Making the best choices for your fish supper

MEPs have banned wasteful practices to try to make EU fishing more sustainable. But it’s not just policymakers who can have an impact, argues the Marine Conservation Society. Bernadette Clarke explains choices consumers can make to help secure the future of fish

Our seas are under real pressure. The first problem is that we are taking fish out of the sea faster than stocks can be replenished, the second is that it’s not just about how many fish we are catching, but how we are catching them and when. The result, in some cases, is seriously depleted fish stocks.

As consumers we have the power to make a real difference and help drive the market for sustainable seafood, by choosing fish from responsibly managed sources, and caught or farmed in ways that minimise damage to the marine environment. In particular, it’s important to consider where it is caught, by what fishing method and at what time of the year.

Here are some top tips from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the UK charity for seas, shores and wildlife, to help you make the right sustainable choice when buying seafood:

Look at the labelling
When buying wild-caught or farmed fish, look for the following labels as evidence of responsibly produced seafood: Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Soil Association organic label, and Naturland.

Avoid buying fish from overfished stocks
Around 80% of European fish stocks are overfished, putting many species under threat. See for information on fish from sustainably harvested stocks.

Download the Marine Conservation Society Pocket Good Fish Guide
The Pocket Good Fish Guide tells you which fish are the best sustainable choices, which fish you should avoid completely, and the fish you can eat just occasionally to reduce pressure on their stocks.

Choose fish caught using methods with lower environmental impact
Where possible, buy fish caught using the most selective method available. For example, line, diver, pot, trap-caught or hand-gathered. Not only are the fish generally better quality, but unwanted marine species, otherwise known as ‘by-catch’, are avoided, as is damage to the seabed.

Avoid buying small, undersized fish that have not reproduced
The MCS Seasonality Table gives details of fish sizes and maturity at different times throughout the year and advises on when not to buy certain fish species.

Where possible, avoid buying fish during their breeding season
In particular, avoid ‘berried’ or egg-bearing lobster and crab. See our Seasonality Table for information on spawning times or our Fish of the Month recipes guidance on cooking seasonal fish.

Avoid buying endangered and vulnerable species
For example, species that are long-lived, have low reproductive capacity and are slow to mature, such as sharks, skates, rays and deep-water species such as orange roughy. For more details, see the MSCs Fish to Avoid section.

Choose organic
Organically farmed fish have lower stocking densities and are fed more sustainable feeds, thus reducing the problems associated with farming of fish generally. Look out for organically certified products.

Diversify your choice
Variety is the spice of life, but we rely heavily on too few species. Over 70% of the seafood consumed in the UK comes from only five types of fish: cod, haddock, tuna, prawns, and salmon. Try an alternative, lesser known species such as dab, pouting, herring, red gurnard or saithe (coley).

Top tips for the big five:

Only buy skipjack or yellowfin tuna caught using low impact methods such as trolling, pole and line, or handline.

There are two basic types of prawns: cold-water and warm or tropical prawns. Avoid wild-caught tropical prawns. Only buy cold-water prawns from fisheries where sorting grids are used to reduce by-catch. If buying farmed tropical prawns, organically certified is the best choice.

Cod and haddock
Increase the sustainability of the cod or haddock you eat by only choosing fish from sustainable or well-managed fisheries, and by choosing line-caught fish only.

Avoid eating wild-caught Atlantic salmon from rivers where stocks are below safe conservation limits. See Environment Agency or Marine Scotland Science guidance for information on sustainable sources. Alternatively, choose organically farmed salmon or wild-caught Pacific salmon from Alaska.