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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
How not to get caught in the unethical fish trap
Over-fishing has taken its toll on marine life around the globe, prompting Europe to slash its trawler fleet. But what can diners do to be fish-friendly?

Pan-fried cod and skate wings in black butter have become staple dishes in many trendy UK restaurants and gastropubs. Great news for hungry diners, but not so great for the sea.

A trawler
Over-fishing will see many trawlers stay in port
The over-exploitation of cod - which has turned the once common fish into something of a rarity - is well known. The plight of the skate is less often highlighted, despite a slow reproductive cycle which makes it particularly vulnerable to over-fishing.

Eating seafood can be a minefield for the ethical consumer. Where, how and when a fish is caught dictates its environmental impact - and this information is seldom available on shop labels or menus.

Every fish has a tale

However, there is little danger that a fish set before you at one of Esther Boulton's tables will cost the earth.

Following criticism that her pub - The Pelican in London's Notting Hill - couldn't really call itself organic since it served fish from dwindling stocks, Ms Boulton drew up a strict seafood policy.

Some fish to avoid
  • Cod, if not from Iceland or Norway
  • Wild Atlantic salmon
  • Ling
  • Chilean sea bass, aka Patagonian toothfish
  • European hake
  • Grouper
  • Skate
  • Monkfish
  • Swordfish
  • Marlin
  • Snapper
    Source: Marine Conservation Society

  • She will only buy from fisheries which are sustainably managed and from small boats which use nets and lines unlikely to ensnare a large by-catch - the birds, dolphins and other sea life fishermen kill by accident.

    "Customer awareness about over-fishing is quite low, especially when compared to the public's knowledge of organic farming. But when we tell people about our fish policy they're always really interested," says Ms Boulton.

    While cod does get a look-in at The Pelican - if it can be sourced from certain grounds off Norway and Iceland - the fish policy has seen British catches such as John Dory, pollock and witch go on the menu.

    "Lots of diners have never had them before and need to ask what they taste like. It's good to encourage diversification and our chefs enjoy cooking whatever fish has come in."

    A sustainable fish supper does, of course, bump up your bill, but Essex-based supplier Ben Woodcraft says the market is growing.

    Saving fishermen

    "I began selling these fish because they're what the public seems to want. More people are becoming conscious of what they eat. It is more expensive, but you get what you pay for."

    Much of what Mr Woodcraft sells to businesses such as The Pelican comes from small day boats which operate just a few miles from the coast.

    Dolphin caught in a fishing net
    Dolphin with your dinner?
    A fisherman himself for 20 years, Mr Woodcraft says it's not only endangered fish that stand to gain from ethical consumers. The small fishing communities from which he buys and their skills will also be preserved.

    "Big firms with their factory ships and trawlers want to make as much money as possible. When the fish run out they'll invest in another business. For communities where sons, fathers and grandfathers have been fishermen, it's a way of life they want for the next generation."

    Day fishermen are the "last of the hunters" and are as concerned about the state of the seas as any environmentalist, Mr Woodcraft says. If consumers want to aid them and safeguard fish stocks, "they'll have to vote with their feet".

    Name that tuna

    That's often easier said than done, according to Bernadette Clarke of the Marine Conservation Society. Labelling in restaurants or at the fish counter is either non-existent or woefully inadequate, she says.

    "European Union regulations will soon see the area of capture and common name displayed on all fish packaging - but that's still too vague."

    Tony Blair enjoys fish and chips
    Make sure the haddock is actually happy
    Knowing that a fish comes from the Mediterranean, for instance, will not help the ethnical shopper. And since one man's endangered Patagonian toothfish is another man's Chilean sea bass, using so-called common names is open to abuse.

    It may involve a bit of research and perhaps the foregoing of your favourite supper, but exercising the same care when buying fish as many do when hunting out free-range eggs may help repair the damage done to our seas, says Ms Clarke.

    "It's sad that we've managed to muck up such a bountiful resource through greed and bad management."

    See also:

    28 May 02 | Europe
    28 May 02 | Science/Nature
    20 Jul 00 | UK
    15 Dec 00 | UK
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