Communication is Key - Guest blog by Mitch Tonks

Posted by Mitch Tonks is a food writer, fishmonger and restaurateur. on 18 January 2012

When I was first in the fish business I didn't ever hear the word sustainability, now thanks to some of the great campaigning work that has been done it's become a topic deeply rooted in our behaviour and thinking. Those of us in the industry have ready access to relevant knowledge and opinions, but for consumers (the ones who really matter) it can be a different story. The volume of information about what you can and can't eat can be as damaging as it is helpful. Don't eat this and don't eat that - then pick up another book or read a different blog and it seems to be ok. The fact is that there is so much mixed messaging that it wouldn't be at all surprising if consumers gave up on trying to properly understand fish themselves and trusted to luck that their retailer or restaurant had done all the work for them.

Take cod for example. A recent TV show that brilliantly highlighted some of the poorer practices in commercial fishing also said categorically "Cod is off the menu." Why? Norway for produces over 700,000 tonnes of MSC approved fish. In the UK we have always imported more cod than we can catch but you'd believe we've eaten it all from broad statements like that. And, whatever we may like to think, gurnard and dab will not be sufficient to replace cod consumption.

I'm lucky to have spent time as a fishmonger and chef and have access to some great people and information in the seafood industry so I strongly believe that the policies applied in my own business are the right ones. Nevertheless, I recently discovered that - in the new 'Fish2Fork' guide - my restaurants (along with those of another well know seafood chef) had been rated as some of the 'worst' in the country. How? Why? When I contacted Fish2Fork I was told it was because I sold plaice & ray which are on the MCS "red" list - if I took them off the menu I could score higher.

We take sustainability seriously in our business, with MSC accreditation and other careful policies. I live in Brixham and discuss sustainable practice all day long with the guys on the front line. Fisheries in the South West are known to be well managed and controlled, the majority of my fish is sourced locally. When I look out my window and see the tiny Brixham fleet it's hard to imagine there are enough boats and days at sea to regress stocks, in fact the news about down here is positive. So I did more research on plaice and challenged my poor rating with Fish2Fork.

In the East Channel we know there is a discards problem associated with French fishermen. Unless tackled it will most certainly keep the stock under pressure. The science advice is that stock status is "unknown" because of lots of variables. However the signs are that stock is rising and fishing pressure falling. The science says "do not increase catches and do something about discards". In the West Channel, the Brixham fishery, the picture is clearer and better. Science says there has been a dramatic cut in fishing pressure, mainly due to Beam trawlers cutting pressure on sole. This has been under the long-term sole management plan. The biomass of plaice is skyward! We know there are migration uncertainties involving East Channel, but discards are known to be much lower in this fishery than the East. The beam trawlers in West Channel are still using the gear developed in the Project 50% trials and are seeing great improvements in catch quality, much reduced discards rates and they are not catching the smaller end of the mature size-ranges. In other words, we have a good news story!

If West Channel plaice was managed by single-area quotas we would have 33% to 45% increased quota for 2012, but the quota is combination of West and East channel, with the East being the far bigger portion. Overall, the picture is one of Brixham vessels doing their best to deliver more, within sustainable limits. The ray we buy from the market are not targeted species but bycatch, it would seem wrong to not buy them when they are landed.

I thought I would look at the top rated restaurants - what am I doing wrong? One that I looked at used 4 species of fish on its menu, 2 of them, gurnard and pollock, are hailed as the 'new species to eat' yet have huge challenges: South Coast pollock is tighter controlled than ever and gurnard is data deficient so we are unable to form a true picture of the stocks - even I'm confused, let alone a consumer!

The reason our Fish2Fork ratings are low is that all their opinion comes from one source, the MCS (Marine Conservation Society). Now, I'm not saying they are wrong but I am saying that one body does not have all the answers and should not be dishing out blanket advice without balancing it against all the other relevant factors and great work that is out there. Please, please, please let's get the communication right and clear about all this so that ultimately those who eat seafood can make proper informed choices.

Mitch Tonks is a food writer, fishmonger and restaurateur.

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