Writer and broadcaster

Know your cod and plaice. Published in The Guardian.

If there are three things guaranteed to induce white noise between your ears, it’s anything to do with the EU, fishing quotas and maps of the sea with shaded bits. We have all of these, and more, in the latest report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which next week will recommend a 30% shut-down of North Sea fisheries. The message most people will take from the coverage is that fish such as cod, haddock and plaice are endangered. Good. This is a valuable lesson.

However, the demand for fish is set by the consumer, not by fishermen, and there is little here to empower the man or woman with the money and the shopping list. And in all the reams of reports coming out of Brussels, no heat is ever put on the supermarkets. Instead, recommendations, policies and cuts hammer away at fishermen – a dispirited community bound by so much EU red tape it’s a surprise more don’t hang themselves with it out of desperation.

The simple fact is that there is nothing in supermarkets to tell us what fish is “good” – as in sustainable – and which is “bad”. Sure, there are stickers and an admirable scheme by the Marine Stewardship Council, but it covers just half a dozen species of fish and it’s an emblem I rarely see.

When such reports about fish stocks are published there is often some lip service paid to “what you, the consumer, can do”. The advice is that we should eat and shop more responsibly for our fish by asking questions. Has anyone ever tried doing this? Being a fisherman and not entirely ignorant about fish, I always ask about its provenance. But other than at a specialist fishmongers I am greeted with a blank stare by the entirely ignorant person on the other side of the counter.

If I am in a restaurant, asking where the fish is from rarely elicits an illuminating answer (“our fish supplier” is a not uncommon response). Few people have the time to shop responsibly, despite the best intentions. Anyway, why can’t it just be made easier?

There are two main problems. First, those involved in the buying and selling of fish are very often not specialists but “rotated” to the job as they would be rotated to another job – meat, soft drinks, frozen foods, vegetables – in another couple of years. Second, fish isn’t marked as sustainable because, if it was, it would become obvious just how much fish that wasn’t sustainable was sold. And therein lies the problem.

The subject of overfishing is incredibly complicated. It once took me two days, several phone calls and half a head of hair to get to grips with the common fisheries policy. The normal person shouldn’t have to bother with it. That’s what we pay government ministers for. Instead of putting all the heat on fishermen, Brussels should aim its bureaucratic blowtorch at supermarkets, and in so doing, arm the consumer; it can then work back from there.

First published in The Guardian.