Photo credit: Matthew Stevens

By Lewis Smith, Fish2fork

SRA members may have read that Fish2fork, together with the Marine Conservation Society, have rated 12 large restaurant chains on their seafood sustainability this week. Our questioning of the dozen chains found that more than half might be using seafood from overfished areas of the sea, or are not being transparent about the origins of their fish and shellfish.

Consumers are vital if seafood stocks are to be fished sustainably. Campaigns and pressure groups can raise issues, highlight problems and expose wrongdoing but in the end there has to be a weight of public demand and expectation if working practices are to improve. If the public don’t care, then there is no incentive for the fishermen, the processors, the suppliers or the restaurant sector to make the effort or pay the expense of improving catch methods or finding alternative supplies.

But for the public to care it has to understand that there is a problem to be concerned about, and they have to have clear and easily accessible information about the seafood served in restaurants if they are to be able to make judgements on which dishes they can eat with a clear conscience.

This is why transparency on sources is such an important factor to the Fish2fork restaurant ratings – several low performers would do much better, we are certain, if they were to provide improved and clearer information about their seafood.

Just four of the 12 chains rated had seafood sustainability policies or statements that they made easily accessible to the general public. Consumers cannot be expected to know how sustainable each species of seafood is, so it is important not just that chefs have the measures in place to guarantee sustainability, but that they tell customers of the care taken to ensure overfished stocks are kept off menus.

Sea bass is a good case in point. It is in steep decline in the wild, but farmed options are better; it is quite possible, even likely, that the farmed variety is being served, but in the absence of adequate information it is impossible for a diner who wants to eat seafood sustainably to know what to choose.

Whitebait was another type of seafood served by some of the restaurants that is on the MCS’s list of fish “to avoid”. Whitebait usually comprises juvenile fish that have never had an opportunity to breed and there are concerns that catching them so early in large numbers can have a detrimental impact on population levels. There doesn’t happen to be a certified option available for this menu option at the moment.

So if there is one take-home message for SRA members from this project, it is that clear information for diners is crucial. They need to be assured that what they are offered is sustainable, and they need to able to take that message to the next eatery they visit so that they can demand all restaurants, not just a conscientious few, ensure fish stocks are maintained at healthy levels.