Catch 22: the Marine Conservation Society’s online ‘Good Fish Guide’ is an indispensable resource for identifying farmed fish – and when that’s a good thing / Getty

TV chefs have put sustainable fish high on the agenda but getting to grips with where seafood has come from remains confusing for consumers

Understanding whether the fish you see in the supermarket is truly sustainable can be a surprisingly tricky business. 

Species labelled “sustainable” in one product may not be sustainably caught or farmed in another. Pole-and-line catches are generally recommended over fish captured in large nets, while the practice of “longlining” continues to pose a serious a risk to seabirds and sharks in many regions.

Overfishing in the 1990s caused a rapid collapse in the number of cod in the North Sea and across the Atlantic – that depletion is yet to be fully recovered. 

But cod from fish stocks outside of the exhausted areas – including zones such as Iceland, the Northeast Atlantic and the Eastern Baltic – are considered more sustainable, while saithe (coley), hake and whiting are often recommended as white fish alternatives to cod; assuming they too are caught in a sustainable manner.

The collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1992, upset the international fish market. Cod became a World Wildlife Fund “priority species” and the impetus was created for the Marine Stewardship Council to be set up in 1996. The MSC’s blue “tick” logo on supermarket products is used to certify sourcing from sustainable fisheries – that is, those which have not been overexploited and where the population is not endangered.

Fish farms can fulfil the large demand for popular yet reduced wild stocks of fish such as salmon but they can also cause environmental problems, especially those set in areas without strong currents; or that rely heavily on chemical sea lice treatments – a potential biohazard to other creatures. 

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Out of their depth: knowing when and how to avoid farmed fish is a tough call for consumers (Getty)

Chefs and campaigners concerned with sustainable seafood often recommend looking out for organically farmed species such as salmon and trout; organic farming practices include limiting the amount of chemicals used in production and ensure a sustainable feed source.

“Farmed seafood is quite difficult for consumers to navigate but we would always encourage them to look at our Good Fish Guide to find the fish that is best rated,” says Samuel Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society.

“Making that decision is easier said than done because the products don’t always include all the information you need on the pack. A lot of products will have the name of the fish and the farming country but won’t necessarily display the production method.”

The MCS’s Stone adds: “Look out for seafood that is farmed to recognised independent production standards and carries eco-labels on packs, such as ASC or Certified Organic.”

With so many factors to consider, it’s no wonder there has been so much confusion among consumers of late. 

Key is knowing how and where fish have been caught, or farmed. For example, the MCS recommends seabass farmed in onshore tanks in Europe but wild seabass caught in the North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, and Celtic Sea is considered to be from at-risk populations that should avoided.

Longline-caught – or “demersal otter trawl” – haddock from the Northeastern Arctic stays on the menu, while longline caught haddock from the Faroes Grounds are not. Last month, haddock from west of Scotland and North Sea populations were removed from the MCS’s Good Fish Guide after the organisation judged that stocks dropped below acceptable levels last year. “Bottom trawling” – a practice which uses weights to drag nets along the seafloor – has come in for particular criticism due to the collateral damage caused to other marine life such as fragile corals.

“It’s down to the impact of the gear,” says Stone.

“It depends on the kind of fish you are targeting and the kind of environment you are operating in as well. A mid-water trawl doesn’t come in contact with the seafloor, and can be very selective. Lower-impact gear collects less bycatch [unintended captures] and has less impact on the seafloor.”

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Battered: cod populations are still recovering from major depletions of the 1990s (Getty)

Some high-profile chefs have long campaigned to encourage consumption of less-popular fish such as mackerel and gurnard. And the MCS has identified cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns as the UK’s “big five” most popular species for consumers – it wants shoppers to opt for less popular species too.

Vietnamese river cobbler – a catfish also known as “basa” or “pangasius” – is native to freshwater habitats around Indochina. Pangasius can weigh as much as 44kg in the wild – but that’s not where to look for sustainable. It is samples from farms adhering to Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards are generally considered to be a “green” option.

“There still remains some fish sold in the UK’s supermarkets that we consider to be medium-to-high risk. For example, squid sometimes comes from overseas fisheries that don’t rate very well in our Good Fish Guide,” says the MCS’s Samuel Stone.

Tilapia is described as “plain and muddy” in flavour but can be a good addition to a meal with stronger flavours. Outside of the fish family, handpicked cockles are generally considered a good sustainable option.

