NGO, columnist to UK consumers: Eat smaller fish

Published on
May 11, 2015

Is eating small fish the answer to the confusion as to which fish are acceptable to eat in this era of responsible fishing and sustainable stocks? Some environmental organizations seem to think so.

In an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper toward the end of April, food & drink columnist Xanthe Clay described what she called the seafood buying minefield. “What is the current thinking about cod? Is it better to buy farmed salmon or should I break the bank for wild? I know I should be packing in more healthy fish oils – but what about mercury contamination?”

These were the hypothetical questions she posed at the beginning of her article. She then went on to say that a study carried out by consumer trends agency Future Foundation and supermarket chain Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago showed that 40 percent of consumers were eating less fish because they were confused about what was and wasn’t sustainable.

And with fish stocks plummeting due to overfishing, destruction of habitat and pollution, the best way to navigate the minefield could be to stop eating fish altogether, Clay continued.

However, a more positive message is emanating from Oceana, an NGO which claims to be protecting the world’s oceans. In its “Save the Oceans, Feed the World” campaign, it aims to double the number of fish meals eaten internationally from 500 million to 1 billion a week, while increasing rather than depleting fish stocks.

Andrew Sharpless, Oceana’s CEO told Clay at the launch of the campaign that the key to eating fish from sustainable stocks was to consume small adults – not juveniles – of fish such as herring, sardines and anchovies.

The Peruvian anchovy was the species to concentrate on, he said, since they all virtually end up as fishmeal being fed to farmed fish such as salmon. According to Sharpless, the way to sustainable fish eating is to “just get people to eat anchovies instead of feeding anchovies to salmon.”

Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organization, not surprisingly pointed out that 25 percent of salmon feed comes from fish trimmings and, anyway, “fish feed turns small, relatively unpalatable bony fish into healthy edible fish protein.”

He certainly has a point. It is impossible to imagine that any other than perhaps a very tiny proportion of U.K. consumers would rather cook and eat whole anchovies than a piece of skinless, boneless salmon. Most British consumers, particularly young people, can’t even face whole fish with their heads and bones.

Indeed, at the launch of the Oceana campaign, distinguished chefs who had been invited to publicly commit to putting small fish on their menus admitted that they would meticulously, and no doubt laboriously, fillet the fish rather than risk offending their customers with bones and eyes.

In a recipe in Clay’s article provided by Ashley Palmer-Watts, celebrity chef Heston Blumental’s “right-hand man,” there were instructions to bone sardines using tweezers. Only extremely dedicated cooks would go that far.

In addition to eating small fish, Oceana also advocates eating locally caught fish. “If you are buying local fish, you are probably getting a fish that is well if not perfectly managed.” This seems eminently sensible, although it will greatly restrict the variety that can be bought.

The other two “rules” are very controversial. Don’t eat farmed fish – bivalve shellfish are an exception because they filter the water in which they grow – and don’t eat shrimps or prawns. The reason for this is that “shrimp farming usually involves destruction of a coastal zone” and “wild shrimp are caught with nets with very small holes in them, which means you catch everything.”

So the Oceana campaign has a very laudable goal, but since its recommendations to achieve this are so restrictive, people could just stop eating fish altogether.

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