Sustainable fish: trawling for the truth
April 28, 2011 | By:

If we don't change the way we consume fish, there will be none left in the ocean by 2050. But with 'dolphin friendly' and 'responsibly farmed’ labels not always to be trusted, how do we know what to buy? By Elaine Lemm 

Sustainable-fishing-Fishing-Trawlers-620-BigstockHow easy it once was to wander by the local chippy and, seduced by the scent of freshly cooked fish and chips, guiltlessly grab a portion. A tin of tuna was simply something one threw into the supermarket trolley without a backward glance. No longer. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, by 2050 there will be no fish left in the oceans if we do not change the way things are right now. How terrifying is that prospect?

A call to action quickly had the big names – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver – and the big brands (Birds Eye and Selfridges, to name but two) declaring their support and promoting all things sustainable. But we lesser mortals who wish to join in soon discover that negotiating the minefield of rights and wrongs, when it comes to buying and eating fish and seafood, is not so straightforward.

An enormous amount of trust is required in the advice offered and in those who are handing it out. Recently, however, ClientEarth, an organisation of activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet, charged major retail suppliers in the UK with misleading the public. Claims such as ‘sustainably sourced’, ‘protects the marine environment’ and ‘responsibly farmed’ were deemed misleading or unverified on 32 products out of 100 examined.

‘Dolphin friendly’ labels, featured on tins of tuna caught in areas where there was often no threat to dolphins, masked or failed to mention the harmful effects of the tuna-fishing method, using ‘purse seine’ nets, on other threatened species such as turtles and sharks.

“It would be shocking to find out that the free-range chicken you bought was actually battery farmed. Discovering the fish you are eating, which is labelled as ‘responsible’ or ‘environmentally friendly’, actually led to the deaths of threatened species also leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” says James Thornton, ClientEarth’s CEO.

Many supermarkets are now taking steps to ensure the fish they sell is responsibly caught and farmed, but if in doubt ask them about their policies. Those with strong measures in place are usually shouting about it. Calls by ClientEarth for EU regulations on fish labelling should eventually help us all better understand what we are buying.

To support the fishing industry we must continue to eat fish and seafood. But which can we eat with a clear conscience? The lists change frequently as stocks of certain fish grow or decline, so keeping up to date becomes another challenge. Thankfully, there is help out there that is reliable and accessible. The Marine Conservation Society maintains updated lists on its website, which is useful to look at before shopping, or you can take its handy fish guide with you.

For info on the go, there are smartphone apps concerning sustainable fish, but these do not yet address UK or European waters. If you’re still confused, ask your fishmonger. If they can’t tell you what’s sustainable and what isn’t, shop elsewhere.

Becoming a responsible fish eater may be confusing and time consuming, but a world without fish is as unthinkable as a British high street without a chippy.