What is a Sustainable Fish?

by JohnTannahill

Are certain types of fish sustainable and others not? Are there certain species that we should be eating more of and others less?

Cod, Tuna and Salmon may be the world's most favourite fish, but they're under threat from over-fishing. In some cases, the numbers our fishing industries are allowed to catch are limited by quotas. As they become scarcer in the seas, they become scarcer in the markets and that pushes up their price. Our consciences and our shopping budgets are driving us to look for more sustainable fish. But, what exactly is a sustainable fish?

Is the Sustainable Fish a Myth?

Yes, but sustainable fishing isn't.

There is actually no such thing as a sustainable fish. Or to be more precise, all and no fish are sustainable unless they’re farmed, and fish farming is a complicated issue in itself. Wild fish populations are self-sustaining, they breed, and all mankind can do is reduce their present numbers by fishing. All fish species are vulnerable to over-fishing, some more than others. All fish species will recover from over-fishing unless populations are reduced to the point where extinction is inevitable, or their environment is damaged. Some will recover faster than others. There is no fish species so plentiful that we can harvest as much as we like without any impact. In that sense, the sustainable fish is a myth. So, why is there so much talk about eating more sustainable fish?

What we really mean is fish that’s sourced under a sustainable regime. That doesn’t sound quite as catchy as ‘sustainable fish,’ does it? Try saying ‘sustainably fished fish.’ That’s no better. It’s understandable that people should use the term, sustainable fish, but they’re completely missing the point.

Picture credit - Morues fraîchement pêchées aux Îles-de-la-Madeleine en 2006 by Matthieu Godbout from the Wikimedia Commons and under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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What can we do to conserve fish stocks?

Should we be eating less fish? I don’t think we have to, and I certainly don’t want to. What’s required is a fishing industry that doesn’t over-exploit selective species like Cod and Haddock. Here in Europe, this is achieved via a system of quotas, but that causes problems for businesses that rely on fishing and selling fish. What’s required is a fishing industry that targets a broader range of fish species, spreading the load and not singling out our old favourites.

I’m no fishing expert, but I do understand the basics of business. It’s all very well asking the fishing industry to catch a broader range of fish, but that’s no use if there’s no demand for them all. That’s where we, the consumers, can help by buying and eating a wider variety of fish species. We don’t have to feel guilty about eating Cod and Haddock, for example. (All this nonsense about ‘guilt free’ fish recipes is quite annoying.) Nor should we feel virtuous about eating Coley or Pouting. The variety is what counts.

You’ll hear a lot of talk about how great the less popular types of fish taste but, to be honest, there’s a reason why they are less popular. In terms of taste, texture, firmness and colour, they don’t quite have the same appeal. They don’t fall far short, but they’re not a perfect match. The answer, once more, is variety. Over the past few months, I’ve been looking for recipes that create a real tasty treat from the less popular white fish like Pollock and Hake. I’ve published my ten favourite recipes on a Squidoo lens - White Fish Recipes. I hope you like the recipes.

Useful links

Let me know if you have any more useful links about sustainable fish.

UK Channel 4 website - Sustainable Fish
I found this site very useful. It's a spin off to The Big Fish Fight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and there are some good recipe links.

Updated: 02/12/2013, JohnTannahill
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katiem2 on 02/17/2013

Interesting, and yet I am interested in knowing where the fish I cook comes from and or how it's raised and processed. Great Read. :)K

JohnTannahill on 11/24/2012

Yes, the term sustainable is very trendy at the moment. The same goes for 'sustainable energy.' There is no such thing, but there is such thing as sustainable energy production. Call me a pedant if you like.

katiem2 on 11/24/2012

The term Sustainable is very trendy, many don't know what it means, great explanation and facts on sustainable fish. The chefs on the cooking network always say, use sustainable fish. :)K

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