North Sea cod is off the menu: here's what you should have with your chips instead

North Sea Cod

Those of an environmentally conscious disposition who also happen to enjoy a nice fish and chip supper might find themselves in a quandary in the coming months, as the Marine Stewardship Council announced that ‘sustainable’ certification of North Sea cod is being removed. 

The news will come as a blow to fisheries and comes just two years after North Sea cod was given the sustainable certification. It’s all happened because the latest scientific advice shows that cod populations in the North Sea are significantly smaller than previously thought. If fishing were to continue at its current rate, cod populations could collapse entirely. 

The certification, which allows seafood and fish products to carry a blue tick on the box to show it comes from a sustainable fishery, will be suspended from all MSC-certified fisheries which catch North Sea cod by October 24. 

Thankfully, that’s not to say cod is entirely off the menu. 

The UK consumes 115,000 tonnes of cod per year, but 94pc of that is imported from Iceland, Norway, and Russia where cod populations are better stocked. That includes most of the fish that is sold in fish and chip shops. 

This fluctuation in cod populations in the North Sea isn’t really anything new. In the 1970s, North Sea cod stocks peaked at around 270,000 tonnes but fell to just 44,000 tonnes in 2006, and recovered to 152,207 tonnes in 2017. 

However, according to Erin Priddle, UK and Ireland Programme Director for the Marine Stewardship Council, it’s not just over-fishing that has played a role in the decline of North Sea cod, climate change is also a major issue. 

Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“The seas are a dynamic and ever-changing ecosystem,” she explains. “However, changes in the marine environment are accelerating under climate-related impacts and will continue to present significant challenges for achieving sustainable fisheries unless we can find ways to adapt management and fishing practices to ensure fishing can be carried out sustainably.

“Going forward, it will be critical to deepen our understanding of warming seas on fisheries, as well as improving the science and monitoring needed to ensure the future sustainability of fisheries across the globe. For North Sea cod, we look forward to seeing improvements in science and monitoring, and working with the fishing sector as they develop their plans to restore this ecologically and culturally valuable stock.”

However, some people believe that the whole concept of ‘sustainable fish’ is flawed from the outset. Aatin Anadkat is one such voice. The entrepreneur is the former owner of The Fish And The Chip, a modern fish and chip shop, but closed the business down entirely after researching the sustainability of the industry. 

“When we launched in 2017 it was a modern take on a fish and chip shop – allergen friendly, everything made fresh and giving something a little bit different,” he told the Telegraph. “We embraced plant-based food from the outset.”

But after taking all other meat off the menu and aiming to only use ‘sustainable’ fish, Anadkat’s research led him to conclude that he was still part of the problem. “When we did research on how the fishing industry is working, it felt very suspicious. The term sustainable fish doesn’t really add up. For us, it didn’t feel like the right way to carry on.”

He points out that recently the EU announced it had reached its fishing quota meaning that for the rest of this year, the fish we eat will have to be subsidised from other parts of the world, causing local populations in other parts of the world to lose out. 

“This is why fish and chips is so contentious – it’s a well loved British dish and so to say to someone that you shouldn’t have it – well the MSC might say it’s sustainable, but when you look at the figures that 30 or 40 years ago stocks were at 70 tonnes and now they’re 45 – clearly it’s not sustainable. 

“We’ve not even talked about the by-products – the broken nets, the damage to the coral reefs – there’s so much that happens that we don’t think about. It’s not a romantic business, it’s not one man going out on his boat to catch our supermarket fish. It’s nothing like that.”

Anadkat and his family have pivoted to an entirely vegan diet and created a new business, Positive Kitchen + Co, to reflect the change. 

However, for those who aren’t quite ready to embrace veganism, there might be some other ways to enjoy fish while also looking out for the ocean’s ecosystems, according to a spokesperson for the Marine Stewardship Council who spoke to the Telegraph. 

“”The cheaper fish tend to be more sustainable,” she explained. “The more abundant, the more sustainable. Mackerel is great, hake is great. Go for them.”

You can also consider pollock, haddock, and cod from the Pacific, Iceland or Norway. 

To help get you started on diving into a new, more sustainable fish diet, here are a few recipes from the Telegraph Food’s extensive archive to help you find some new fishy favourites. 

