Fish & Chip Shop Dilemma

We all know that fish stocks are declining, but we are told that we should eat two portions of fish per week, and most of us indulge in the (hopefully) occasional fish and chip supper – so are our food habits compatible with living an ethical lifestyle?  In the second post trying to unravel the tangle that is the topic of sustainable fish I examine whether cod and haddock are OK to eat with a clear conscience.

Let’s deal with the easy bit first – unless you know where you local chippy is sourcing its fish from then, I am afraid, that the answer is a definite no.  I believe that there are fish and chip shops that do advertise the origin of their fish – but none of these are in Daventry.  If you can’t live without your take away, then I would suggest that haddock is a better choice than cod, but your conscience will still find you.

And so to the sustainability of cod and haddock.  Stocks of both have been overfished and in many areas continue to be so.  According to Greenpeace, most cod fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic are in poor condition, except for Iceland and the Barents Sea where there is better management.  All stocks are however, ‘overfished or at risk of being unsustainably harvested’.  Haddock has had a similar history, but there is a little more hope.  Northwest Atlantic stocks were overfished in US waters until the middle of the 1990s, but since then there has been some recovery.  Scientists now believe that some North Sea stocks can be fished sustainably, whilst West of Ireland and Icelandic fisheries need better management.  They are also recommending the closure of the fisheries of the West of Scotland.  A further complication arises from the fact that cod are also caught when fishing for haddock.

So, it would seem that maybe you can eat an occasional piece of cod or haddock with a clear conscience, but, as ever, it comes with a caveat.  It also matters how your fish is caught.  In common with lots of fish that live near the sea bed, a lot of cod and haddock is caught by bottom trawling.  Not only does trawling result in a large bycatch (typically 30% of the catch by weight is thrown back dead or dying – these are mammals, juvenile fish, turtles and sharks) but it also damages the sea bed.  Instead Greenpeace are recommending buying only line-caught fish – this is a more selective fishing method without the associated bycatch and the degradation of the seabed.

According to Greenpeace Atlantic cod and haddock should both be avoided unless the cod is from Waitrose or Marks and Spencer or is line caught or the haddock is Icelandic line caught.  But wait a minute, didn’t the scientists say that the Icelandic haddock fisheries need better management – they certainly did, and that all stocks are at risk from overfishing?  Does this help – I am not sure.  What makes Waitrose and M&S fish so special?  A look at Waitrose’s website and my local branch’s fish counter shows that the haddock and cod is indeed Icelandic and line caught, and this includes their prepacked breaded range.  M&S’s website leaves me with more questions than answers though.  Although M&S now source their cod and haddock from Iceland, their website states that the fish is air-freighted in – how is that sustainable?  Their cod is line caught, but, apparently the haddock is trawled or line-caught, and smaller haddock are caught from the west coast of Scotland.  This seems to go against the Greenpeace guidelines – maybe they just need to update their website?  I hope so – as it makes me start to question the validity of Greenpeace’s advice.

My take on cod and haddock?  Both are under pressure, fishing methods need to be changed to reduce the amount taken from the sea, and, we have to pay a little more, eat and waste a lot less and hopefully fish stocks may recover.   Will I eat cod and haddock again?  Probably, in the future, eventually, but I don’t need to eat fish more than every other month and I will insist on it being line caught.  In the meantime I will stick to my pole and line caught, Waitrose own brand, tinned tuna.

Tinned Tuna

There has been a lot of publicity about the imminent demise of tuna in the last year.  Whilst most of the attention has been on Bluefin tuna it opens a whole can of worms with regard to the tuna usually bought in UK supermarkets.

So, what are the different types of tuna and which ones do we commonly eat (fortunately Greenpeace has a helpful guide).  There are 23 types of tuna, and, according to Greenpeace, 22 of them are vulnerable.  The main market for the aforementioned Bluefin is Japan which takes 90% of the catch.  In the UK we consume some Yellowfin Tuna (sold as steaks at the fresh fish counters and in some tins – to be avoided if it is not caught by sustainable methods) along with Albercore and Skipjack (also in tins).  By far the most common is Skipjack which is also the tuna most likely to be found in ready meals and pre-prepared sandwiches.  The UK is the second biggest consumer of tinned tuna (after the US) and so I will concentrate on this source.

Following on from the publicity, there have been declarations of never eating tuna again, no more tuna sandwiches, but is this entirely necessary.  According to the Ecologist, it probably is, according to Greenpeace, on whose survey the Ecologist article was largely based, tinned tuna need not disappear from our collective menu.

So, just what is the problem with tinned tuna from a sustainability point of view (ignoring the potential problem of mercury in fish)?  A lot of tuna is caught in large nets or by lines up to 100km long.  We all remember the adverse publicity that came from pictures of dolphins caught in the net and the advent of ‘dolphin-friendly’ labels on tins of tuna.  However, dolphins are not the only bycatch of the tuna industry, other marine species that are caught include several species of turtle, sharks, rays and young tuna.  These together constitute about 10% of the catch with some fishing methods, which is where most of the problem with eating Skipjack tuna lies.  Much of the tuna fish destined for the tinned market is caught using large nets (purse seines) with floats on to encourage the fish to gather together which is where this bycatch is at its worst.

What can we, as consumers, do about this?  There are more sustainable methods of fishing, such as pole and line, which target the adult fish and therefore avoid much of the bycatch.  These also tend to be smaller outfits that are more likely to support local projects and which will look after local fish stocks, being unable to move to other areas once a resource has been used up.  Therefore, always look at the label to see what kind of tuna it is – if it is yellowfin, is there a skipjack alternative (these are more numerous than yellowfin)?