Included among the fish environmental campaigners are keen for us to avoid entirely are: the conger eel, European eel, bluefin tuna, spurdog, wild Atlantic halibut, blue marlin and parrotfish. While you’re unlikely to find endangered species in a UK supermarket today, extra care needs to be taken in restaurants and fishmongers as well as shops abroad.

Albacore (except Mediterranean-caught) or skipjack tuna are still on the menu but the highly endangered bluefin tuna and bigeye tuna from several fisheries are to be avoided.

Not everyone has the time to do the research, and not all our fish is clearly labelled. Fortunately, the Marine Stewardship Council runs its own certification programme, with around 5,000 products carrying its standard-setting blue label. 

While the MSC label is a good standard to look for in the shops, when it comes to products without these indicators, understanding where your food has come from can be more challenging.

“We would always advocate for clear and accurate labelling, so people can make informed buying decisions” says the MCS’s Stone.

“There are EU labelling regulations for seafood, but there are several loopholes that make it possible for the labelling to be quite ambiguous. Displaying several different capture methods is a good example.”

Part of the problem are the varying arguments as to what makes a given population of fish, or catchment method, sustainable or not. Stone also cites the ongoing debate on the role supermarkets should play in setting standards, and how much is down to consumer choice and legislation at both the national and international levels. 

“Labelling regulations could be improved to make the labels clearer and more accurate, but this is challenging for the supply chain to implement with current practices and technology.

“It would mean having separate labels for many, many sources which would take time and cost more for manufacturers. We would like this to happen, but recognise that it’s difficult to achieve.

“The more that consumers demand sustainable seafood, the more supermarkets will provide it.”

Fish tips from Samuel Stone of the Marine Conservation Society

Cod and haddock: Will in most cases be wild caught from one of several different fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic. The UK catches a lot but also imports from Iceland and Norway where populations are doing well. Look or ask if your cod or haddock is MSC-certified for the best option. 

Fish fingers: Could be any number of fish species (such as cod, haddock, whiting) so best to ask. A very common species used in fish fingers is pollock. Most pollock fisheries rate pretty well on Good Fish Guide but the best is Alaskan pollock. 

Mussels: Generally a pretty good option as a lot of mussels are cultivated around the UK using low-impact methods. Best choices are rope-grown and hand-raked or MCS-certified dredged. 

Prawns: Will either be large (the size of a curled up finger) or as small as a 20p coin. Small prawns will be wild caught from fisheries that are doing pretty well. Larger ones will most likely be farmed – usually in Southeast Asia.  Best choice here are organically farmed or if the staff are well informed, they might mention a certification like Aquaculture Stewardship Council, GlobalGap , or GAA Best Aquaculture Practices. If you don’t hear any of these words, best give them a miss. 

Salmon (farmed): The salmon that we overwhelmingly eat is farmed Atlantic salmon – usually produced in Norway or Scotland. While it’s not the most sustainable seafood choice, it’s also not the worst. Organically farmed is currently the best option. Seek out Freedom Food-certified to ensure good welfare standards. 

Wild caught salmon is still available in a few restaurants, but this is declining and many salmon rivers are not in good health. Unless your restaurant is certain their salmon has come from a river with a healthy salmon population, best to give it a miss.  

Scampi or langoustine: Scampi tails are usually from bottom trawl fisheries whereas langoustine (whole scampi) may be trawled or pot caught. Pot caught is definitely a lower impact choice. Trawl caught varies, so do ask, but don’t expect a detailed response unless your restaurant is very well informed on their seafood supply. 

Squid: This could be from anywhere in the world. At certain times of the year squid is caught around the British coast but as the UK exports most of its squid, there is a good chance any squid on the menu will be imported. Squid fisheries vary in sustainability standards and are traditionally not well managed, but jig- or line-caught is the most selective option, so keep an eye out. Common Chinese squid, trawl-caught from Vietnam and Thailand is currently rated “red” by MCS. 

Trout (brown or rainbow): Most available on UK menus these days is farmed and a pretty good option. Rainbow trout is one of my favourites and a great alternative to salmon. 

Tuna and billfish: Caught all over the world using a range of methods. Pole-and-line or hand-line caught are the most selective gear types and represent the most sustainable choice. Steer clear of bluefin tuna as it is still on the endangered list.

“White” fish: Beware of anything that only states this. While it affords the restaurant a lot of flexibility, this could literally be any fish from anywhere. Definitely ask about the kind of fish used. 

Whitebait: This will either be mixed juvenile fish, juvenile sprat, or if you’re lucky, mature sprat. Sprat is generally a pretty safe choice. While a fast-growing and a small species, sprat are important food for many fish and bird species and stocks need to be looked after.

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