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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 21:54 GMT 22:54 UK
Has the fish supper had its chips?
Rupert Howes (Image: MSC)
Rupert Howes

Fish stocks around the world face an uncertain future because of overfishing. However, Rupert Howes from the Marine Stewardship Council uses this week's Green Room to argue that fish do not have to be taken off the menu.

Fish and chips (Image: BBC)
Let's vote with our wallets by choosing sustainably sourced fish when walking down the supermarket aisle and eating at restaurants
Do you still feel good about eating fish?

Or are you pondering over restaurant menus and cook books, trying to figure out which fish dinner will not contribute to depleting stocks?

Not an easy task if you bring to mind the numbers of stocks that are overfished or threatened by overfishing.

About half of the world's stocks are at their biological limit, and another quarter are overfished or depleted. This means that some of our favourite fish might disappear from seafood counters and restaurant menus altogether.

Not only would this be a tragedy from a culinary and health point of view, it would also mean that many fisheries would have to close down and thousands of people would lose their jobs.

Remember the Grand Banks disaster in the 1990s? Almost overnight, some 30,000 Canadians were suddenly without work when the once plentiful stocks of cod off the coast of Newfoundland completely collapsed because of overfishing.

Besides the negative impacts on fish stocks, marine habitats and livelihoods, irresponsible fishing practices are often associated with high levels of by-catch which can include other fish species and mammals, such as dolphins, porpoises and albatrosses that inevitably end up in fishing gear.

Money talks

So, should we stop eating fish altogether?

MSC certified fish on sale in a supermarket (Image: MSC)
A growing number of retailers are stocking sustainably caught fish

My advice is no. Boycotting seafood would lead to economic disaster for fisheries, including those that are sustainably managed.

Instead we should realise that we, the shoppers, have a very powerful tool at hand - our wallets. Let's vote with our wallets by choosing sustainably sourced fish when walking down the supermarket aisle and eating at restaurants.

The signal this sends to retailers and the supply chain is that there is strong demand for fish from sustainable sources. Only when we make our vote count at the checkout will the concerns about dwindling fish stocks and threatened marine ecosystems be heard.

But how do we know which fish to pick? The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) offers consumers a simple and reliable way to make the best environmental choice in seafood.

The international charity has developed an eco-label that makes it easy to spot seafood from sustainable fisheries.

Buying sustainably caught fish helps protect our oceans and their wildlife

Every fishery that is entitled to use the MSC's blue fish-tick label has gone through a thorough scientific assessment and has proven it lives up to the strict standard set by the MSC.

Independent experts evaluate the condition of the fish stock, the impacts the fishery has on the marine environment and look at the fishery's management system. Extensive consultation ensures that the experts' decision to certify a fishery is based on a broad consensus.

The MSC's fishery certification scheme is the only one in the world that is fully consistent with the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) "Guidelines for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries".

It is all about rewarding fisheries that operate in a sustainable way. Worldwide, there are now 21 fisheries certified to the MSC standard; six of them are located in the UK.

Among them is a mackerel fishery from Cornwall, in the south-west of England, where fishers use hand-lines. This is a very selective fishing method, meaning that hardly any fish other than the targeted mackerel end up in the boats.

Fisherman using a hand-line to catch mackerel (Image: MSC)
Not all forms of fishing are bad for the marine environment

The hand-lines allow fishers to take younger mackerel and other fish species off the hooks and put them back into the water alive. This way juveniles and non-targeted species can continue to thrive and spawn and keep stocks at a plentiful level.

Consumers can buy the Cornish hand-line-caught mackerel with the MSC's blue eco-label in UK supermarkets. The stores' fresh-fish counters feature whole and filleted mackerel when in season.

If mackerel isn't to your taste, look out for other fish products with the MSC fish tick. Alaska pollock, New Zealand hoki or South African hake don't contribute to overfishing and make delicious dinners.

Sustainable shopping

There are more than 70 products from certified fisheries available in UK supermarkets, and you can find the full list on our website.

Buying sustainably caught fish helps protect our oceans and their wildlife and I urge consumers to look for the label when shopping.

If you can't spot the blue logo, ask the staff for help. Retailers are very receptive to customer demands, so use your voice to create positive change.

In February 2006, the Barents Sea and Aleutian Island cod fishery became the first cod fishery in the world to receive certification to the MSC standard, and you can now buy it in Sainsbury's marked with our small, blue sign of sustainability.

The MSC offers a solution to the problem of overfishing so there is hope, even for cod.

Rupert Howes is the chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, the London-based charity that works to promote solutions to the problem of overfishing

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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