Conservation groups immediately lent their support to the move by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Unilever, one of the world's largest buyers of frozen fish. The plan is for fish caught under the new arrangements to be labelled as such, with customers being exhorted to limit purchases accordingly.
World-wide, more than 1 million "industrial" vessels, and 2 million smaller-scale boats, have fished stocks to the point where the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate that in 13 out of 17 leading fishing regions they are either depleted or in serious decline.
In Western Europe, landings have fallen despite increasingly stringent quotas. Cod catches dropped 62 per cent from 234,000 tonnes in 1983 to 89,000 tonnes in 1991, while haddock fell from 159,000 to 45,000 tonnes over the same period.
Under a new independent Marine Stewardship Council, the programme plans to establish standards aimed at lessening the impact on other marine species.
But, more importantly, the hope is that by finding agreement over stipulated catches and the methods used in fisheries around the world sources of fish will be allowed to renew themselves. To enforce the standards, the MSC, which will be independent of producers and government, may use satellite monitoring to check vessels' movement and genetic fingerprinting of fish to verify where they were caught.
The scheme is modelled on the Forest Stewardship Council to promote sustainable forestry which will this year see wood products labelled to show they come from environmentally acceptable sources.
Michael Sutton, director of WWF's endangered seas campaign, said: "Consumer power is an extremely effective force for conservation."