Make the sea sustainable – how to choose the right fish

26 March 2012 by
Make the sea sustainable – how to choose the right fish

The endangered species list might be getting longer every day, but there are plenty of ways to serve up sustainable fish and chips. Emily Manson explains how to retain accessible pricing and ensure your environmental credentials aren't fishy

The world, it seems, is in perma-recession - everything, that is, except for the fish'n'chip industry. Worth £1.5b, with 11,000 chippies in the UK and still the nation's favourite take-away, it's fair to say the industry is thriving.

This is, perhaps, surprising, given the current precarious state of the global fishing industry. With endangered species lists growing longer almost daily and fishing methods getting hammered for destroying the marine environment, how can an industry whose main product is cod or haddock, remain so buoyant?

The answer is simple. Not only has fish'n'chips retained its accessible pricing, it has also taken the environmental argument to its core, thereby catching on to the nation's obsession with all things green.

Robust progress
Philip MacMullen, head of environmental responsibility at Seafish, says: "There are obviously chinks in places, but on the whole the general trend is improving. I've seen a lot more good robust progress than in other sectors over the past few years. It has been very impressive."

Raymond Blanc, who judged the Sustainable City Awards' fish category, says that the industry has made massive strides. "There have been extraordinary changes in this area," he says. "Everyone at the awards knew about their fish, and its sourcing. My god, they knew everything and were totally committed."

Blanc believes he has witnessed a revolution of knowledge and reconnection with the true values of gastronomy. "Operators and chefs are completely engaged in creating an industry that is more caring, rather than the previous ‘devour everything' attitude," he adds. "They even know the names of their fishermen and the boats."

So what has happened? Greg Howard, president of the National Association of Fish Friers, explains that over the past five years much work has been done with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to work towards creating complete chains of custody. The aim is to ensure that chippie owners and chefs source sustainable fish from reputable suppliers, giving traceability throughout the food chain.

Howard says: "We are working to make all our members fully accountable from catch to plate - many already are but there is always more to do. It gives the customer confidence in our sustainable credentials and helps to keep them coming in and eating our products on a regular basis."

More than just cod
Chefs are also learning to cook lesser-known fish. Hake, coley, pollock, mackerel and dab are all becoming more familiar options on the chalk board.

The classic example of this, says Tim Glover, managing director of Fish2Fork, is gurnard. "It was thrown away 10 years ago; now it's on every top menu and a ‘must-have' fish," he says.

But chippies have been careful not to scare away traditional punters with unfamiliar products. Daily specials, free samples and platters are just some of the methods employed to entice customers into trying new species.

Glover explains: "The key is to get people to try new fish. It's important for shops to source new species so they're available to try."

But he adds that even with traditional species, operators need to find out where their fish comes from and how it's caught. For establishments with no sustainable awareness, this is a good place to start, he suggests. "Whether it's line caught or beam trawled makes a massive difference to damage done to the seabed and other species."

Education and training
Operators also need to know what they're talking about and communicate that knowledge to the staff so they can pass the information on to customers.

"Even though fish'n'chip shop customers are the least likely to be concerned about sustainability from a socio-economic demographic point of view, the message is still getting through and it's critical if we are to change the eating habits of the vast majority," MacMullen says.

"Awareness is certainly rising and the supply chain is improving. Much of the cod that comes into the country is already sourced from Nordic fisheries which are well managed."

In effect, this means that much sustainable sourcing has been done by the suppliers before it even reaches the retailers. "Most chippies take frozen fish from those countries and their management is robust. Suppliers do the sustainability job for them," MacMullen says.

Where to go from here
There is, of course, still plenty of room for improvement. "Some chippies have our top rating, but there are still not so good ones out there that stick to cod and haddock regardless and don't figure sustainability into their business equation," Glover says.

Information is the key to dealing with operators who have yet to change their ways and become the enlightened operators of the future. And as Glover points out, for that to happen, everyone needs to be asking questions. "That means customers to restaurateurs; chefs to owners; owners to suppliers; suppliers to fishermen and processors." In this way the pressure will be kept on all levels of the supply chain and each level will be forced to maintain and keep improving its sustainable practices.

MSC cod is available

Enochs, Llandudno For a long time Enochs could source only MSC hake, but it now sources MSC-certified cod from Norway so every piece of fish sold is MSC. It was the second chippie in the UK to become MSC accredited.

