Stein in deep water for using fish under threat

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The Independent Online

Since starting his multimillion-pound food empire in the Cornish port of Padstow, Rick Stein has become the most famous fish chef in the land.

Yet last night he found himself on the wrong end of conservationists' complaints about his continued sale of threatened species, particularly cod and skate, and his approach to the crisis facing the fish from which he has made his fortune.

For while Stein has transformed Padstow - nicknamed "Padstein" by locals - into a foodie paradise with his signature Seafood Restaurant, three other restaurants and a seafood cookery school, Britain's biggest sea charity, the Marine Conservative Society (MCS), says he should be more careful what he puts on the menu.

Stocks of wild fish have plunged to perilous levels as a result of overfishing sanctioned by EU politicians ignoring warnings from scientists.

Stein's packed restaurants sells species such as plaice, monkfish and turbot which are on the "fish to avoid" list produced by the MCS, which criticises his sale of local cod.

At first Stein's publicist insisted all the cod he served came from Iceland rather than locally. She later refused to say where the Seafood Restaurant's cod came from but yesterday "local cod" was on the menu with chips and tartar sauce for £17.50.

Leading supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer will not sell British cod because stocks are so low.

According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which advises the European Union, there is very little information about the state of cod stocks off the coast of Cornwall and recommends a reduction in fishing.

"All cod stocks are overfished with the exception of north-east Arctic stock (Barents and Norwegian Sea)," said Bernadette Clarke, senior fisheries officer at the Marine Conservation Society.

Another concern is skate. Although Stein says he does not sell skate, his website lists the fish - "a personal favourite" - on a sample menu served with black butter and capers for £25. Yesterday his fishmongers was advertising "locally caught skate" and selling a similar species, rays.

"We think skate and rays shouldn't be sold," said Ms Clarke. "They are certainly not sustainable fisheries and we wouldn't expect Rick Stein to be serving them in his restaurants. It's shocking there is still a market for something that's critically endangered and extinct in the Irish Sea." She said that although Stein was "always promoting his environmental consciousness" one television show revealed a more contradictory position.

She complained: "On one hand he was promoting Marine Stewardship Council, singing the praises of line-caught mackerel and then in the next demonstration he went on to cook skate and he made no mention of the perilous state of skate or the fact that it is being overfished."

In the past, Stein has spoken in support of the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organisation based in London that certifies individual fisheries and companies as sustainable.

The council thanked Stein for his support but wished to "discuss" with him what he sold in his restaurants - which are not certified. A spokeswoman said: "We want him to go all the way and get certified himself ... If he says all his fish come from sustainable stocks then why doesn't he prove it?"

Stein defended himself, saying he had "regularly spoken" about dwindling fish stocks. "In all my fish books from Seafood Odyssey but notably The Seafood Lover's Guide I made a great deal of comment about overfishing," he said.

"We don't sell skate which was the species Greenpeace was very concerned about. Although I refer to 'skate with black butter' on the menu it is actually blond ray. This is one of the six species of ray regularly fished and I'm not aware that there is a shortage of blond ray in Cornwall."

He explained: "My policy has always been only to sell local fish and to use inshore fish, and line- caught fish wherever possible on the grounds that I don't think the inshore fishing industry has ever been or ever will be a threat to stocks nationally.

"Cod is under pressure everywhere but there is more cod off the Cornish coast than anywhere else."

The Marine Conservation Society said that Stein was one of many celebrity chefs failing to heed the collapse of fish stocks. "We feel these people are public figures and they can use their position," said Ms Clarke.

"If they were on a soapbox 24/7 they would lose some of their popularity but there's plenty of scope in their work to raise awareness and to encourage consumers to think more about the fish they eat."

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