Fish is well known as a great healthy food – low in fat, high in protein and full of essential vitamins and minerals. The bad news is that industrial fishing techniques are destroying stocks, and some of our most popular fish species are now at risk of extinction. What do we need to consider for ethical fish-eating?
“Thou shall have a fishy on a little dishy….” – while the lyrics of this traditional folk-song were altered for popular consumption, we all love the idea of fresh fish straight off the boat. This conjures up the cry of seagulls echoing over a small harbour, and a delicious bounty of fat fish just ready to be lightly cooked and eaten.
What makes fish so good for us? As well as being delicious when prepared properly, fish has many nutritional benefits. There are two main types of fish. ‘White’ fish such as cod, haddock and plaice have oil only in their liver, and tend to live near the bottom of seas or rivers. Oily fish have up to 30% oil in all their body tissues. These fish live near the surface – the high level of oil in their tissues makes them float more easily. Species in this group include trout, pilchards, sardines, herring and salmon.
White fish is an excellent source of low-fat protein, and oily fish are a good source of vitamins A and D. Oily fish are also recommended because of their high omega-3 fatty acid content. While omega-3 does not have the magic powers often mentioned by those who sell supplements, it is an essential part of diet. It helps growth and development in children, and in adults it lowers the risk of heart disease by reducing blood pressure and the occurrence of clogged arteries. Smaller fish are eaten with their bones, which provide extra calcium and phosphorus to help our own skeletons and teeth.
Oily fish do need to be very fresh if they are to be eaten with only simple cooking. They spoil more quickly than white fish as the oil turns rapidly rancid. The good news is that these fish are just as nutritious when tinned or frozen, and work well with sauces and spices. White fish also freeze well, and are staples as fillets, battered fish or in the great British fish and chips. Do be aware that deep-fried fish is a treat due to high fat levels – your recommended two portions per week should ideally be cooked in another way.
The two different habitats of these types of fish affect how they are caught, and hence their sustainability. Oily fish are easier to catch without the huge levels of collateral damage caused when unwanted species are caught in nets. Because they are away from the ocean bottom, there is no need to drag nets along the fragile seafloor, and the oily fish shoal is less likely to contain other sea-life.
Although the picturesque small fishing boats do still operate, they are now overwhelmed by the big industrialised boats and their huge nets. Mass fishing can be incredibly wasteful, as tons of ‘by-catch’ of the wrong species or fish that are simply too small are thrown back dead. With these ultra-efficient nets, fish are caught before they have a chance to breed and the population is further reduced.
As a result of these practices, stocks of many popular fish are now dangerously low. Favourites such as cod, haddock, plaice and tuna are becoming rare, as anyone who has watched the prices will know. Happily there is hope for the future, with the establishment of the Marine Stewardship Council. They are based in the UK, but have an international remit to promote sustainable fishing and safeguard our fish stocks. Unlike many similar organisations, the MSC actually makes a difference by working with fishermen, government bodies and consumers. They monitor fish populations and catches, and their blue label scheme really does assure shoppers that they are buying sustainable fish.
What can we do so that we can enjoy fish with a clear conscience?
Finally, make the most of opportunities if you are at the seaside, especially if you are lucky enough to live there. Ask for local fish or seafood and enjoy a treat.