Should you take sea bass off your menus? Are certification schemes pointless? Is the sardine the only species that can meet a budget? Richard McComb reports from our recent breakfast briefing on sourcing sustainable fish.
The big names in the ocean have had a menu monopoly for too long. We're all used to seeing cod, plaice and monkfish on menus, but there are many more varieties that can provide the taste, versatility and, importantly, sustainability required for restaurant dishes.
According to experts speaking at a recentCaterer Breakfast Briefing, sponsored by Alaska Seafood, at the Dorchester hotel in London, more needs to be done to promote alternatives to the prime fish varieties and to help restaurateurs and caterers profit from a sustainable approach to fish purchasing.
Chefs are bombarded with information about fish stocks and say that they receive contradictory messages. So what fish should they be buying? Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy at government body Seafish, says the fish industry audit trail means chefs can buy with confidence.
She explains: "Whenever a fisherman goes out to sea, he has to log when he leaves harbour and when he comes back. You are not only limited on how much you can catch, but how many days you can go to sea a year. You are satellite-tracked. You have an electronic logbook. You have to declare your landing."
She adds that fishing is "the most regulated industry running".
In recent years and months, there has been concern about stock varieties, including mackerel and cod. However, Woodhatch has reassurance: if these fish are offered for sale they can be eaten "with confidence" because the regulation is rigorous.
It was reported earlier this year that Icelandic and Faroese fisheries had been overfishing mackerel and there remains the perception that it is unethical to eat. Woodhatch says the issue has been resolved and that mackerel stocks are currently at an "all-time high", adding: "It is always worth asking your supplier what's available at the moment and what is the best quality."
The experts make clear that it is time to break the menu monopoly of prime species. José Souto, chef lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College, extols education as the key to expanding chefs' use of alternative species. Traditionally, plaice and mackerel have been used for teaching students about flat fish and round fish. Souto calculates that Westminster Kingsway College uses two and three-quarter tonnes of plaice and one and a half tonnes of mackerel. "Now that's one college. There are 250 colleges in the UK. I wanted to be more careful about what fish we were using and how we were using it.
"The message we try to give to our students is that there are alternative flat fish. We can use lemon sole, megrim, witch soles. If we are going to use a white fish, we don't have to use pollock, which is what everyone used after cod was taken off the menu. We can use whiting or pouting. There are lots of species."
Souto says chefs jumped on the "pollock bandwagon" in the wake of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign and pollock is now suffering, so it is always important to look for alternatives.
Chefs have to be flexible. Souto has drawn up a list of species he is happy to use as substitutes. If his supplier goes to market to buy him 40 lemon soles and sees the product is not up to scratch, the supplier knows he can buy an alternative on the list. Souto explains: "If I end up with a load of witch soles, it is not a problem. It gives the lecturers a talking point for their students.
"We will use whiting, pouting, hake and haddock as alternatives to cod if there is a problem with cod. But nowadays there shouldn't be a problem with cod. The Norwegian and Alaskan cod that comes in is great. There shouldn't be a reason why we don't use it."
Richardson adds: "The specials board at the Bay Fish and Chips might list lemon sole, coley, hand-dived scallops, langoustine and lobster, but I am open to anything the supplier wants to get me."
However, David Mulcahy, culinary director at Sodexo, points out that there are complicating factors. "Chefs are in the hands of a number of agencies when it comes to the supply of information - and this can make species selection problematic," he says. "For the last 10 years, we have been brought up to think cod is unsustainable. We are constantly worried about what to put on menus. I think there is a bigger and better job to be done."
Fearnley-Whittingstall's discards campaign was laudable but did it educate and inform the public about which species to buy? Mulcahy says the meat industry has done a great job in promoting profitable uses of secondary cuts.
"I think there is a way to go with seafood," he says. "At the end of the day, we have to work to cost. Yes, flavour should be the absolute key as well as quality. But into that comes cost."
Are fish certification schemes worth the paper they are written on? And if a fishery is not certified, should it be shunned?
