When the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) published the Good Fish Guide in January it named 20 species that consumers should avoid eating because they are being overfished. Popular fish on restaurant menus such as swordfish, monkfish and sea bass appeared on the list, along with favourites such as cod and haddock.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced that North Sea cod stocks had reached their lowest levels since 1963 and are "approaching commercial extinction". Last month the RSPCA announced that cod, monkfish and swordfish are officially endangered species.
Yet while fish stocks are running low, interest in eating fish is growing rapidly, according to Bernadette Clarke, author of the Good Fish Guide and fisheries officer at the MCS. "The recent BSE and foot-and-mouth crises have made people more aware of the issues surrounding food," she says. "Fish is a healthy option, and more people are eating it."
If proof were needed that fish restaurants are growing in popularity, Marco Pierre White has decided to take the once-popular London eaterie Wheeler's of St James and make it his own. White and Robert Earl have acquired the worldwide trademark of Wheeler's of St James, and the traditional fish restaurant is almost certainly set for the kind of treatment Marco gave steak and chips when he opened the Parisian Chop House in London's Knightsbridge a few years ago.
Due to open this month, Wheeler's will have a classic British seafood menu, with oysters, crab, sole, skate, turbot and potted shrimps likely to be on offer. "Marco does care about environmental issues. He is committed to game conservancy and it is unlikely he would use endangered species of fish," says a spokesman for White. "We tend to use line-caught fish, and we will certainly bear this list in mind. Marco does not do 'buzz' fishes as a rule, although I suspect you'll find monkfish and skate on one or two of his menus."
Mark Coxon, proprietor of the 50-seat Hooked restaurant in Dartmouth, Devon, opened his restaurant with wife, Lyn, in 1999 in response to the growing demand for fish. He recently took monkfish off the menu, as he wasn't happy about serving it, and believes celebrity chefs are partly to blame for the rise in popularity of certain types of fish, such as monkfish, swordfish and sea bass. "If Rick Stein says you can use monkfish, everyone rushes to use it," he says.
Clarke stresses that the continued use of endangered fish will mean chefs are forced to remove them from the menus eventually, and she urges restaurants to educate their customers accordingly. "If stocks run down and demand remains high, supply can't meet that demand, and suppliers can ask for a higher price," she says. "Ultimately, chefs will have to remove fish for environmental reasons.
"We're asking restaurants to take the initiative and take into account how the fish are caught and what area they are from. Overfishing has become topical, and the public is concerned. Our main aim is to provide the information and let people make informed choices."
People may be concerned about where the fish comes from, but they're still choosing to eat it. Loch Fyne Restaurants, the 16-strong fish chain, had a financially successful year last year, with a 15% year-on-year growth in the five restaurants that have been open for a full year. Managing director Mark Derry says there are plans to open a further six Loch Fyne restaurants this year to bring the total to 22. The average spend is £22 and the average 100-seat restaurant is turning over £20,000 a week.
Shortly after the publication of the MCS guide Loch Fyne announced that skate, monkfish and swordfish were being removed from its menus. "The reality is that if we keep eating fish and not allowing them to replenish their stocks, there will not be any left. It seems sensible to promote some kind of management of the stocks," says Derry.
He says that cost has not been a deciding factor in Loch Fyne's decision to remove the fish from its menu. However, Derry does admit that from a commercial point of view the company wants to be around in 20 years' time, and that means taking some responsibility with respect to the fish stocks and the environment.
Another fish chain with an environmental conscience is Fish. According to Elliott Gough, head of retail, Fish has a 150-page environmental policy document and has done for the past two years. "We try to be proactive in our approach. The MCS has a valid point, but we try to pre-empt sudden supply changes," he says. Although swordfish is on the menu, Gough says it is the Pacific swordfish, which is better managed.
The group sources fish approved by the Marine Stewardship Council. The council is an independent global organisation with a certification standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. But there is a price. Gough estimates it costs the group more than £50,000 to use council-approved fisheries and organic fish products. "It is a small price to pay, because we want there to be fish in 15 years' time. If we refuse to pay that price, we'll go out of business," he says.
While some of that cost is passed on to the customer, Gough says that Fish absorbs the remainder. However, that is showing on the bottom line. Last year the 18 diners and five wet-fish shops that make up Fish had a poor year. Turnover fell by more than 10% to £18.8m in 2001 compared with 2000. Pre-tax profit plummeted 22.3%, to £1.7m against £2.2m in 2000. The planned 12 new restaurants have been scaled back to five or six, although the company reported an improvement in business in March and April last month. Chairman Tony Allen has said that the poor results were down to the drop in tourism caused by foot-and-mouth and September 11 and not because of a drop-off in interest in fish generally.
It is not just the chains that believe responsible sourcing is vital for the future. Nick Ryan is proprietor of the Crinan hotel in Argyllshire and has the 60-seat fine-dining Westwood restaurant, a 25-seat bar and the 20-seat Lock 16 fish restaurant. Ryan is adamant that the fish he serves is fresh, local and sustainable. If the boats do not fish or there is little caught, Ryan does not open Lock 16 at all.
"The public are much better informed about environmental issues now. We do not win friends if we don't take these issues into account," he says. "If you tell people on the menu that you are avoiding certain fish to conserve stocks, you win their sympathy," he says.
But not everyone has such faith in the public's knowledge. "I don't think the public has become more educated. There's a small number who are really enlightened diners," says Coxon. "I recently had to explain to a customer I didn't have lobster because it wasn't in season. The customer argued he'd had it in London the day before and wouldn't believe me when I told him that it had been flown in from Canada. People see fish in a supermarket and think it is fresh and local, but in reality it has come off a 10-day boat and been packed in ice."
The more fish restaurants that open, the greater the pressure on the stocks of fish being caught. While some may argue that wild fish taste better, it is worth remembering that fish are the only resource man still catches in the wild: all other animal food sources are now farmed. If no responsibility is taken for the management of their stocks, how long will it be before fish farms are the only source of some species?
Twenty species to avoid
The following are the 20 fish species identified by the Marine Conservation Society as species that are:
(from overfished stocks, eg, North Sea)
(from overfished stocks)
* Stocks assessed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea as outside safe biological limits, ie, the limits for fishing mortality rates and spawning stock beyond which the fishery is unsustainable.
** IUCN (the World Conservation Union) lists most species as endangered. Southern bluefin tuna is assessed as critically endangered.