When you search online for picturesque villages in the UK, it comes as no surprise that the results show quaint fishing villages with painted stone houses lining cobbled streets and fishing nets scattered around a sheltered harbour packed with boats. You can almost hear the masts clinking in the breeze and your mind wanders to thoughts of eating ice creams walking along the seafront with the sun warming your neck or eating fish and chips in a cosy restaurant on a blustery day. But when you look at the menus offering fresh fish, creamy prawn linguine, pan-fried salmon and traditional cod and chips, is this fish actually caught on the fishing boats you see? And has it been caught sustainably?
Bernadette Clarke, of the Marine Conservation Society, explains that we currently export “around 75% of fish caught and landed in the UK, but we’re the ninth largest importer of fish in the world, with around 70% of the seafood value entering the UK fish supply chain coming from overseas” (MCS UK).
Many of the coastal restaurants buy from regional wholesalers selling at prices local fisherman can’t compete with. Fishermen tend to sell at local markets in smaller quantities, at low prices to wholesalers or to companies who export fish for processing. This creates tensions between the tourist industry who benefit from the influx of tourism and local fisherman.
The origins of the fish you find in supermarkets will be found on individual packets and the top 10 importers of fish (by value) to the UK are listed below, ranked by their distance from the UK.
This reality that we import 75% of our seafood is shocking and seems counterintuitive for an island nation; UK net imports of 290,000 tonnes in 2016 were worth £1.4bn (UK Sea Fisheries Statistics, House of Commons Library Number 2788, 2017). Importing fish is not only costly, but it also impacts the environment. Some fish, Scottish salmon, in particular, is landed or caught in the UK, exported for processing and reimported to the UK. Prawns are commonly imported over 7,000 miles from Indonesia where they are farmed intensively.
Eating locally caught fish would reduce the product miles of the produce we eat, as well as supporting our fishing industries. But why don’t we eat UK-landed fish? Quite simply, the majority of fish caught by the UK fleet such as mackerel and herring is exported because the species caught do not meet UK tastes. This is reflected in the fish most commonly seen on our tables are the top five fish imported to the UK: salmon, cod, tuna, prawns, and haddock (HMRC Via British Trade, YE August 2017).
Whilst it is possible to find some of these popular fish which have been landed in the UK, it is also important to identify other factors when looking for sustainably sourced fish; the Marine Conservation Society explains that “The sustainability of fish can vary significantly depending on how and where it has been caught or farmed. Many single species are caught or farmed in a variety of ways and this range shows that, within a species, some sources may be more sustainable than others”. They identify three main factors against which they rate fish on a scale of 1 -5, with 1 being a ‘best choice’ and 5 being a fish ‘to avoid’:
- Type of fish: Atlantic Cod or Pacific Cod;
- Method of production: farmed or caught at sea;
- Means of catching: line caught, harpoon, line caught etc.
The results from the Good Fish Guide identify fish such as Megrim from Rockall, the northern North Sea, and West of Scotland; North Sea line and trap caught Turbot; North Sea and Rockall caught Coley and Lemon Sole from the English Channel as potential sustainable alternatives to our existing mealtime favourites. The importance of the difference of production and capture methods are illustrated in the example of Megrim, a flat fish from the brill and turbot family which can be cooked like sole or plaice.
Whilst it’s not always easy to source these alternative types of fish in major supermarkets, we recommend supporting your local fishmongers who will supply a wide range of fresh, locally caught fish. If you’re looking for convenience, YouK also lists several companies who deliver fresh fish to your door. The Cornish Fishmonger, for example, “is fully committed to supporting local fishermen and working together with them and other industry stakeholders to ensure a bright sustainable long term future for both fish and fishing… We buy daily from local fisherman and the four quayside fish markets of Cornwall and South Devon”.
If you’re looking to make the transition to eating sustainably caught, local fish and supporting local industry, education is the place to start! By reading up on information available in the Good Fish Guide and speaking to your local fishmonger, you will be able to identify fish with a high sustainability rating landed in your region. YouK offers a unique approach, allowing you to search by dish types such as fish pie, paella or fishcakes to work what will fit best into your cooking routine.