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Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Wednesday, 18 October 2006 13:35 UK

If cod is so scarce, why can I still buy it?

The Magazine answers...

Cod and chips
The national dish
North Sea cod are in danger of dying out without a complete fishing ban, scientists say. So where does the cod on the fish counter or in the chippie come from?

Cod has long been a firm favourite in the UK, whether served in batter with chips, nestled in a fish pie or given the full gastro treatment. Britons eat one-third of all the cod consumed in the world, and 85% of cod caught in European waters is destined for our plates.

But our taste for cod has dangerously depleted stocks in the cold, deep waters around the UK. Tough fishing quotas were introduced in 2004, and campaigners have urged retailers to sell only cod from sustainable sources.

So why, as scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea warn for the fifth year running that a complete fishing ban is the only way to revive North Sea stocks, is the fish still for sale?

The majority of cod for sale on fish counters in supermarkets and in frozen meals is from sustainable sources such as Iceland or the Barents Sea, or from the Baltic, where over-fishing has not been such a problem, says WWF's fisheries policy officer, Tom Pickerell.

"This means the consumer doesn't have to make a conscious decision to buy cod from sustainable stocks - they just do."

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So who buys the small amount of cod still being legally fished in the North Sea? The 2006 quota is just 23,000 tonnes - a 70% reduction on the amount fished in the 1970s.

"A bit goes to catering. A bit goes to fish and chip shops. A bit goes to frozen food firms. And a bit goes to local fish markets on the North Sea coast," says Oliver Knowles, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace.

All of which can be more anonymous about where their fish is sourced from, unlike the major supermarkets, most of which have begun to make a virtue of where their fish comes from.

A year ago, Greenpeace published a league table of how the UK's leading supermarkets fared when it came to selling seafood from sustainable sources. Only two of the nine major chains - Marks and Spencer and Waitrose - had policies to do so, and so only sold line-caught cod from Iceland.

Twelve months on, seven of the nine have made commitments to sell only sustainable seafood, including Morrisons and Asda, which last year languished at the bottom of the league table.

Recipe for change

Likewise, when eating out, the type of venue that will declare the green credentials of their cod - if it is on the menu at all - is the type of venue that goes in for seasonal and organic produce.

Cod stocks are under pressure
And while there have been sightings of the occasional chippie that refuses to sell cod, provenance isn't much of a selling point in the deep-frying industry. Which is not to say that that fish supper includes cod from at-risk stocks. "A lot of it will now come from sustainable sources because it's a guaranteed supply," says Mr Pickerell.

But buying cod from where supplies are - for now - plentiful is not the answer. That simply shifts pressure around the globe.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that three-quarters of commercially valuable fish stocks around the world are over-exploited, and that 90% of species such as cod and swordfish have already been lost.

Nor is it simply a matter of eating different types of fish. Environmental campaigners want a ban on beam-trawling, which drags heavy nets along the seabed - 70% of what's caught is thrown back, dead or dying, and at-risk cod is also caught this way by fishing boats chasing haddock and whiting.

"We're strip-mining fish from the sea," says Mr Knowles. "We need to look at where our fish comes from, and how it comes from the sea."

But that isn't to say we should stop eating fish, says Mr Pickerell. "You can eat fish three times a week - and if that means cod once a week, that's fine. But try different species and only buy sustainably-caught fish."


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