Woodhatch accepts there has been a proliferation of standards and certifications, and that the picture can be a confusing one.
"In terms of labels, Seafish has an interactive guide that can show people the main differences between the various labels but we are also involved in a large global project with numerous partners, called the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, or GSSI, to benchmark all the current standards. Some producers are asked for different standards by different customers, which often causes duplication and incurs significant costs."
But while there is a place for labels, buyers need to be holistic in their approach, according to Woodhatch: "Just because a fishery does not have a label, it doesn't mean it is unsustainable. For many fisheries, the cost of accreditation is just too great, or there may be reasons beyond the fisheries' control why it wouldn't pass a specific standard. For example, in the UK most crab fisheries wouldn't pass as they do not have a long enough time-series of scientific data available to them, but they are highly sustainable."
Chefs need to be pragmatic and work with suppliers, she adds.
In the same vein Souto insists that the MSC endorsement is not the be-all and end-all for selecting sustainable fish: "There are some great fisheries that do not have, or have opted out of, certification. I think Alaskan Salmon opted out and they are one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world."
Richardson urges chefs to get their priorities right. "I don't believe in importing MSC fish just to have it on your menu. To me, that is wrong. Support your economy."
Suppliers Suppliers clearly have a role to play in informing chefs about alternative species. Laky Zervudachi, group sustainability director at Direct Seafoods, says: "Part of our role as suppliers to the foodservice sector is to be a step ahead and aware of what is happening in the market."
Suppliers, he says, have to communicate developments in stock fluctuations speedily. Cod, for example, has gone from being the "demon fish" to being available in abundance in some fisheries. "Fishermen are having to catch much bigger volumes just to keep the ecosystem working in the Barents Sea."
Suppliers are now asking chefs not to use wild-caught bass. Zervudachi says: "Two years ago, it was, 'We should be eating lots of line-caught bass.' Now the MCS has advised that even line-caught bass is going down the chain, so we have got to be careful.
"Do chefs really need to use wild bass or can you think of alternatives? That is our role as suppliers: to help chefs make those decisions from a practical point of view, from a sustainable point of view and so that chefs can hit their GDPs.
"Chefs want something nice and cheap for their lunch menus. They want good deals. We work right around the coast with small boats, with co-operatives of fishermen, and have access to really great fish on a daily basis.
"This year, we have been waiting for the squid season to start. It normally starts in February but hasn't really started at all and it's coming to the end of the season. Every year produces different challenges, due to climate change and the way nature works. Some years you will just have a bad year. The fish don't regenerate as fast.
"We are at the mercy of the seas. We need to educate chefs to be flexible, to be open, to be creative and to use whatever is out there when it is at its best. That will also be at the best price."
Mulcahy offers a different perspective on certification: "The issue we've got with 2,000 restaurants is they want to be reassured we have some sort of endorsement - and endorsements come in the form of certification."
Monitoring cost is critical, Mulcahy adds. "The decisions we make can have an impact six months later. We will do everything we can to buy from day boats. It's a challenge and it would be a fantastic challenge to be able to meet. But if you take fish off a day boat, the sizing might not be exact - and suddenly you have an issue with portion sizes and how to fillet the fish."
The variety - and the freshness - of fish is crucial. Direct Seafoods works with a broad range of customers, from Michelin-starred chefs to foodservice outlets that "need to buy a fish for £1", explains Zervudachi. "We have to come up with choices within that. It's not a question of saying, all you can have are sardines. We have to be creative and look around the country and see what is landing where that is good value.
"The key is freshness - being able to source really fresh fish. Whether it is a sardine or a line-caught sea bass, both are fantastic if they are fresh. At the end of the day, that's what the chef wants to see. It is down to suppliers to suggest if it is whiting or pouting. If it is really fresh, chefs don't need to mask it with funny sauces.
