Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Is sustainable and ethical ever achievable? Fishing for answers.

Sustainable – Capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage (Collins English Dictionary)

Ethical – In accordance with principles of conduct that are considered correct. (Collins English Dictionary)

You look from the window and watch your neighbor put three black bags of rubbish out and you wonder where his recycling is. You arrive at work on the bus at the same time a colleague pulls up in his brand new gas guzzling Range Rover. You over hear the man in Starbucks talking about his third flight to Europe this year. The fact is not everybody cares so why the hell should you? Our individual influence is tiny, the decision we make only fits into the small picture, but we can only do the best we can. When hearing about fish you will commonly be subjected to three opinions. The environmentalists will lobby hard using shock tactics to sway the public; the fisherman will use economic arguments to sway public opinion; the governments will use any tactics to sway the public to re-elect them. However there is a fourth opinion, one that is rarely heard, one that holds little value to these three groups – ours, the public opinion. I fit into this fourth group, but with a slight twist; I am a qualified fisheries scientist and also rely on selling fish for my income.

Many readers of my blog are aware of my views about the use of the word sustainability. In my opinion it is an overused term thrown around and generally applied in the wrong context by misled or ill educated users. ‘Is your cod sustainable?’ a customer asks. What answer would you be happy with? Generally ‘yes’ is good enough for most customers with them being happy that their purchase is ethical. But how many fishmongers would just say ‘yes’ to avoid the subject or make a sale? And how many customers would accept ‘yes’ for an answer as any further discussion would lead them way out of their depth? The answer is most if not all. It is a strange and confusing subject not helped by shockumentrys like ‘the End of The Line’. Immediately after its airing I was berated by a regular customer who had just seen this film. She was angry that we were selling, a fish she had been buying from us for over 4 years. Tuna was seen on the counter and instantly we were judged as 'unethical' fishmongers. The fish in question was a Cornish line caught tagged Albacore Tuna from a Marine stewardship council’s accredited fishery. The problem is that the press, as with many subjects, just confuse readers by bad, lazy or incorrect reporting. The key importance about a natural resource such as fish compared to the likes of oil and coal is that with careful management and monitoring it will continue to replenish itself over time and never become exhausted; so returning to cod, an excellent example of a fish currently in resurgence, there are now many safe areas this species can be taken from. We no longer have to search for Icelandic line caught or frozen pacific cod to feel easy about our homemade fish and chips. The fact that the scientists who are the most sceptical and ridiculed members of the stock status management system have suggest increases in cod quotas in many areas of the North east Atlantic says it all – correct management techniques work.

So if the press can be somewhat misleading and the some fishmongers know less than an 11 year old about the subject how are you ever going to make the correct ethical choice? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. Certain websites such as those offered by the Marine Stewardship Council and The Red List give threat levels of many high risk species. But these species are not really of concern to the general public of the UK as they are not available for us to buy. 90% of us have never eaten Blufin tuna and anyone under the age of 40 has probably never eaten true skate yet these are the fish we are told to avoid. In stark contrast our neighbors across Europe continue to eat baby octopus and squid, slip sole (dover sole the size of your finger), juvenile rays, small whole cod and haddock, immature mackerel, sea bass, red mullet – the list goes on - and we also continue to discard perfectly good fish as prosecution for fishermen will result if they are land them. We do need to be realistic as if we all ate only 100% ethically sourced fish we would soon turn to meat. The few species that fall into this category are there for a reason because they are generally tasteless and it doesn’t matter how many times Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall tells us to eat organically farmed carp or dabs, Tom Aiken tells us how amazing Pollock is and how our favorite fish chef Rick Stein goes on about gurnard they will never replace real tasty fish. Troubling me is when the ethical benefits of such a fish as Pollock, and I believe now to more of an extent gurnard, are continually rammed down our throats increasing thus the demand and this coupled with no management or quota system in place two key issues will arise. Firstly the price will climb as fish are affected by supply and demand much like everything else and more concerning the stocks will become under increasing pressure. Ultimately the Pollock will become the new cod, but not for the reasons many are led to believe. I fully understand the benefits of switching our focus away from over-fished species to those that have succeeded to maintain their own stock status, however, few understand the implications of targeting these species to detrimental effect; pollack already falls into this category. It is not all doom and gloom and fear not as we can eat many species we are told to avoid such as dover sole, turbot or sea bass without feeling unfairly pressured by uneducated environmental groups we just need to know where, when and why.

Now you thought had found the perfect sourced fish, however, the capture method of your chosen fish, a fish that may tick all the boxes ethically, may actually have detrimental effect on other species. There does seem an awful lot to consider.

To me the fishing method is one of the most important issues:

Capture techniques

The 10 key capture techniques applied off the British Isles are as follows.

