labelling is expected later this year.

RSPCA Freedom Food logo


Currently the RSPCA Freedom Food certification assures a good standard of welfare, and organic certification for salmon and prawns verifies that certain environmental - as well as welfare - issues are covered.

Tips for choosing sustainable fish
If you don’t have a guide handy when you’re choosing fish in a shop or restaurant here are the key points to remember:

The big five
Take care with the most common fish we buy in the UK such as cod, haddock, salmon, canned tuna and prawns. Due to their popularity, there are problems with all these fish and you need to choose carefully.

Dolphin safe logo


Only choose those that are certified. Tuna labelling schemes aren’t as thorough though and while the Dolphin Safe – Earth Island Institute is the strictest dolphin-friendly labelling scheme it doesn’t ensure overall sustainability. Greenpeace regularly assesses the sourcing of all top brands in their Tuna League. Sainsbury’s came top of the 2011 league.

Fish in danger
Definitely avoid bluefin tuna, swordfish, skate and eel – the stocks of these are all too vulnerable. In addition to the big five there are a large number of popular fish that are best avoided unless you can be sure that they have been caught in a sustainable way (see the pocket guides for more on the specifics). These include hake, halibut, plaice, sole, monkfish and seabass.

Eat more variety
Try cooking and eating a greater range of sustainable fish and seafood. It’s good to spread the load of our fish eating onto many different types of fish, not just a few. All the following get the MCS thumbs up:

  • Try some of the bycatch fish that are often discarded, such as dab (a small member of the plaice family that you can use in similar ways) and gurnard (a firm, meaty fish that's similar to monkfish) - great in gurnard en papillote or gurnard stew.

If you enjoy fish it’s worth trying out the sustainable substitutes for some of your favourite dishes and get experimenting with new fish. Any changes you make are worthwhile. What are you doing to ensure the fish you buy is sustainable? Do you have any recipes to share?

Sue Todd is a food writer and former editor of the BBC Food website.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is interesting to hear the theory of sustainable fish. I think I will consider this when next time I go to buy fish or shellfish. You can also find other useful information on the following website.
    Check it out!

  • Comment number 2.

    I think the types and amount of fish we eat is a really important issue and I'm really glad that it's being given so much publicity of late. There are so many different, fantastic varieties of fish that can be caught sustainably and only with increased demand from consumers will they become common place amongst the packs of salmon and cod on supermarket shelves.
    I’ve personally been trying to make sure that I eat a different sustainably caught fish each week. Mussels are a great option as they are sustainably caught and relatively cheap.

  • Comment number 3.

    Very good and informative article. As a
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] I am always looking for new ideas to give to my clients to help them eat better. Will be giving a few of them this link.


  • Comment number 4.

    I think it's really important to ensure the future of our fish, and the fishing industry. Why is it that people don't seem to understand that if we over fish - the likelihood is that we will see a reduction in our stock levels. Surpermarkets need to be more mindfull of this as well.
    I joined HF-W's Fish Fight and hopefully this campaign will be successful.

  • Comment number 5.

    I support Hugh's Fish Campaign whole heartedly. Since seeing his programme I have switched to Sainsbury's tinned tuna which is pole and line caught. I buy pollack and sea bass from sustainable fishmongers, and nearly every day I eat a smoked mackerel bap.

    Once in Sainsburys they sold smoked sardines which were the most tasty lunchtime treat you could imagine. Sadly I have not been able to find them since, and my internet trawl has drawn a blank. Does anyone know where I can buy these little gems from?

    Small changes can make a big difference.

  • Comment number 6.

    A really good article. It's a shame more supermarkets don't offer more unusual fish on their fresh fish counters; I shop mainly in Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, and Tesco and Asda really let themselves down, they don't have a wide selection of fish on offer and I struggle to buy anything other than the big 5!
    The other week I bought a fish called pouting from Tesco, similar to cod but smaller, it had a lot of flavour and really was delicious, next time I went to Tesco they didn't have any. However Morrisons has a great selection of fish, lots of fresh shellfish and the fishmongers advice you on how to cook them; really informative.
    If we are to get anywhere with being more responsible with fishing whilst supporting the British fishing industry the big supermarkets really need to offer more sustainable fish.

  • Comment number 7.

    Really interesting article. I'm always on the look out for sustainable fishing restaurants in and around the London area and I was really impressed with the dedication to sustainable fishing that the Feng Sushi London restaurants have. I wish more restaurants would follow their lead and remove species like blue fin tuna of their menus.

    See Feng Sushi London for their stance on the issue of sustainable fishing and the location of their sushi restaurants in London.


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