"It is then a case of educating the wider public that it's worth trying these things. We work with Sodexo, for instance, on species. It is a great opportunity to do it in a canteen service. Customers have one choice of fish. It might not be a fish they are aware of, but they will try it. If it's fantastic fresh fish, cooked in an innovative style, the customer will go away and think, 'That gurnard was really nice - next time I'll try it in a restaurant.' That creates a demand for the lesser species, which we are trying to promote. It means there is a market and not everything is focused on prime fish."
Richardson agrees that innovating and updating menus is important: "Chefs need to think outside the box. Menus need to change daily or weekly and take into account what is in season."
Advice and help
It can be confusing for chefs when they try to get information about the health of different stocks and species - but help is at hand. Richardson says: "You can go to four or five organisations and get information, but you need to stick to your guns. You have to start trusting yourself. I use MSC guidance, I also use the Responsible Fishing Scheme and I speak to the skippers on the market floor. I buy on quality and not on price. To me it is about what it tastes like before I ask what it costs. If it tastes good I can make it fit into my menu. But if it tastes rubbish and it's all about margins you have to ask yourself what you are doing."
Souto says he consults the MCS for advice on species and praised the Seafish sourcing guide. He uses Alaskan produce because the sustainability message is "second to none".
Woodhatch says Seafish is launching a new online tool, Risk Assessment for Sourcing Seafood (RASS), which will provide chefs, seafood buyers and processors with objective and independent evidence on the biological status of stocks for fish landed or imported into the UK. Risk scores will be provided for stock status, stock management, habitat impact and by catch impact. RASS aims to strip away some of the confusion caused by existing systems that provide different levels of detail.
Mulcahy says Sodexo sends seafood guides to its head chefs and considers future trends but concedes: "We have got to make the use of fish, the eating of fish and the buying of fish from a consumer point of view much more accessible. You look at the proliferation of street food concepts and how they are influenced by ethnic themes and you think there is still a big market out there to be exploited with fish."
Zervudachi adds: "I refer myself to the whole gamut of advice. I need to be able to distil every-thing for my customers. Most chefs and restaurateurs haven't got the time to do all the searching on individual fish. They need to be able to go to their supplier and say, what is the truth about such-and-such a species or fishery?"
On the panel
David Mulcahy, culinary director, Sodexo
Calum Richardson, chef director, Bay Fish and Chips
José Souto, chef lecturer, Westminster Kingsway College
Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy, Seafish
Laky Zervudachi, group sustainability director, Direct Seafoods
The seafood sommelier
Restaurants should have specials boards for prime fish and shellfish - and consider having a seafood sommelier, says Jon Harman of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Giving guidance on what fish to put on a menu from a sustainable standpoint is perplexing, even for me with over 40 years' experience in the industry. However, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture in that the annual world harvest of wild fish has remained constant at around 90,000 million metric tonnes since the mid-1980s.
Alaska has been actively managing fisheries since the state was founded in 1959, and the Alaska constitution mandates that fish be utilised, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle.
Importantly, in Alaska, there is a strong awareness of the need to balance the capture of seafood as a sustainable foodstuff, the maintenance of local and often fragile, communities, and the overall economic return obtained from the fishery. The majority of Alaska fisheries carry independent fishery management certifications, through either the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the FAO-based Alaskan Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) programme. These cover the mega-fisheries that operate out of Alaska, such as the 1.2 million tonne pollock fishery and wild salmon fisheries, which account for around 40% of the world's supply of wild salmon.
So what seafood would be on my menu and how would I choose it? I'd work in conjunction with my fish supplier and ensure they were knowledgeable and credible. I'd perhaps build the core menu around seafood carrying an independent certification. I'd add variety and difference through a specials menu, offering seasonal or local offerings supported by information from independent organisations like Seafish or through a supplier. I wouldn't forget either about the versatility of canned salmon for a tasty lunchtime recipe.
Given that there over 100 species of seafood that could be put on the menu, and to set myself apart, I'd like to experiment with a seafood sommelier who could start, for instance, by introducing to the consumer the five varieties of wild salmon that come from Alaska, each with markedly different tasting notes. The options are, as they say, endless.