Plenty more fish in the sea?

Eating fish has never been more popular. Meanwhile, our battered cod and modish tuna are being exploited to extinction. Christopher Hirst reports on a potential tragedy, and a radical, restaurant-led solution
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Indy Lifestyle Online

he Aquarium is an unlikely joint to be in the vanguard of a moral revolution. Overlooking the ranks of millionaires' yachts expensively berthed in St Katharine's Dock near Tower Bridge in London, it is a fashionably minimalist fish restaurant catering mainly for City traders and Wapping newspaper execs. The main courses hover around the £15 mark. Yet, there is something unusual about the fish on offer. You will look in vain through the menu pages, stylishly illustrated with X-rays of ichthyological treats, for such traditional fare as cod and haddock or more recently fashionable mouthfuls like monkfish and swordfish. Instead, head-chef and proprietor Christian Sandefeldt is offering diners dishes like roast zander, Swedish perch meunière and roast pollock. The raw materials are imported daily from Gothenburg fish market in Sandefeldt's native Sweden. He claims they cost much the same as home-grown varieties. The first two are freshwater fish, given a depth of flavour by the cold northern wa

he Aquarium is an unlikely joint to be in the vanguard of a moral revolution. Overlooking the ranks of millionaires' yachts expensively berthed in St Katharine's Dock near Tower Bridge in London, it is a fashionably minimalist fish restaurant catering mainly for City traders and Wapping newspaper execs. The main courses hover around the £15 mark. Yet, there is something unusual about the fish on offer. You will look in vain through the menu pages, stylishly illustrated with X-rays of ichthyological treats, for such traditional fare as cod and haddock or more recently fashionable mouthfuls like monkfish and swordfish. Instead, head-chef and proprietor Christian Sandefeldt is offering diners dishes like roast zander, Swedish perch meunière and roast pollock. The raw materials are imported daily from Gothenburg fish market in Sandefeldt's native Sweden. He claims they cost much the same as home-grown varieties. The first two are freshwater fish, given a depth of flavour by the cold northern waters, while pollock has the same large flakes as cod, but rather more in the way of taste.

Like several other restaurateurs specialising in fish, Sandefeldt was prompted to seek out new varieties by the alarming decline of stocks in the traditional British fisheries. He admits that the reason for his switch is as much economic as moral. "It's terrible if any species disappears, but this is my living. If I buy an endangered species, I'm effectively killing off my living." The precipitous nature of the decline in cod stocks can be gauged by the way that its price has rocketed in recent years. "When I came here in 1993, I was amazed how cheap fish was," Sandefeldt recalls. "Back then, cod sold at the market for 98p a pound. Now it's £3.65. Unless something is done, cod will become so expensive that it will only be sold in three-star restaurants, where people are prepared to spend £25 or more on a piece of fish."

Earlier this year, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), a charity dedicated to the preservation of the marine environment, issued a Good Fish Guide listing 20 endangered species that should be avoided. They include North Sea cod, haddock, monkfish, hake, ling and skate, along with sea bass and halibut where caught by trawling. Endangered species from further afield include shark, tuna (except for "dolphin-friendly" skipjack and yellowfin), swordfish and Chilean sea bass. The last-named, a distinct species also known as Patagonian toothfish, is highly recommended by Nobuyaki Matsuhisa, chef-patron of Nobu, the ultra-fashionable eatery. "Everyone seems to like the rich, defined flavour of this big fish from Chile," he writes in Nobu the Cookbook. "[It] is currently available in all 13 of my restaurants in five countries." The MCS tersely notes that this species, reluctantly nibbled by Nobu's supermodel clientele, is "threatened with extinction".

It is a bitter irony that at the very moment the inhabitants of this island woke up to the wonderful piscine treasures that surround us on every side, our fish seem to be whirling down the plug-hole. For years, the British have been inexplicably indifferent to fish, other than the battered variety. You can buy an excellent variety of fresh fish in a city of the scale of Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of France, but there isn't a decent fish shop in many of Britain's coastal towns. Now, thanks in large part to the proselytising of Rick Stein, who built on the missionary work of Jane Grigson, we are at last realising how good fish is to eat. Moreover, it is good for us into the bargain. Surprisingly, however, British f consumption has remained static over the past decade. According to the MCS, we consume around 143g of fish per person per week, equivalent to an expenditure of 80p. This could be because the food-obsessed middle-classes are buying more, while poorer people are put off by the spiralling price. One suspects that the effect of Rick Stein's TV series and books has been to encourage people to eat fish in restaurants rather than cook it for themselves.

