When you search for picturesque villages in the UK, quaint fishing villages will flood your screen. Painted stone houses line cobbled streets winding down to a sheltered harbour scattered with fishing nets and packed with boats. You can almost hear the masts clinking in the breeze. Your mind wanders to thoughts of eating ice creams walking along the seafront with the sun warming your neck. Or maybe it’s a blustery day and you’re looking for somewhere to eat some fish and chips. But when you look at a menu offering traditional cod & chips, is the fish being sold actually caught locally? And is it sustainable?

Bernadette Clarke, of the Marine Conservation Society, explains that we currently export “around 75% of fish caught and landed in the UK, but we’re the ninth largest importer of fish in the world, with around 70% of the seafood value entering the UK fish supply chain coming from overseas” (MCS UK).

Many British coastal restaurants buy from regional wholesalers selling at prices local fisherman can’t compete with. Fishermen tend to sell fresh fish at local markets at low prices and in small quantities to wholesalers or companies who export fish for processing. The origins of fish sold in UK supermarkets are detailed on packaging. More often than not, it is imported fish.

UK Fish Imports

The origin of fish in UK supermarkets is listed on packaging, and more often than not, it’s foreign fish.

The top 10 importers of fish (by value) to the UK, ranked by their distance from the UK.

This reality that we import 75% of our seafood is shocking and seems counterintuitive for an island nation. The UK’s net imports of 290,000 tonnes in 2016 were worth £1.4bn (UK Sea Fisheries Statistics, House of Commons Library Number 2788, 2017). Importing fish is not only costly, but it also impacts the environment. Farmed prawns from Indonesia travel over 7,000 miles to reach the UK. Some fish, Scottish salmon, in particular, is often caught in the UK, exported for processing and then re-imported for sale. The excessive amount of transportation uses unnecessary amounts of energy resulting in higher product miles and excessive emissions.

Eating locally caught fish would reduce our product miles, as well as providing crucial support for the UK’s fishing industry. But why don’t we eat UK-landed fish? Quite simply, the UK fleet catches fish species common to UK waters such as herring or mackerel; these species do not meet UK consumer tastes, so the export market offers greater potential than selling the fish locally.

The five most popular fish in the UK are also the UK’s top 5 fish imports: salmon, cod, tuna, prawns, and haddock (HMRC Via British Trade, YE August 2017). You can definitely find UK caught and processed salmon, haddock and other popular species, but it is also important to recognise the sustainability of the fish we eat.

Fish Sustainability

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) explains that “the sustainability of fish can vary significantly depending on how and where it has been caught or farmed… Within a species, some sources may be more sustainable than others”. The MCS rate sustainability on a scale 1 (the best choice) to 5 (to avoid). They use three main factors to calculate the rating:

  • Type of fish: Atlantic Cod or Pacific Cod;
  • Method of production: farmed or caught at sea;
  • Means of catching: line caught, harpoon, line caught etc.

The Good Fish Guide identifies the following fish as sustainable, UK caught alternatives to our existing mealtime favourites:

  • Megrim from Rockall, the northern North Sea, and West of Scotland;
  • North Sea line and trap caught Turbot;
  • North Sea and Rockall caught Coley;
  • Lemon Sole from the English Channel.

Megrim is a flat fish from the brill and turbot family which can be cooked like sole or plaice. The capture methods below illustrate the importance of how different production and capture methods affect sustainability.

Looking for Local Fish

It’s not always easy to source these sustainable alternatives in major supermarkets. We recommend supporting your local fishmongers who will supply a wide range of fresh, locally caught fish. If you’re looking for convenience, YouK also lists several companies who deliver fresh fish to your door. The Cornish Fishmonger is “fully committed to supporting local fishermen and working together with them and other industry stakeholders to ensure a bright sustainable long term future for both fish and fishing… We buy daily from local fisherman and the four quayside fish markets of Cornwall and South Devon”.

If want to eat more sustainably caught, local fish and support local industry, education is the place to start! Read up on information available in the Good Fish Guide and speak to your local fishmonger. Soon, you will be able to identify fish with a high sustainability rating landed in your region. YouK offers a unique approach to finding sustainable fish. You can search by dish types, such as paella and fishcakes to discover what will fit into your cooking routine.