Dozens of edible fish live in UK waters, but the unadventurous British tend to eat just three – salmon, tuna and cod – most of which come from abroad. A campaign beginning next week with the backing of the Government aims to persuade people to consider trying a new piscene experience. For every meal of salmon, cod and tuna, people should eat one containing abundant species such as gurnard and dab, viewers of a celebrity chef-fronted Channel 4 season will be advised.
Supermarkets are preparing for a rush of demand for the new species following the airing of the first show in the channel's Fish Fight series on Tuesday. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, credited with significantly increasing demand for higher-welfare chicken three years ago, will take the lead in the campaign, with three-one hour programmes highlighting the waste in fishing practices, and the many unsung fruits de mer, whose adoption could take pressure off more popular stocks.
Jamie Oliver will front 10 shows of 10 minutes each, giving tips on cooking one of the lesser-known species; Heston Blumenthal will explore what dishes can be made from the few sea creatures that may escape overfishing, such as sea cucumber and jellyfish, and Gordon Ramsay – once ticked off for serving bluefin tuna at two of his restaurants – will investigate the catching of sharks to make the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup.
Organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Marine Conservation Society have given their blessing to the campaign. Support, too, has come from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which wants to reform the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
As The Independent highlighted in November, fishermen in the North Sea throw up to half their catch back because they have already reached their quota under the CFP, or because their existing catch is too small or low quality. During filming, Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall travelled to Brussels to rail against the CFP and set up a barbecue outside the Houses of Parliament to showcase one of the largely uneaten British species, sprats.
In all, Britons spend £2.8bn a year on fish, but £1.2bn of that goes only on cod, salmon and tuna which account for 42 per cent of the fish eaten in the UK. Supplies of some of these fish are problematic. Cod has been heavily overfished in the North Sea, and most of the UK supply now comes from around Iceland and the Barents Sea. Some tuna stocks are also under threat (thought not the plentiful skipjack contained in most tins), and three kilos of wild fish are required to produce one kilo of farmed salmon.
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said: "If you're someone who cooks these fish and rarely any others, then you need to change." He told The Radio Times: "For every meal you have of cod, tuna, or farmed salmon, you owe it to yourself to eat another using a different species of fish. There's no shortage to choose from. Look for gurnard, black bream, mackerel, flounder and dab." Next week, Defra will announce a research project to investigate why the British are so stuck in their ways in which species of fish they buy and eat. Supermarkets are already altering their practices. Sainsbury's announced yesterday that all its tuna would be caught using the pole and line method by the end of this month, eliminating bycatch of dolphins, turtles and other creatures.
Waitrose said it would stock Cornish sprats and Welsh flounder as economical local alternatives to many better-known varieties of oily and white fish.
What we eat...
1. Tuna (72m tonnes)
Of total fish consumption: 19.2 per cent. Value: £337m
Problems: Yellow-fin, bigeye and bluefin are overfished and dolphins and turtles caught in nets
2. Salmon (47m tonnes)
Of total fish consumption: 12.4 per cent. Value: £632m
Small wild fish such as anchovies fatten farmed salmon. Three kilos produce one kilo of farmed salmon
3. Cod (42m tonnes)
Of total fish consumption: 11.1 per cent. Value: £318m
Problems: Although recovering, North Sea stocks are less than 5 per cent of historic levels. Most of our cod now comes from the Barents Sea and Iceland
4. Prawns (33m tonnes)
Of total fish consumption: 8.9 per cent. Value: £365m
... and what we should eat
A wedge-like fish with a bulbous head, the gurnard wins no beauty contests but is probably the tastiest under-exploited fish in the sea. Fry with mushrooms and thyme
Tiny, cheap fish, best barbecued and served with a mustard dip
Rope-grown mussels are highly sustainable and delicious when cooked in white wine and garlic
Mackerel, sardines and pollock
Currently the sixth, seventh and eighth most popular fish by volume in the UK, they are relatively plentiful and, in the case of mackerel and sardine, rich in fish oils.
Sources: The Independent/Seafish/Marine Stewardship Council/Channel 4 Fish Fight