Other fish restaurants acting on the MCS's warning about endangered species are the 17 branches in the Loch Fyne chain. Managing director Mark Derry points out that there are other fish in the sea. "We won't sell any of the 20 endangered species, but there are 65 edible species in British waters alone. We will use cod from Icelandic waters, where stocks are managed, but not from the overfished areas of the Atlantic, where stocks are at risk. Frankly, if we keep selling them, they will become extinct. It is just commercial sense to stop. We want to be in business in 20 years' time." Derry criticises the taking of half-size monkfish from deep-water spawning grounds off Scotland. Though they may look tempting on the fishmonger's slab, the netting of such immature creatures is fatal for future generations. "Effectively, monkfish need to be 11-12 years old before they spawn. Currently, they're being taken at six."

Derry is talking to marine conservationists and other restaurateurs about putting together a standard which aims to control the places that fish come from and the way they are caught. "If the fish is wild, we're looking to see it line-caught rather than trawled. At present, we're looking for a way of tracing catches. This can be done by satellite. We're desperate to get away from dealing with huge industrial fish factories that can pick up a mass of fish comparable to the size of a house in a single trawl. Worse still is a process called mid-water dragging, in which two factory boats a mile apart catch everything alive in the water for several miles. Our policy is to support small boat owners. As long as we don't make it harder on the costs they have, there's no reason why fishermen shouldn't act with conservation in mind. There is a huge variety of fish, but we always tend to buy fish landed in the UK. We don't mess with the products we sell, so they need to be exceptionally fresh."

The three Singhboulton organic gastropubs in London owned by Geetie Singh and Esther Boulton maintain a stringent policy on endangered fish species. "Fish plays a big part in our menu – always a third of the items on offer," says Boulton. "That's why ensuring future stocks is really important to us. When we looked into it, we didn't agree with EU fish policy. We really did not want to buy from unsustainable methods or depleted stocks." Singhboulton tries to ensure that most of its fish is caught by selective methods, such as hand-line or pots. Where long-lines are used, the restaurant insists they should not be more than 2.5 miles in length. Where fish is caught by trawling, it can only come from small local day boats. The restaurant will not buy wild salmon ("over 30 per cent of salmon rivers have endangered populations"), fresh anchovies or warm-water prawns.

With 20 branches, the Fish! chain of restaurants insists that it is "committed to sourcing fish from sustainable reserves". Fish! also believes in "complete traceability of fish products, ensuring they are coming from healthy stocks, those not at risk of over-exploitation". Certain items on its menu bear the "eco-label" of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which runs a certification scheme for renewable fish stocks, comparable to the Soil Association mark for organic produce. Unfortunately, only six of the world's fisheries so far bear the MSC label. They include Thames herrings, South-West hand-line mackerel and Burry Inlet cockles from South Wales. All delicious, but scarcely the leading fish dishes of the world. But it's still early days for the MSC. You can buy MSC-approved fish for home consumption in the form of John West's tinned Alaskan red salmon and Bird's Eye hoki fillets from renewable stocks in New Zealand, which are currently replacing the company's cod fillets. Unilever, which owns Bird's Eye, has pledged not to buy any unsustainable fish after 2005.

The number of restaurants engaged in saving fish is a widow's mite compared to Britain's 8,600 fish and chip shops. Still our favourite fast-food outlets, they shovel up almost 50,000 tonnes of fish a year, almost all cod and haddock. The National Federation of Fish Friers tells me that it would "support any conservation measures in the North Sea". In fact, the chances are that you will be getting cod or haddock from reasonably well-stocked seas in Iceland or northern Norway. Only one-fifth of the cod and haddock consumed in Britain comes from the North Sea, but it would be a brave environmentalist who would probe the provenance of his battered supper in a packed chippy in Grimsby or Peterhead.

IF IT SEEMS strange that a handful of restaurateurs and one or two manufacturers of fish products are leading the fight against the depletion of our ocean larder rather than politicians, then Brendan May, chief executive of the MSC, can only agree. "Governments have been very bad at managing fish stocks," he admits. "If we're going to reverse the catastrophic decline in the world's greatest renewable food source, we have to harness consumer power to achieve that end. We have to make sure that the fisheries are managed for the future, not just tomorrow."

While agreeing with the aims of the MSC, many environmentalists believe that more urgent action is needed to conserve fish stocks in the waters around Britain. One topic on which almost everyone agrees is the utter hopelessness of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. If the very mention of the f phrase puts you to sleep, maybe this will wake you up: along with the other EU members, we spend around £1bn per year on the CFP. Half of this goes to Spain, where more fish are eaten than anywhere else. The Spanish are spending most of this windfall on ultra-efficient new trawlers, even though there is already too much fishing capacity for existing stocks.

