To eat, or not to eat?

Published on
July 18, 2011

Buying guides are a popular way to help consumers make sustainable seafood purchasing choices, but does their advice make sense? And should opinion-formers such as chefs and food writers put more care into ensuring that their advice is accurate?

The purpose of the various “fish-to-eat/fish-to-avoid” lists is to help consumers make purchasing choices that will reduce pressure on over-exploited fish stocks. This is a laudable aim, but it is difficult to quantify if there have been any discernable effects of such campaigns, other than to spawn a new lexicon of sustainability definitions amongst writers of food columns and restaurant guides.

Most SeafoodSource readers understand that buying guides’ general aim is to persuade consumers to always eat small, oily pelagic fish, to avoid eating farmed salmon, cod and other trawl-caught groundfish.

Use of the word “avoid” is puzzling, because surely you either eat a fish or you don’t? However, it seems that in the language of sustainability, avoid means that you can eat fish as long as they are expensive and you don’t do it too often. Another favourite phrase is that we should “eat responsibly.” This seems to mean that it is OK to eat the fish in question if it is expensive and beyond the purchasing power of ordinary mortals. Thus, it is OK to “responsibly eat” the occasional Dover sole in a Michelin-starred restaurant but not if it turns up on the menu of the local fish-and-chip shop.

For those of us not able to afford to “responsibly eat” an expensive species, we are implored to look for a “sustainable alternative.” This seems like good advice until you do the math and realize that if we all took this advice and switched to the sustainable alternative, then it too would rapidly come under pressure and become unsustainable. This is particularly concerning when the suggested alternative species is from a data-deficient stock. 

A good example of flawed advice on this subject appeared in a cookery article in a recent edition of the Daily Telegraph, a UK broadsheet that has often been keen to dispense sustainability advice through the well-known environmentalist, Charles Clover. In the article in question, the celebrity chef of the day suggested that a more sustainable replacement for wild Atlantic salmon in a recipe would be wild sea trout, known as “sewin” in Wales and as “peel” in the West of England. In cookery terms it was good advice, but in terms of sustainability it was complete nonsense. Wild sea trout are extremely rare and highly unlikely to be encountered in a high-street fishmonger. 

Behind all the discussions on sustainable seafood supplies are two simple facts: First, there is not enough seafood to supply the world’s population with the quantities considered by nutritionists to be the minimum for good health. And second, this situation is going to get a lot worse. No amount of posturing amongst those who treat this subject as a fashion statement will change these two facts, when what is needed is more focus on the key things that will make a real difference.

We need to produce more seafood through aquaculture, and also to make better use of the fish we have. It is therefore good to hear of the drive to reduce discards through the revised Common Fisheries Policy, Europe’s fisheries-management system. It is also likely that we will hear more of the latest sustainability advice, which is that we should eat “fish that would otherwise be discarded.” Hopefully the writers and broadcasters on this subject will check their facts better than a chef on a recent BBC radio program, who insisted that his recipe for fish soup was sustainable, because it used fish that would otherwise be discarded such as John Dory, monkfish and squid. These are prized species that are highly unlikely to have ever been thrown away through lack of a market.

To eat or not to eat, that is the question. And it is far too important a question to be decided by the celebrity chef of the day.

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