How to buy sustainable fish
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
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.”
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.
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.
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:
- Check out alternatives to cod such as coley, pouting, pollock and pollack can all be used in many recipes in place of cod, such as fish pie, fish cakes or stews. Try Nathan Outlaw’s pollack stew, James Martin’s Indian-style pollack or Rick Stein’s Thai fishcakes.
- 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.
Give prawns a rest and discover the delights of other sustainable seafood such as mussels, clams, oysters, cockles, crab and squid (calamari). Try Rick Stein’s moules marinières or Nigella Lawson’s crispy squid with garlic mayonnaise. Give a boost to your omega-3s with the likes of mackerel, sardines, pilchards or trout. Try James Martin’s grilled sardines or Simon Rimmer’s stuffed trout.
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.