Sea changeSea change – sustainable fish and seafood

13 October 2009 by
Sea changeSea change – sustainable fish and seafood

With the reported threat of a total collapse of global fish stocks by 2048, more and more restaurateurs are turning to sustainable seafood. Tom Vaughan reports

Fish populations are in rapid decline and there is a real fear that over-fishing could lead to a total collapse of global fish stocks by 2048

In journalist Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he states that movements or popular causes sometimes reach a sort of critical mass - a point of no return, if you will. These so-called "tipping points" are "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable", he says.

It is very conceivable that, this summer, we saw the tipping point slide in favour of global fish stocks. Within weeks of Rupert Murray's documentary on the overfishing of bluefin tuna, The End of the Line, premiering at the Sundance Film festival, we were seeing its cumulative effects push a simmering campaign to boiling point. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Sting joined forces to condemn London restaurant Nobu for refusing to remove bluefin tuna from its menu, the European Commission gave its backing for a suspension of the international trade in the very same species from areas where it is endangered and restaurateurs around the world were forced to sit up and think.


Speaking to Caterer shortly after watching the film, Mark Fuller, director of Concept Venues which owns fish restaurant Geales in Notting Hill, said he felt compelled to act: "I was quite taken by the film and I can see where Tom Aikens [who arranged screenings for industry figures to help raise awareness] is coming from now. I've already spoken to my chef, Giles, and it's my intention to put information in my restaurants to inform the public."

At the same time that Murray's film was screening, two of the nation's premier hospitality businesses - contract caterers Compass Group and Raymond Blanc's iconic restaurant Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons - both took significant action. Blanc ensured both fish species on his menu - mackerel and Dover sole - were Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified as sustainable and Compass Group removed 69 species of endangered fish from its menus in the UK and Ireland.

Prince Charles, who spoke at a reception to mark the 10th anniversary of the MSC earlier in the year, summed up a situation that is gradually altering the way the hospitality industry has to source seafood: "The science tells us very clearly that if we continue to fish without any care for the long-term sustainability of fish stocks, we will soon face a nightmare collapse in stocks and inevitable demise of the poorest people in the world."

Slowly, the restaurant scene has been waking up to this reality. But Fuller's words show that, for a number of years, people like Aikens, who opened a short-lived but ethically-minded fish and chip shop in Chelsea, were respected but not widely imitated. Blanc, Compass and other sustainably minded operations are to be applauded, but it has nonetheless taken a long time for the reality of the situation - which, according to Murray, could see the total collapse of global fish stocks by 2048 - to affect the way the industry does business.

Restaurateur Geetie Singh opened the Duke of Cambridge pub in London's Islington - which was runner-up in Time Out‘s Best Sustainable Restaurant Award last year - in 1998, with a fastidious approach to sustainable sourcing. "Eleven years ago nobody was paying attention to it [issues of over-fishing]," she says. "It's heartening to see how much it has changed. When we first opened, nobody knew about coley or gurnard or ling, and restaurants often didn't know how their fish had been caught."

Aikens, chef-patron of his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea, agrees that the industry has come on strides. "Tastes are slowly changing and chefs, along with supermarkets, are helping influence that," he says. "We're making the right steps but there's still plenty of distance to still go and it'll be many years before we can give ourselves a pat on the back for our work."

There are, however, still corners of the industry that are reluctant to stray from the more famous - and more endangered - fish, especially small businesses, to whom the profit and loss margin is the foremost concern. Tom Illic, chef-proprietor at Tom Illic restaurant, says that change has to come from the top. "Although the film [The End of the Line] might have some influence on my thinking - and I have taken bluefin tuna off my menu - at the end of the day I'm going to serve what my suppliers offer me, so any real change in this arena has to come from Government," he says.


Which fish to source at what time of year, the species to avoid, the fisheries to champion and so on, can be a daunting amount of information for a chef or restaurateur to learn. There has, however, been a surfeit of guidance published over the past two years, most prominently the Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) Good Catch Manual: A Rough Guide to Seafood Sustainability, a piecemeal list of which species to buy and which to avoid.

"The average chef could be very sustainably minded, however they may not be selling sustainable seafood," say Sam Wildling, fisheries officer at the MCS. "The world of sustainable seafood can be complex and confusing. The Good Catch Manual gives hints and tips on how to get to grips with it, what questions to ask your suppliers and, importantly, through the Marine Conservation Society's Fishonline rankings, which species are sustainable and which are not."

The notion that it is someone else's responsibility to bring about change irritates restaurateurs who have been proactive in ensuring their businesses sources sustainable seafood. Chef and restaurateur Barny Haughton, who helped set up sustainable seafood restaurant Bordeaux Quay in Bristol, is certain of that fact. "I'm almost tempted to call people who do things irrespective of the rainforest or irrespective of fish stocks criminal," he says.