"We estimate that there is overcapacity of 40 per cent in the European fleet," says Bernardette Clarke, author of the Good Fish Guide. "In the UK we have been reducing our fleet, but we're in a dire situation now because industry and politicians have ignored advice from scientists. We're only now moving to the restriction on cod sizes recommended in the Eighties. Because fish sizes have diminished, they're being caught younger. It's reported that the majority of cod caught in the North Sea are four years old, but they don't begin to breed until they are four to five years old."

The radical decline in stocks of the fish that the British have traditionally liked to eat may be partially due to global warming, but around 30-40 per cent of the biomass of edible fish in the North Sea is scooped out every year. In order to maintain a sustainable cod industry, fishing will have to be cut by 50 per cent. For the even more delicious hake, it may be 60 per cent.

The more you look into the Common Fisheries Policy, the more nightmarishly ineffective it appears. Reforms attempted at phasing out subsidies for new and modernised trawlers have been diluted as a result of Spanish-led lobbying. The official in charge of the reforms has been dismissed. A cut of 8.5 per cent in the EU fishing fleet is being fiercely resisted by the Spanish. If no overall agreement on the CFP is hammered out by the end of this year, it means that the inner fishing grounds, from 6-12 miles around our coast, will be open to any EU boat. At present, EU vessels are free to fish between 12 and 200 miles offshore, subject to the heavily policed but deeply flawed system of quotas. The number of vessels given access to these waters will, of course, increase as the EU expands.

The main problem with quotas is "by-catch". This is the stuff you've netted but don't want. While you're filling your quota for the most profitable fish, you chuck less lucrative species away. When you've filled that quota and start on cheaper fish, you chuck the expensive ones away. It means that vast numbers of sea creatures, all part of the food chain, are needlessly killed. Though intensified by factory fishing, the problem of by-catch is nothing new. In 1756, the novelist and politician Henry Fielding wrote: "The seashore ... abounds with such immense variety of fish that the curious fisherman, after he hath made his draught, often culls only the daintiest part and leaves the rest of his prey to perish on the shore." Fielding tried to bring in legislation to curb this practice in the following year. He failed.

Dr Callum Roberts, a marine environmental biologist from the University of York, gives a blunt prognostication about the future of the North Sea fishing industry. "I'd give it less than 10 years unless fishing management is radically redefined." The situation elsewhere around our shores is little better. "Trawling is not that different to ploughing fields, but in fishing we only reap, we don't sow. We haven't learnt that you need fish to produce more fish. Because there's nowhere shallower than 1,000 metres that isn't being exploited, we're preventing the sea's ability to replenish. By flagrantly ignoring the biological limits on what we can take from the sea, we are literally condemning the fishing industry to death."

The solution advocated by Dr Roberts is the creation of marine reserves permanently closed to all fishing. "They should be real refuges to protect productive stock. Larvae from the reserves would move on ocean streams to replenish the fishing grounds. It is the equivalent of having money in the bank and living on the interest. At present we're living on the capital. We've grown into a cycle of eating the capital stock and we'll be left with nothing. A splendid food basket will be squandered."

Though a reserve is being discussed for Cornish waters, most UK fishermen don't like the idea of reserves. "The species are very diffusely spread here," insists Barry Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishing Organisations. "Unless you're talking about blocking off huge areas, there's a suspicion it won't work." Equally, he is dubious about the action taken by restaurants concerning certain fish species. "I'm not keen on the idea. Over the past century, most of our cod has been caught in fairly distant waters. By focusing on North Sea cod, it also puts a black mark against the cod our people are catching from sustainable stocks in northern Norway."

Deas is even against increasing the mesh sizes of the nets, so smaller fish can get away. "If you put on a larger mesh, say, from 100mm to 120mm, you lose 24 per cent of the haddock and 49 per cent of whiting. It's a recipe for pushing vessels into bankruptcy." But he acknowledges that something needs to be done. "If instead of bumbling along at the bottom we were operating at optimal stock levels, profitability could be 15 times what it is now. If we get our way, we'll have zonal management by fishermen. The WWF and ourselves have come to the conclusion that there is a need for transitional short-term investment in order to rebuild stocks. There's millions being spent on fisheries already. A lot of that needs to be redirected as investment in recovery programmes. We're not talking about long-term subsidies, but a short-term injection to allow stocks to rebuild.

"Fishing should be a good news story," Deas insists. "We have a renewable resource and demand for the product is increasing. The problem is in deciding how to manage the stocks." In the meantime, the Spanish are building more trawlers, with our money. E

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