I don’t buy them anymore. It’s not that I’m health conscious. It’s not the price, which is actually very reasonable, and the couple who own the van are friendly and polite. It’s the fish!
They carry a fairly wide range of fish for an English fish and chip shop. In addition to the staples of cod and haddock you can also buy plaice, skate and rock. The owners are happy to tell you that this fish is freshly caught locally. No doubt that’s a selling point in a seaside community where a few fishing boats do still offload their catch daily at the pier.
Suffolk was once home to a booming fishery. Herring boats from Lowestoft followed the shoals right up the East coast to Aberdeen while inshore boats trawled for cod and plaice. Those days are past, but today there are still 95 to 100 registered fishing boats in Suffolk although many of them are involved solely in potting for crab or lobster. The remaining white fish boats are nearly all small and fish with the baited hook and line method. This is the most environmentally friendly form of commercial fishing. It is selective and tends to catch larger, stronger fish. Spawning fish don’t eat and so they simply ignore the bait. In some cases any unwanted fish which are brought up can be de-hooked and returned to the water while still alive. Line fishing uses much less fuel than trawling or seining, and does less damage to the sea bed, where 98% of marine species live. For all these reasons Suffolk fisherman often describe their industry as sustainable. Unfortunately there’s more to it than that.
|Fishing boats on the beach at Aldeburgh|
Waitrose is Britain’s sixth biggest food retailer. As part of the John Lewis Partnership it has an unusual ownership structure and is actually owned by its employees. While it would be wrong to say that it is not commercially oriented, the absence of shareholders does allow the company to promote ethical or social objectives alongside the pursuit of profit and this has given them a well deserved reputation for being a responsible and caring player in the global food industry. Although small, their market share in the UK groceries trade is only 4.2%, their influence is much larger, and in the supply of wet fish their market share is roughly double their overall market position.
At a recent conference which I attended, Jeremy Ryland-Langley, the principal fish buyer at Waitrose and the individual most responsible for setting their purchasing policy in the sector, outlined the ‘four pillars’ of the company’s fish sourcing policy.
For a fish to be termed 'sustainable' in Waitrose it must meet the following criteria:
· Be a species that is not regarded as threatened or endangered
· Be caught from a well managed fishery with scientifically based quotas
· Be caught using responsible fishing methods
· Be fully traceable from catch to consumer
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the way the Suffolk fishermen are catching their fish, but the trouble is that the North Sea itself is in trouble and it’s because of the first two bullets in the list.
According to the EU Fisheries Commissioner herself, 75% of EU fisheries are currently being over-fished. EU quotas are produced as a result of negotiation with the fishermen themselves and bear no relation to scientifically recommended levels. In fact, Ryland-Langley states that for the 12 most popular species of fish, EU quotas are at least 33% higher than maximum sustainable levels and that includes North Sea cod, haddock, skate, rock and plaice. In other words these fish are endangered. And the North Sea fishery cannot be regarded as ‘well managed’ while it allows over fishing, while it tolerates almost unfettered, destructive bottom trawling, and while only 0.3% is designated as ‘no take zone’ to allow fish a chance to breed.The North Sea is not the worst affected region. But it is scant consolation to know that the Mediterranean is in an even worse state. Mediterranean fisheries are 90% over exploited. Nor does it help to know that this is not just a European problem. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that globally 32% of the world’s sea fisheries are currently being over exploited, and a further 50% are at or about safe maximum levels. By some calculations, at current rates of exploitation, fish stocks around the world will be completely exhausted by 2050.
The thing I struggle to understand is why this issue does not resonate more clearly with the public. Surely nobody can claim to be unaware that there are serious problems with fishing, and yet public behaviour does not appear to change. If you went in to a restaurant and found the menu full of endangered species: rhinoceros steaks, tiger stew, osprey burgers and so on, you would be rightly outraged. Yet every day we are happy to chew our way through thousands of endangered species of fish. But the good news is that there is a lot that we can all do, and it does not mean giving up eating fish.
What can you do to help conserve fish stocks?
1. Learn which fish are endangered and which ones are OK to eat.
The Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide provides detailed advice on its excellent web site about which fish are safe to eat, and when they are threatened it provides a list of alternatives that might be available. What I particularly like is that it recognizes that fish may be viewed differently in different fisheries. For example Icelandic cod is currently regarded as sustainable even though North Sea cod is not. They also provide a handy pocket guide that can be printed from the web site and taken with you on shopping trips.
2. Buy different fish.
For some months now Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second biggest supermarket chain, has been urging customers to Switch the Fish away from the so-called Big 5 species which collectively account for 80% of British fish sales: Cod, Haddock, Tuna, Salmon and Prawns. This campaign is supported by Sainsbury’s house chef, Jamie Oliver. Elsewhere many supermarkets often run promotions on less well known varieties which are in any case cheaper than the usual suspects. Pouting fillet for example is a good alternative to cod fillet and costs about half as much.
3. Choose Environmentally Certified fish
Look out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s ecolabel certificate. This global organisation is completely independent and objective. They work with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood. This is equally true of frozen or processed fish and the ecolabel is issued to restaurants and shops as well as individual products.
4. Ask restaurants about their sourcing policy and let them know your concerns
The website associated with the award winning documentary film by Charles Clover, The End of the Line, has a printable feedback form which people are encouraged to take with them and leave together with the payment when you eat out.
I still eat fish twice a week, although I have to deny myself the pleasure of shop-bought fish and chips. In this way I hope that when I am watching Finding Nemo with my grand-children I may be able to avoid awkward questions like “what were fish Grandpa?” and “didn’t you realize that you were destroying the oceans?”