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Food and Drink

Restaurants with better fish to fry: We must start insisting on line-caught fish, diver-caught scallops and wild salmon if we want to save our dwindling fish stocks. Emily Green meets the man selling the message

FIRST we were told horror stories about chicken farming. Then it was beef. Now it is fish. Is there no end to scaremongering in the food world? Well, as far as fish is concerned, the best chefs are tackling the issue. If a restaurant is environmentally correct, its menu will contain not merely salmon, but wild salmon.

Alastair Little's progressive Soho restaurant will not list sea bass. It will list 'line-caught sea bass'. At the Thames-side restaurant, Le Pont de la Tour, the Irish chef David Burke makes sure that his staff all understand that scallops are 'diver-caught', and that dredging destroys seabeds.

It may sound like a restaurant wheeze to adorn the pounds 18 price tag attached to the bass, but the future lies in this sort of menu language, according to a 34-year-old West Countryman, Steve Downey. He supplies fish and game to a long list of restaurants in London, Bristol, Bath and Oxford: the River Cafe, Kensington Place, Le Gavroche, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Les Saveurs, Woolley Grange, Markwicks.

Two years ago, he was a keen angler and former employee of Friends of the Earth. But he was encouraged by the conservation policies he encountered on a tour of New Zealand and Alaska. 'Their fisheries departments were far more aware,' he says. 'They weren't being indiscriminate. They were resting breeding grounds and not over-fishing.'

Shortly after his return from North America, a friend on the staff of Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine mentioned that she knew of no one who specialised in supplying wild salmon to restaurants. But it was a report in November 1990 by Tim Kelsey in the Independent on Sunday that goaded Mr Downey into action. It said that tests by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had detected a nerve poison called dichlorvos in supermarket salmon. This toxic gas, used in sheep dip and to treat sea lice infestations of British fish farms, is banned in the US and Canada.

Further tests by the IoS found dichlorvos traces in salmon sold by four out of five big supermarkets. The supermarkets said the traces were so minimal as to be no danger to health. Mr Downey decided to sell wild salmon - river caught.

Drift-net farming is a serious no-no with the environmentalists. Mary Munson, fisheries campaigner with Greenpeace, explains: 'Consumers must be aware of how their fish is caught. The proliferation of nets around the coast is worrying. We're worried by over-fishing. Nets are remarkably efficient. For example, there is a wild salmon fishery on the North-east coast using drift nets. It intercepts salmon on their way back to spawn. This is no way to manage salmon.

'For the most part, angling is selective. If you catch an undersized fish, it can be thrown back. Drift nets will keep the undersized fish. And the quality of line-caught fish is much better. You don't get the net marks and the crushing. You can take care of the fish.'

Had Mr Downey not been an angler, he might never have gone into supplying restaurants with wild salmon. Had he not been an amateur, he certainly would not have attempted it with little more than pounds 500, a D-reg Ford Escort and a copy of the Good Food Guide. Thus equipped, 18 months ago he and his sister, Sue, started Heritage Foods in Barrow Gurney, a village near Bristol.

'I just rang fishermen,' he says. 'I sat on the phone, day after day, ringing and ringing, until I found an angler in Northern Ireland.' With his first (secret) supplier lined up, he began ringing restaurants. The best place to start seemed to be the top. 'I rang any restaurant with a five (the highest score), then a four, then a three. Michel Roux and Raymond Blanc were the first ones to say 'Yes'.'

Their reaction reflects good taste as much as idealism. Compared to sleek wild salmon, the texture of farmed salmon is often flabby. Chefs say that gutting the worst of the farmed salmon is unpleasant; that the innards spill alarmingly from fish that have been closely penned and have poor muscle structure.

Mr Downey's wild salmon - first from Irish rivers, then from Welsh ones - were freighted to Birmingham. Two days a week, the Downeys would leave Bristol at 4am, pick up the fish and run them to Oxford, Bray, London and Bristol, returning home at 11pm. In their first year, they put 100,000 miles on the Escort. Today they run a six-day-a-week, three-van service that employs seven people. The London run is done by Pete Toseland, who left his job as postmaster in Barrow Gurney to work 15-hour days delivering fish. And as the fleet grew, so did the stocklist. Heritage Foods now supplies bass, brill, turbot, Dover sole, venison, game birds and hare in season, wild mushrooms and shellfish. The fish are line-caught from small boats and landed daily in Cornwall.

One day, an Irish angler rang to report that Glenarm, a salmon farm in Co Antrim, was producing something very close to the wild article by using a revolutionary new pen in the open sea. The fish are stocked at low density and washed by a strong tide, unlike those in enclosed sea lochs or fiords. 'I got a sample sent to England, showed them to the Manoir, Waterside and Gavroche and they were very enthusiastic,' Mr Downey says. 'I visited Glenarm in July 1991 and was extremely impressed by Brian Scott who runs it. He's totally committed to farming in harmony with the environment.'

Dr Scott has not used dichlorvos but, like more conventional fish farms, he has permission from the Department of the Environment to do so. He does use astaxanthin, a man-made equivalent of a chemical that occurs naturally in wild salmon's feed, which dyes the farmed salmon's grey flesh pink. Dr Scott says astaxanthin is substantially more expensive than the controversial, and more common, dye canthaxanthin.

According to Professor Richard Lacey, a microbiologist at the University of Leeds, canthaxanthin can cause foetal abnormality. Why do so many fish farmers use it? Mr Downey says: 'A supermarket buyer can just go to a salmon farm and look at a colour chart and say, 'I'll take that one, please.' The housewife seems to prefer a darker colour.'

While Dr Scott's farm presents the best face of salmon farming, he, like the rest of the industry, loses fish in storms. Large numbers have found their way into the wild, and netting stations on the west coast of Scotland have recorded up to 40 per cent of farmed fish in their catches.

'No one understands the consequences of escaped farmed fish breeding with wild populations,' Mr Downey says. 'A salmon is highly sophisticated, with keen survival instincts to endure long migrations - very different from a fish that floats around in a pen all day.'

Salmon farming has already had a serious effect on Scottish sea lochs which, according to Greenpeace, have suffered severe pollution and loss of oxygen. Can we help? Mary Munson of Greenpeace says yes. We can insist on line-caught fish, on diver-caught scallops. Steve Downey says yes. We can eat less salmon, and prize it as the noble fish it once was. And the chefs say yes, even if it means spelling out unappetising truths on their menus.

Heritage Foods will deliver fish and game to homes within 24 hours. For a stocklist, telephone: 0275 393979.

(Photograph omitted)