The concern expressed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that supermarkets in Europe and North America might inadvertently include Marine Stewardship Council-certified Barents Sea cod with the Atlantic cod they propose to ban from their stores comes far too late to have any effect. The damage has been done.

For some considerable time, environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations have been bombarding us with messages to stop eating cod because it is being over-fished and stocks are in danger of being wiped out. For the WWF to now say that some cod stocks are, in fact, responsibly managed and cod caught in these waters is all right to eat, is rather like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The pressure being exerted on consumers to stop buying cod started long before “sustainability” became the biggest buzzword in seafood retailing. That the message was very much being taken on board was neatly illustrated when the Norwegian Seafood Export Council met with food editors and other members of the consumer press in London some years ago to explore how whitefish species being farmed in Norway should be positioned in the market.

When the discussion got around to cod, the consumer editors said with one voice, “But we’re telling our readers not to eat cod.” When questioned as why they were telling their readers this, the answer was, “Because cod is being over-fished and the species is in danger.”

British processors had to try and explain that, although this might be the case in certain areas, it was not true in others. This exercise was doomed to failure. The great majority of consumers don’t know where cod is caught and that it would be O.K. to catch it in some areas, but not in others. Cod is now an endangered species as far as they are concerned, and that’s that.

The attitude of the press hasn’t changed either, at least not in the UK. In an article about the small fishing port of Ramsgate, which was published in the Daily Telegraph weekend section on 4 September, the author used the phrase “cod provokes a shudder” when talking about how sensitive the attitude has become to certain fish species.

According to industry analyst Erik Hempel, cod prices have fallen sharply in recent months, more than for competing wild whitefish species, but sales have not increased as would have been expected in this situation. Have consumer attitudes been responsible for the poor sales? It is probably too early to be so specific, but they certainly have played a part.

So, what are the prospects for cod sales in the future? Alfred Schumm, leader of WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative, says that it would be “excessively heavy-handed and unnecessary” for supermarkets to de-list cod from the Barents Sea fishery from their shelves. “The MSC-certified Barents Sea cod is undoubtedly one of the best options at the fish counter,” he states.

Doesn’t Mr. Schumm realize how much effort it takes to change consumer attitudes? And only consumers clamoring to buy cod can persuade supermarkets to stock it. The WWF should have broken ranks and been making its position clear, long before now. 

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