Diana Henry’s Indian-spiced mackerel fillets with mango, lime and 
chilli salad

Credit: Haarala Hamilton

SERVES

Four

INGREDIENTS

For the mackerel

  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed to 
a purée

  • 3cm cube of fresh ginger, peeled and grated to a purée

  • 2 tsp turmeric

  • 1 tsp ground cumin

  • 1 tsp ground fenugreek

  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste

  • ½ tbsp groundnut oil

  • 4 tbsp lime juice, plus wedges for squeezing

  • 8 mackerel fillets

  • oil, for frying

  • cooked rice, to serve

For the salad

  • 2 just-ripe mangoes

  • 1 tsp caster sugar

  • juice of 2 limes

  • 1 red chilli and 1 green chilli, halved, deseeded and finely cut

  • 10g coriander (leaves and 
stalks, but make sure the stalks aren’t too long)

  • sea-salt flakes

METHOD

  1. Mix together the garlic, ginger, all the spices and tamarind paste. Stir in the oil and lime juice, and season.

  2. Spread this all over the mackerel fillets, cover and put in the fridge for about 15 minutes (longer is fine).

  3. Peel the mangoes and cut off the ‘cheeks’ (the bits that lie alongside the stone). Cut the cheeks into neat slices. Use the rest of the flesh from the mango for another recipe – or just eat it.

  • Stir the caster sugar into the lime juice. Put the mango slices in a serving bowl and add the juice, chillies and coriander and toss with some sea-salt flakes to taste.

  • Heat a thin film of oil in a large frying pan (or two) and, when it’s really hot, put the fish in, skin-side down. Let it cook over a high heat for a minute, then turn the heat down and cook for another minute.

  • Carefully turn the fish over – try not to tear the skin – and cook for another minute, flesh-side down. Put the fish on a plate flesh-side up. Squeeze some lime over the top and serve with the salad, wedges 
of lime and some rice.

  • Xanthe Clay’s mackerel, saffron, fennel and cauliflower pie recipe

    Credit: Andrew Crowley

    SERVES

    Four to six

    INGREDIENTS

    • 4 fillets of mackerel

    • 2 bulbs of fennel

    • 60g butter

    • 1 cauliflower

    • 1 tsp fennel seeds

    • 3 spring onions, sliced

    • 2g saffron (a large pinch)

    • 2 level tbsp flour

    • 260ml whole/semi-skimmed milk

    • 100ml double cream

    • 2 tbsp white wine

  • 1 x 400g tin of tomatoes

  • 1 small egg, beaten

  • 300g puff pastry

  • Flour, for dusting

  • METHOD

    1. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7.

    2.  Cut the mackerel into 3cm chunks. Heat a pan of well-salted water and slip the mackerel in. Cook gently for five minutes until just done. Drain. Keep the mackerel to one side.

    3.  Cut the fennel bulbs into eighths through the base. Heat half the butter in a large frying pan and cook the fennel until golden on both sides. Set aside.

    4.  Cut the cauliflower into florets and slice the stem. Cook in the frying pan until patched with gold. Stir in the fennel seeds and spring onions and cook for another couple of minutes.

    5. Bash the saffron to a powder in a pestle and mortar and stir in two tablespoons of warm water.

    6. Heat the remaining 30g of butter and stir in the flour. Cook for two minutes, until it smells biscuity, then stir in the milk, cream and wine. Simmer, whisking, to make a smooth sauce. Stir in the saffron and water. Leave to cool to room temperature.

  • Mix the vegetables and mackerel in the saffron sauce. Drain and roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the mixture. Pile into a one-litre pie dish, and brush the rim with egg.

  •  Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to the thickness of a pound coin and cut thin strips to cover the edge of the dish. Use the rest to cover the pie, trimming the edges and sealing them. Use any trimmings to decorate and cut a hole in the middle to let the steam out. Brush with beaten egg.

  • Bake for 30 minutes, until golden and puffed.

  • Angela Hartnett’s baked hake with mussels and spicy ’nduja recipe

    Credit: Haarala Hamilton

    SERVES

    Six

    INGREDIENTS

    • 1 side of hake weighing 500-600g, or six fillets

    • 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

    • 200g smallish mussels, well cleaned

    • 2 garlic cloves, sliced

    • 75ml white wine

    • 50g ’nduja (spicy pork paste)

    • 2 tbsp chopped coriander

    • 25g pine nuts, toasted

    METHOD

    1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6.

    2.  Line a large ovenproof dish with a double layer of parchment paper (this will help you lift the hake out when it is cooked).

  •  Drizzle the paper with some olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Place the hake in the dish, skin-side down.

  • Place the hake in the oven and cook for eight-12 minutes, depending on how thick the fish is. You should be able to check when it’s done by putting a skewer through the thickest part – there should be no tension.

  •  Cook the mussels to be ready at the same time as the hake. Place a saucepan over a medium heat and add the mussels, two tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic and white wine.

  • Add the ’nduja, put the lid on the pan and cook until the mussels are just beginning to open. Discard any that haven’t opened. Throw in the chopped coriander and toss well.

  • Remove the hake from the oven and remove the skin by peeling it back like a plaster. Lift the fish out with the parchment paper and place on a serving plate. Tip the mussels on top of the hake, and finish with the toasted pine nuts.