Beam Trawling
Of the net techniques this is by far the harshest. This method can have a tendency to gauge the sea bed removing everything in its path. It has huge implications for many marine species from corals to bi-valves and offers no selectivity of catch. Recently some fisherman have started using solid square mesh nets that allows a larger numbers of juvenile fish to escape but this is far from generic across the fleet. The catch from this method can also be of lesser quality and to be avoided if possible.

Otter Trawling
This is a mid-water trawl that uses two fixings, known as otter boards, to keep the net door open. Although not harsh like the beam trawl it is still unselective and can catch unwanted species. Due to its smaller size than the beam trawl this method can be used by day boats which do offer a higher quality catch.

Pair Otter Trawling
An adaptation to the otter trawl where two vessels tow a huge net in tandem. Can be known to catch huge amounts of fish and can be hugely unselective.

Purse seining
This method uses two vessels, a small one that lays a net circulating the fish shoal and a large on that retrieves the net. It is commonly used for catching tuna although its application around the British Isles is in the capture of sardines, herrings and anchovies.

Long Lining
Not often used to catch species offered in the UK but can be used to catch Atlantic Halibut.

Hook and Line
Currently the most fashionable fish are caught by this method. A highly selective capture technique that yields the highest quality of fish. Used mainly to catch Albacore, bass, pollock and mackerel.

Tangle nets
This method is usually used to catch crab. As the net is pulled onto the boat the body is pulled from the claws that are tangled in the net and returned to the water alive leaving it defenseless. If you like crab claws this is generally how they are collected.

Pots and Creels
A selective method used to catch lobster, crab and langoustine.

This is the main collection method for scallops. It sounds a very harsh method, which it is, but the scallop fisheries are rotated regularly and successful signs of recovery are show year on year.

Diver Caught
This method is generally used to collect scallops and is as close to a 100% ethical fishery as possible. The problem that occurs is the availability and cost can tend to put consumers off.

A Case Study – "I tell everybody I eat only 100% ethically sourced fish"

Pollock and gurnard are very fashionable and are deemed as an ethical choice, pacific cod is another example and coley, ling, dabs and whiting also fit into this category, but are they truly the ethical answer? Well that answer is not really. They are certainly abundant species and generally believed to have strong stock levels, but they are all caught with non-selective capture methods (note there are a few pole caught pollack fisheries). This means that within the 4 tonnes of landed ling there could be, for all we know, 1 tonne of a threatened species that is then returned to the sea dead. It is impossible for the fisherman to determine exactly what their nets will catch. The majority of fish you see for sale, especially in supermarkets, are caught by unselective capture techniques. So if the species deemed sustainable are not ethically caught maybe you have to consider fish that are line caught if I wish to be branded 100% ethical. Well unfortunately another problem then arises. Hook and line caught is very different to pole and line caught but both are commonly branded as line caught. Pole and line is very selective and is used in many well managed fisheries. It is, however, also used in some of the tuna fisheries that are most under threat. With regards to the UK we have excellent Bass, Mackerel and Pollock fisheries that employ pole and line methods. The alternative method mentioned is the long line fishery which can be very unselective in its catch and has been shown to be hugely detrimental to some avian species such as the well documented albatross. It can also cause long term problems when fishing gear is lost – the term used for lost gear that continues to fish is ‘ghost netting’.

So our main course is decided and it is line caught Cornish mackerel, well that is what I’ve have been told!

I now need a starter so how about shellfish; crab starter must be ethical as its crab and nobody has mentioned they are threatened. Well maybe so but did you know many fisheries discard the bodies and keep the claws for picking or for sale intact. Last time you picked at those sweet little crab claws at a friend’s house did you pause to consider what happened to the body? So how about a prawn starter instead, but has the production of the bought crustacean resulted in the destruction of important mangrove swamps. It’s all two hard so let’s just serve organically farmed salmon as that is perfect unless of course escapees from that site have infiltrated the local wild salmon stocks.

I may have contrived to confuse the reader, but maybe this is way, maybe this is the goal. It is a hugely complex area that requires a lot more consideration than just not eating cod and only eating Pollock or sticking to line caught fish. Our biggest problem is overcoming the reams of misinformation thrown at us by governments, environmentalists, supermarkets and fishmongers. Whether purposeful or accidental many are convinced by these outlets that they are buying their dinner from a shop that sources their fish ethically. For me Waitrose is a great example as it leads the way by ‘sourcing all their fish from sustainable and well-managed fisheries’ and we must give them credit as they do try. However, recently I saw Ray wings weighing less than 230grms each on one of their counters. Granted, this specific species of short nose skate isn’t under threat and fits into their buying remit, however, is selling juveniles from a slow growing low yielding fish species ethical and will it not result in the long term collapse of the fishery?? I personally believe it is wrong and is very short sighted. Additionally a well known south London fishmonger recently commended by certain food writers for sourcing everything ethically also sells the same line and size of ray and worst still such species as swordfish.

