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The Marine Stewardship Council announcement that cod stocks in the North Sea are well on their way to recovery — and could foreseeably reach a level where they would meet the MSC standard of sustainable certification — was welcome news in the U.K. on World Oceans Day.

The widely publicized news was music to consumers’ ears because it gives them permission to stop feeling guilty about eating cod and will hopefully lead to a lessening of the hysteria surrounding this species.  

Cod is iconic in the U.K. Wars have been waged over it, fortunes have been made and lost over it, and thousands of hours have been spent over the past few years by industry leaders, scientists and politicians, in efforts to rebuild dwindling stocks in the North Sea.

The good news about its current and future status was taken from an interim report on Project Inshore, led by U.K. industry authority Seafish, and launched by the U.K. Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon a year ago.

The project has been examining more than 450 inshore fisheries using the MSC’s sustainability standard as a benchmark to map stocks and their environmental and management status.

The report showed that cod stocks in the North Sea are indeed showing a strong recovery and that improved management measures put in place by industry have made a positive impact.  

The news was swiftly picked up by national papers, who called on various celebrity chefs to comment. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose recent “Fish Fight” TV programs on sustainable seafood angered many fishermen for what they considered to be a one-sided view, adopted a cautious tone and said that he would be waiting for full certification by the MSC before putting cod back on his menu.

However, in a notable change of direction, he was also quoted as saying, “If you know your cod is from a boat catching in a selective and low-impact way, or a trawler on the CCTV scheme for discard-free cod, then that’s the best choice you can make for British cod.” For many seafood buyers and certainly for the average consumer, asking such information is probably a step too far, so why did he mention it?

Just two weeks ago, Fearnley-Whittingstall joined a fishing trip on the pair trawler Budding Rose PD418, skippered by Peter Bruce. Peter is at the forefront of “The Real Fish Fight,” a website campaign set up by fishermen in response to Fearnley-Whittingstall’s program. Despite facing the full force of a North Sea gale, the boat caught a bumper harvest of large cod and the celebrity chef learned all about the Scottish Government’s pilot “Cod Catch Quota Scheme,” set up as part of the “Cod Recovery Scheme,” in which participating vessels operate a fully documented cod fishery and land all cod caught, regardless of size and marketability.

At the heart of this scheme are the CCTV cameras Fearnley-Whittingstall referred to, which record and verify the catch. Despite the fact that only a few boats are operating under this trial scheme in 2013, it appears that Fearnley-Whittingstall took careful note and wants the fishermen to think he is really on their side!  

The MSC also sounded a note of caution. “Things are a lot better than they were, but we can’t let up just yet,” said Clare Pescod, Scottish Fisheries Outreach Officer.

Fishermen in the North Sea hope that the news will lead to greater demand for cod and with it, a rise in prices. If that turns out to be the case, then it will show that the general public reacts more readily to a popular news story than it does to reality. This is because in reality, most of the cod consumed in the U.K. does not come from the North Sea, but is imported from the Barents Sea, Norway, Iceland and the Pacific, and much of it is already MSC certified. In 2012, the UK fleet landed just over 12,000 metric tons (MT) from the North Sea, compared to imports of well over 75,000 MT.

Just recently, I asked a waitress in a seafood restaurant owned by another well-known TV chef what type of fish was in the fish platter. “It’s sustainable,” was her reply. On pressing for a specific species, she replied “I don’t know but it’s ok, it’s not cod!” Next time I ask I hope I will get a more informed and positive reply for this species.

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