Tinned TunaNext look at the method of fishing.  Waitrose, have recently introduced an own label tinned tuna which is clearly marked as being caught by pole and line methods.  If they don’t state on the tin, assume the worst – with the recent publicity it is in their interests to tell you if it is a sustainable method.  John West and Princes are the two largest brands in the UK, they were bottom in the recent Greenpeace survey and do not seem too interested in changing their ways. I checked John West, in most cases they do not state either the type of tuna or the method of catching it.  On the contrary, Sainsbury’s who came top in the original survey have gone 100% own brand  pole and line and introduced a branded pole and line range.  M&S are also moving to 100% pole and line for their own brands and are extending it to the tuna used in their sandwiches, salads and ready meals.  The other supermarkets seem a little less responsive, maybe they will catch up.

I have recently written to Waitrose, my supermarket of choice (as I only have Tesco and Aldi as local alternatives) asking them to stop stocking other brands which do not conform to their own standards (ie John West), I doubt that they will do this, but, if sales of this brand were to drop relative to their own, more ethically produced brand, then maybe they will think again.

So, I don’t have to stop buying my tinned tuna, I just have to be a little discerning and boycott the larger brands in the hope that declining public opinion and sales will give them a reason to look at their social responsibility.

Baby Steps

Today is Blog Action Day, the theme this year is Climate Change, influenced no doubt by the upcoming Copenhagen summit.  These days it is hard to go through an entire day without finding a reference to Climate Change or Energy Saving, the Energy Saving Trust even has an annoying advert on the television.  I am not sure how much all of the reminders and the small snippets that appear on the news will make a difference.  I think there are two major problems; firstly people get bored with hearing about how we are all doomed, there is often the feeling that there are enough things to think about in life as it is, why worry about climate change when there is nothing we can do about it anyway?  It is everyone else that is causing the problem, besides, the worst will happen elsewhere in the world, and probably not in my lifetime.

Then we come to the second problem: what can you do about it that will make a difference?  There is so much information out there, some of it conflicting, that it can be difficult to know where to start and who to believe, no matter which level you are at in terms of ‘green-ness’ it can be confusing.  It is probably easier to not bother yet, better wait until more information is out there, until the ‘experts’ make their minds up.

The problem is, time is ticking and we all have a responsibility, why waste resources when it is just as easy not to, why waste money just because it is too much effort to turn a light out when leaving a room?  If you can make the changes at home then take these good and virtuous habits to work – your example can make a difference, I have seen it happen.

So what practical changes can you make?  How long have you got?  Everything you use, whether it is energy, water, fuel, food, resources such as paper, they are all, to some extent, finite, we can’t replace them all at the same rate that we are using them, and the planet cannot absorb all of our activities as they currently stand.

Firstly, energy.  Turn lights off, don’t leave things on standby, only leave your mobile etc plugged in for as long as it takes to charge (you’d be amazed at how many people leave them in overnight – they don’t stop drawing power because the battery is fully charged), turn your computer and monitor off when you leave work.  One of the best things you can do is to buy an energy monitor – they will help you find where energy is being wasted.  Want to think bigger – try switching energy supplier to one that uses renewables – they may not be the complete answer to our problem at the moment, but the more that is invested the bigger the improvements that will be made in the technology.

Water – old fact, but, 9 litres of water for every flush if you don’t have a dual flush toilet, put a bottle of water in the cistern to reduce the level down, save water and money at the same time.  Fit a water butt to your drainpipe to use for garden watering – they may look a bit unsightly, but, lets face it, so do satellite dishes, but most of us find somewhere to put one.  Don’t leave a sprinkler on your garden for hours – grass is hardy stuff, that’s why it is used for lawns, it doesn’t need constant watering and nobody else notices how green your lawn is!

Fuel – School run- why are there so many people dropping their children off?  Can’t they walk, I worry more about people being run over by someone on the school run than about other dangers facing children today.  How about just walking to work once a week for a change.  I would suggest public transport, but in Daventry, unless you are willing to set off 24 hours in advance it is a little pointless.  Planes – I love planes, I think they are a fantastic feat of engineering – but they are used too much and deliver their pollution to just the wrong place.  I can’t go on one again, maybe you can, but just one return transatlantic trip would double our household carbon footprint for the year (in terms of gas, electricity and transport) – I don’t think it is worth it.

Food – one of my major worries.  Why buy food only to throw it away?  There is a lot of talk in the press about food security and can Britain feed itself.  We probably can’t, we probably shouldn’t, our national income increased when we started trading with the world; there are some things that can be done better elsewhere.  But there are things we are good at growing, and, if we stopped throwing so much away we could grow all the staples that we need.  After all, the Romans didn’t invade us all those years ago because they were fed up of living somewhere dry and sunny!

Resources – whether it is paper in the office, packaging on our food, why is there so much that we are throwing away?  Admittedly the levels of recycling have grown massively, and Daventry District Council should be applauded for its household recycling (although, if you are a business, tough, you have to sort that out yourself), but wouldn’t it be better to just use less.  Does your broccoli really need a bag to make sure it gets home safely, does your Easter Egg need so much cardboard and plastic that your child could live in it?  I don’t think so.

So, what has this to do with Baby Steps?  If we all make a small change, one step at a time it will make a difference.  Then, if we make the next step, and the next step who knows what kind of change we can make?  There are so many resources out there if you need help.  If, as recently reported, the onset of power shortages has been put back by 3 -5 years because of the recession, an unintentional change in our habits, what can we do if we really try?