/ Food & Drink

How do you know if you’re eating sustainable fish?

Angry red fish, hapy blue fish

If you’re lucky enough to have a good local fishmonger you should find it easy to know if you’re buying sustainable fish. But what if you’re eating out or buying pre-packed fish at the supermarket?

When researching our recent magazine feature on fish labelling I realised how confusing it can be to make sure you’re buying sustainable fish when shopping.

And it’s even more confusing when dining out. Most restaurants give you the name of the fish but nothing about where it is from, how it was caught and whether it is from sustainable sources – unless, that is, you happen to be eating in a super-fancy place where a biography of the fish is given to you on the menu. And let’s face it – that doesn’t happen often.

Something fishy on the menu

I wonder how comfortable we would feel challenging a restaurant on where their fish had come from. Would the restaurateur be happy to answer these kinds of questions (you’d hope they would) and would they even know the answer themselves. To be honest, it’s never really occurred to me to ask but I’ll give it a try in future.

Luckily, the fish2fork.com website helps you make an informed choice about where you eat out. The website identifies which restaurants buy fish responsibly (Catch, The Captain’s Galley and Am Birlinn top its charts) and which restaurants need to improve. Bottom of the list is London’s Nobu which has endangered Bluefin tuna on its menu.

I don’t eat a lot of fish, not because of sustainability, but because I’m not a massive fan – basically I’ll eat it if it doesn’t smell or taste like fish, so I must admit I wasn’t totally tuned in to what I should and shouldn’t be eating. I know that I should be eating Pollock in place of Cod but beyond that, I was pretty clueless.

Reeling in the fish resources

I’ve found the Marine Conservation Society app a helpful resource as it lets you know which fish are good to eat, and which to avoid, based on whether they come from well managed, sustainable stocks or farms.

I’ve always looked for the sustainable label (MSC) when shopping for fish or tried to buy from supermarkets I expect to act responsibly. But now I’m a little more clued-up, I’ll also start asking about sustainability when I eat out.

Do you look out for the sustainability seal of approval when you buy fish? Have you tried to swap your usual choice for a less popular alternative? Are you as tuned-in looking for sustainable fish when eating out?


This is something we do think about and try to choose sustainable fish over endangered ones, but as you point out it isn’t always easy. The links that you gave are very useful and we will be using these to help from now on. The Marine Conservation Society link is particularly useful as it will run on i-phone or i-pad so you can take it to the restaurant with you.

What we really need is more cookery programs on TV telling us how to prepare and cook the alternative fish. It is no good telling the houswife to buy X instead of Y if she is not also told what to do with it. This is a role for the supermarkets as well, Waitrose used to do recipe cards, perhaps we could persuade them to do another series aimed specifically at sustainable fish.

Sophie Gilbert says:
19 July 2012

I’m like you, Shefalee, I’m not a great fish fan, but I carry the MCS’s pocket Good Fish Guide in my purse for when I buy some occasionally (my mobile is so old and plain it doesn’t do apps! :0) ). I tend to prefer it cooked professionally by others though, and the last twice I ate fish in a restaurant I was told without having to ask that it had been caught sustainably in the loch or bay I could see from my table. I took their word for it.

I think this country should ban fish caught unsustainably full stop, and that includes fish caught with too much by-catch. Then we’ll be able to go shopping or to the restaurant without having to wrack our brains or feel guilty.

I look forward to the day when the Marine Conservation Society closes down having finally managed to do its job… (That will be the day when money stops speaking louder than everything else.)

Agree about by-catch. Just throwing it overboard to comply with the law is no answer. Why is it not sold for animal feed or Bouillabaisse which surely does not need to be made with cod or dover sole.

I agree with Sophie about banning fish that are not sustainable, though perhaps that could be done over a couple of years for practical reasons.

I don’t think we can expect members of the public to investigate what they should and should not buy and there is plenty of evidence that many don’t care about environmental issues. Legislation is the only sensible way forward, but the case for it needs to be watertight to avoid criticism.

Neal says:
19 July 2012

Scotland’s west coast rivers have seen their wild sea trout and salmon numbers collapse since Salmon Farming started. The cause is now known and is a world wide side effect of salmon aquaculture. It is the effect of sea lice, a natural parasite, whose numbers explode because of the fish farms inability to control them. These non-natural lice explosions have a deadly impact on migrating wild smolts each spring. They simply disappear and become crustacean fodder. This foreign owned industry have scant regard for our indigenous fish and currently prefer to play a PR game where they deny everything. They are not able to do this in every market however and because of consumer and governmental pressure are trialling “enclosed” salmon farms in Canada, and they declare their farm by farm lice levels in other countries.
But it is fair to say they get away with murder here.
The sad thing is most of our multiple retailers and restaurants are complicit in a stampede for cheaper protein rather than sustainable and ethical foods.
Please don’t buy farmed salmon from Scotland and tell the people at the fish counters why.

You are absolutely correct, – unfortunately this is not widely known. I react strongly to the current situation wherein if a menu (or a fishretailers display) does not say that the fish is ‘wild’ then it means that it is farmed (instead of vice versa). Not long ago there was an attempt to start a fish farm in one of the most scenic beach areas of the Wexford coast (near Tramore – big beach in Gaelic). The company was Dutch and were banned from fish farming in their own country. It took an enormous co-ordinated local effort to get it stopped.

At one time, fish farming was seen as a way of preserving wild fish. Perhaps we could have guessed that it would not be that simple. Hopefully biological control may provide a solution to sea lice and other problems.

Of course we should be trying to stop human population growth worldwide, but mankind does not seem to have the intelligence to recognise the need.

The major flaw world wide is in the failure of the fishing industry,world wide to exert a discipline and restraint on their industries.

In Asia and the Far East Japan,Korea Indonesia having fished out their own waters have moved elsewhere with the same disregard for restraint in volume of fish taken.This extending to the Atlantic.

Europe,Spain,Portugal and now Iceland and the Faro ‘s have embarked on a take all and anything on the high seas.
The Grand Banks of Newfoundland are an example of the lack of conservation by so many nations.
The cod fisheries there are finished.
Around our coast,inappropriate techniques and equipment will restrict or eliminate species from some waters. The sea bottom,its garden is dredged.No control or management takes place.
Much to the detriment of man and a small gain for the greedy .

The Scottish fishing industry,it’s waters and relative disregard for the value of fish an excellent food is an example of how not to manage a fishing industry for the future.
Black fish landings,undeclared.Large high technology boats and equipment.
Mostly exported to Europe,France ,Spain.Jobs for the fishing industries boys,
Political acclaim yes.Find me a real fishmonger on land,where.

Off Arran on the Clyde there is a no go fisherman zone.We need many more.

LAMOT191 says:
23 July 2012

Why not stop eating fish altogether. No-one’s going to die for the lack of it. If beef became scarse, would everyone still keep eating it to oblivion?