The most sustainable fish to eat right now, and how to cook it

Savvy swaps and handy labels to look out for on your favourite seafood

arctic char
Credit: Getty

Once upon a time, we chose seafood according to what we fancied or could afford, with little thought for sustainability. We now know better.

The Marine Conservation Society estimates 90 per cent of fish stocks globally are fully or overexploited, with sea life under added pressure from climate change and pollution. But while most consumers want to make responsible choices, it’s far more complicated than many of us realise. Consult the MCS’s Good Fish Guide and it seems like choosing the most sustainable fish (green) and avoiding the worst (red) requires a marine biology degree. That’s because it’s not just the species that’s important; you need to know where and how the fish is caught.

For example, sea bass caught in the Bay of Biscay is now on the Guide’s red list because unsustainable fishing practices are killing increasing numbers of dolphins and porpoises. But according to Charlotte Coombes, the MCS’s Good Fish Guide Manager, wild sea bass is not caught this way in British waters and can be an OK choice (although still not recommended – farmed sea bass is better). “I appreciate it’s complicated,” Coombes concedes. “But asking someone in a fishmonger’s, fish and chip shop or restaurant where and how the fish was caught will highlight to them how important it is for customers to feel reassured their seafood is sustainable.”

Avoiding fish caught in ways that are most likely to harm the environment can also be part of choosing seafood wisely. Beam trawling, for example, involves dragging nets suspended from heavy beams along the seabed. “It can almost cheese-slice through habitats, so it can be quite damaging,” Coombes says. Dredging, widely used to harvest scallops, clams and oysters, can also destroy the seabed and unintentionally catch vulnerable species. Pots, traps, hand lines and pole lines, meanwhile, are considered the most sustainable fishing methods, being low intensity and safe for the seabed.

Chef Mitch Tonks, who runs the Seahorse restaurant in Dartmouth and the Rockfish chain of restaurants in the South West, believes we can make good seafood choices by following a simple premise: buy fish caught by British fishermen. “The British fishing fleet is well managed and sticks to strict controls, such as quotas and numbers of days at sea,” says Tonks, who is a pioneer of locally caught seafood. “If we start to think that all our fish will come from guys going to sea with a pipe and a yellow raincoat, it’s not going to happen.”

Whether we like it or not, Tonks argues, beam trawlers are a long-established part of the British fishing fleet and are responsible for catching 90 per cent of the fish landed at Brixham and Newlyn, two of Britain’s biggest fish markets. “If you say you shouldn’t eat anything from a beam trawler, you’re suggesting something that’s unattainable,” Tonks says. “My view is, buy British, know which fishing port the fish is from, and let’s hope that we can put enough pressure on the industry so it can change itself.”

Tonks urges consumers to choose fish carrying the “blue tick” eco-label, which is only applied to sustainable seafood certified to the Marine Stewardship Council Fisheries Standard, for which he is an ambassador. Many restaurants, fishmongers and fish-and-chip shops also sell MSC-certified seafood, so it’s a good idea to ask before you buy. More than 70 per cent of cod and 76 per cent of haddock eaten in the UK is now MSC labelled, so sustainable options are readily available if you look for it. The best farmed seafood options carry the Aquaculture Stewardship Council label.

Whether you vow to buy British seafood, opt for blue-tick-labelled fish or swot up on fishing techniques, every small effort can lead to changes for the better, Coombes says. “When people do sit up, pay attention to this stuff and make the right choices, it can make all the difference.”

Good fish swaps, according to the Marine Conservation Society

Cod

UK stocks are doing badly, but in Iceland and the Northeast Arctic they are at sustainable levels.

Swap for: hake, now a great sustainable choice.

Tuna

Sustainability depends on the species, location and fishing methods.

Swap for: handline-caught mackerel (caught in the South West is best, but any UK-caught mackerel is good).

Prawns

Can be sustainable depending on the species and where and how they were caught or farmed. Choose organic, MSC or ASC labels.

Swap for: rope-grown mussels or farmed oysters, which don’t need any feed or chemicals and get all they need from the sea.

Salmon

Wild Atlantic salmon is not doing well and most farmed salmon needs improving. Organic and Scottish ASC-certified farmed salmon is the better choice.

Swap for: Farmed Arctic char, ideally from the UK, or farmed rainbow trout.

Other good choices

Haddock from UK seas as well as Iceland and the Northeast Arctic is sustainable.

Dover Sole from the Bristol Channel and western English Channel are booming.