But turning sustainable needn't involve a huge headache. While restaurateurs such as Haughton and Singh have over a decade's worth of experience in sustainable seafood, and Aikens the time and opportunity to do a tour of fisheries to learn about the issue, the first small steps can be very easy. "You don't need to start at the most extreme point," says Singh. "There's no reason why a chef shouldn't wake up one morning and say ‘I'm not going to buy anything from the fish to avoid list [in the Good Catch Manual].'"

An adherence to just sustainable seafood carries with it an implicit challenge to the chef, says Haughton. "The first thing a chef must do when becoming sustainable is say ‘this is an exciting challenge'. It takes a big shift in imagination and creativity. But the biggest challenge is managing customer expectation. If it comes through in the menus and the front-of-house staff, and the enthusiasm from the kitchen spills over, then your customers will come on board with you."

The reasons, the growing urgency and the information with which to alter our attitudes to fish stocks have, in the past six months, arguably hit a tipping point. Major industry players - Blanc, Compass, Aikens - are all on board and pushing the momentum for change. The question is, are you willing to wake up tomorrow and make the small but crucial decision to not source from the "fish to avoid list"? The longer the hospitality industry turns a blind eye, the faster we approach the end of the line.

"It's a stark reality," says Aikens, "that if we don't change our ways, by 2050 we could be trawling the hundreds of miles of square ocean looking for just one fish to eat."


Fish to avoid

  • Turbot: wild caught
  • Herring: from south Clyde, west Ireland and Great Sole fisheries

Fish to buy very occasionally

  • Atlantic cod: wild-caught from north-east Arctic, Iceland, west English channel, Bristol channel, south-east Ireland and Sole. Avoid all other stocks
  • Ling: handline caught from the Faroes. Avoid all other stocks

Fish to buy occasionally

  • Lobster: European pot-caught
  • Monkfish: from the South-west. Avoid north and north-west Spain and Portugal
  • Dover sole: MSC-certified from Hastings fleet trammel net fishery within the eastern English Channel. Avoid North Sea and Irish Sea

Good choices

  • Pollack: otter-trawled and handline caught
  • Sardines: from Cornwall
  • Sea bass: line-caught. Avoid pelagic-trawled

The best choices

  • Brown crab: pot-caught in south Devon
  • Langoustine: from MSC-certified fishery in Loch Torridon and the Inner Sound of Rona. Avoid from Spain and Portugal
  • Mussels: rope-grown or hand-gathered

For information on all species, visit


The industry has seen a substantial rise in the number of restaurateurs and caterers focusing on providing the best quality food. As a result, an increasing number of outlets are sourcing their seafood from sustainable sources and reaping the benefits of this.

Nikki Hawkins, project manager for Seafish, advises: "By offering a range of sustainable species to customers as an alternative to the usual cod and haddock, caterers and restaurant proprietors can add flexibility and choice to their menus and attract a new, wider clientele while positioning themselves as a responsible seafood provider."

Seafish was founded in 1981 and supports the seafood industry for a sustainable, profitable future. It is committed to the sustainable and efficient harvesting of the resources on which the UK seafood industry depends, the protection of marine ecosystems, the development of sustainable marine aquaculture and best environmental practice.

Seafish's services range from research and development, economic consulting, market research and training and accreditation through to account management and legislative advice.


According to Whitby Seafoods, operators should celebrate the origin of the lesser known but sustainable species, rather than trying to hide it as information included on a menu about what makes the species sustainable and how this helps the marine environment, as it makes it much easier for a customer to relate to.

Another way of persuading consumers to try sustainable species is to focus on the nutritional benefits and price. Alaskan pollack, for example, has for a long time been widely used as a cheaper alternative to cod and haddock and is a more sustainable choice of white fish. Furthermore, nutritionally, it is a good source of selenium, niacin, vitamin B12, magnesium and potassium.

The view from M&J Seafood is that stating on your menu that the species used is sourced from a sustainable fishery, or is an under-utilised species, demonstrates to the customer an establishment's approach to responsibly sourcing seafood.

With so many under-utilised species available, educating the end-user is imperative and informing the diner of the characteristics and the taste profile of the fish available via menus or table talkers will help them to choose a fish they haven't tried before but that is similar to a species they have enjoyed previously.

Also make sure that staff are knowledgeable about species and have tried the fish so if a customer asks "What does it taste like?" they will have an answer.

3G Food Service & Seafood Solutions says recent consumer research showing that the typical fish consumer is generally older, more affluent and also more likely to be educated about different species of fish and seafood, indicates that they may be more receptive to trying alternatives, especially if they offer a new experience in taste and texture.

The company advises that attributes such as taste, texture, appearance and provenance of lesser-known species should be communicated to customers on menus and specials boards if caterers are to encourage them to try something new and unknown, and says that offering such information reflects the expert knowledge that exists within an outlet.

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