I guess you have been waiting for me to tell you what you can and what you cannot eat. To do that would brand me alongside the ill informed environmentalists; however I can give you some useful guidance. Obviously avoid those well documented species that are critically endangered such as Blufin tuna and common skate and also other exotics like swordfish and marlin. Avoid slow growing and low producing species such as skates, rays and all shark species (the one you are familiar with is dogfish or huss). Try to avoid species caught by destructive capture methods like the beam trawl which may include Dover sole, rays and turbot. That area becomes a little confusing as these species can also be caught by otter trawl. Try to buy line caught fish if your budget allows. If it does not then avoid buying the alternative such as trawled mackerel and bass as buying these deems the achievements of the pole and line caught fisheries somewhat worthless. The majority of species caught off of the British isles are subject to a quota and/or minimum size limits. Some supermarkets disregard scientific quotas as not a true indication of stock status, however these are calculated on best scientific advice and are monitored and adjusted yearly. Although retrospective this is our best management tool and if the species was deemed critically endangered then the fishery would be closed. Waitrose, the leading supermarket in ethical fish sourcing, contradicts itself by first stating “For a fish to be termed "sustainable" in Waitrose it must meet the following criteria: Be caught from a well managed fishery with scientifically based quotas” then follows this up by saying “Waitrose does not take the existence of a legal quotas as evidence of sustainability”. This is as nonsensical as it sounds. If the fish is landed into a UK port and is for sale on the counter of a reputable fishmonger it is pretty safe to say it has been legally caught within a quota system. As long as the fish is not out of season (this is generally their spawning time) I see no concerns eating it. Some species also have minimum landing sizes but this does not mean the final product is ethical. For example monkfish have a very wide head so specially designed square shaped net mesh that is supposed to allow juvenile fish through is ineffective in the case of this species. Due to this the size limit has been set exceptionally low, 500grm whole, so when you consider the huge wastage of 65% plus this would yield a tail something in the region of 100grm (the size of your finger). Although this is the case it does not make it illegal to sell. I would certainly suggest avoiding all juvenile fish. There is no need to buy them just because the Italian cook book suggests tiny red mullet taste better; the is nothing sustainable and certainly nothing ethical about purchasing a fish product that is prefixed with BABY.

After consideration of the above I would also suggest always buying fish that are in season and try to vary your purchases. Maybe choose lemon sole occasionally over dover sole and brill over turbot. And do not forget that buying local fish will substantially reduce that carbon footprint. But maybe as important is try and be friend your fishmonger. You will soon know if he or she has any idea about what or from where the product he is selling is from, how it was caught and how old it is. My guess is he will be a little tongue tied.

My Previous Blog posts relating to this subject:


  1. Good post, very informative. partivualrly about what types of seafood are commonly consumed in the UK.

    I wonder if you watched THE END OF THE LINE all the way through, as many of your suggestions at the end of the column are included in that film. I would not call it a "shockumentary" is merely presenting the situation as it exists, not making a mountain out of a molehill. It is a serious issue with serious repercussions, and the film tries to convey that urgency, I think. And it is certainly not the project of "uninformed environmentalists". It was heavily researched, draws on the informed investigations of journalist Charles Clover, and interviews many marine and fisheries scientists who are most definitely informed on the subject (as you clearly are as well).

    Anyway, next time a customer tries to berate you, maybe try to see it as an opportunity to educate, rather than an annoyance to endure.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting on my post mserpico009. For reference i have now watched the End of The Line fully 5 times including at the premier week with following question and answer sessions. What makes this subject so interesting is how people view it so differently thus so making it so controversial. As when i worked at the London Aquarium i use my job as a means to educate everybody that wants to listen Unfortunately some have no ears for information and are particularly stubborn but we can do nothing about that. I assure you everyday at least one customer leaves the shop more educated on a subject they new little about before arriving. Thanks again for your input.

  3. Great. Detailed and informative. I've been looking for a good fishmonger who I can rely on to sell me ethical fish for ages. What's the name if your place?

  4. Hi Rebecca,
    The name of the shop is the Chelsea fishmonger and it is at number 10 Cale street, Chelsea, sw10 3qu.
    Drop in one day for a chat.

  5. I've just found you're blog while randomly trawling the internet for information on how sustainable ray wings are (another of your blogs was very helpful). I'm actually a marine biologist myself and while I am constantly nagging my friends to only buy sustainable fish i find it very difficult sometimes to give them advice due to the wealth of contradictory information out there. As a more informed member of the public I find the differing information handed out to us as well as the lack of substantial labelling exhibited by many supermarket fish counters just confounds the problem. Many people out there try to choose sustainably but are confronted by such a confusion of information and generally ill informed useless staff that they just go for what they know, no one has 30mins spare to choose a piece of fish! I once ask where my local chippy was getting its red snapper from to be told 'erm well it comes in a polystyrene box'. Personally I don't eat fish so i can avoid the hassle. It's nice to know though that there are still people out there that know and care about the produce they're selling.

  6. Thank you for the kind words. only if I had more time to write.