It uses a lot of mackerel, which is abundant, and accepts a low profit margin on products such as the mackerel burger so that customers might be enticed to try it. "We serve a whole fillet in a bap with a really appealing tomato and horseradish sauce and it's a really good lunch for £2.50," says assistant manager Owen Searson.

Other low-use fish on the menu are coley, whiting, dab, Conway mussels from July to September or mussels from the Menai Strait at other times. "We go for under-used species as much as possible," Searson adds.

But it's also about changing customer habits. "A lot of our customers are now educated but some just order cod without even looking at our menu," he says. Enochs has printed table talkers, placemats which explain the ethos and all staff are trained to be able to talk about the lesser-known fish.

Pricing is also key. Searson says: "If the other options are 25-30p cheaper than the cod, then chances are, people will give it a go and you're going to sell it.

"We are not out to make a million or change the world but if we can change people's point of view a little by eating with us and the next time they have fish and chips they order a piece of coley, then we're winning."

Buy local and in season

The Bay Fish and Chips, Stonehaven, ScotlandWinner of the SRA Special Award for 2012 When the Bay opened under current owner Calum Richardson in August 2006, sustainability was a key objective. The shop doesn't sell any cod, and has policies to ensure it never serves fish on the endangered list.

The main product is haddock, but other species are pollock, hake, coley loin, langoustine, calamari and mackerel. Richardson explains: "We're right on the seafront so we get whatever's local and in season. We believe in buying locally and supporting the local economy. We don't demand from the market, we just get what's readily available, then we know it's seasonal. It's usually cheaper, too."

He encourages punters to try the lesser-known fish. "Platters are a great way to utilise other species that people don't want to commit to," Richardson says. "People are genuinely interested in trying but don't want to have to fully commit. Even if they choose haddock I often put a bit of something else on just so that they can try it."

He is hot on the supply chain, too. "Our suppliers know that if they change the way they deliver or source something they need to let us know, so we can check it's in line with our ethos."

The restaurant sourced MSC-certified haddock as soon as it became available last year and subsequently got a grant from Seafood Scotland to get MSC accredited. "We were just waiting on the haddock and our supplier got it straight away, then our accreditation followed," Richardson adds.

research what you buy

Colmans, South Shields, Tyne and WearWinner of Sustainable City Awards (Sustainable Fish category) Richard Ord is the fourth generation to run Colmans and his primary motivation is to leave the business for his sons in a better state than when he started. "Fish stocks haven't been well managed in the past. As an industry we've worked very hard on sustainability and done remarkably well in a relatively short period of time, sourcing with integrity and showing a commitment towards sustainable fishing. It's of paramount importance that we look after fishing grounds and source with integrity."

A decade ago he formed a procurement policy stating he would buy fish only from sustainable and well-managed fishing grounds, but soon realised that was not enough. "Suppliers have to confirm in writing to us and we also do research on what to buy - we won't touch spawning fish, or anything on a red or endangered list."

Instead he uses alternatives such as whiting, squid and mussels. "All of these are sustainable, under-used and from our own coast."

As one of the few chippies with MSC chain of custody, Ord also tries to impart this to his customers. "We tell our customers where the fish was caught, by whom and how and have lots of information on blackboards showing our complete traceability. Customers really appreciate it."

10 ways to ensure your fish is sustainable

1 Choose different species of fish and offer a choice
2 Ensure your suppliers use responsible fishermen - not fishing in spawning season or using net sizes that are too small
3 Educate your staff and pass the knowledge on to your customers
4 Use reputable suppliers and distributors who are MSC accredited or who have sustainability at their core
5 Aim for a complete chain of custody so you know exactly where your fish comes from
6 Order fish by category rather than species
7 Invest in training chefs to enable them to create appetising dishes using under-utilised fish species
8 Support local fishermen who use responsible fishing
9 Boycott all endangered and red listed fish
10 Sign up to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fishfight Campaign to stop by-catch wastage at

Fish facts

11,000 There are 11,000 chippies in the UK
£1.5b The industry as a whole is worth an estimated £1.5b
30% of all white fish is used by fish'n'chip shops
10% An average a portion of fish and chips contains less than 10% fat per 100g
1 The chippie is still the UK's number-one take-away

10 fish to use
Sea bream

10 fish to avoid
Atlantic bluefin tuna
Atlantic cod
Atlantic halibut
Atlantic salmon
European eel
King/tiger prawns
Sturgeon and caviar
Skates and rays

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