PRAYING FOR COD

Words by Jamie Smith

Not as innocent as it seems, the nation’s favourite
newspaper-clad seaside staple is at the heart of an ever-growing cod crisis...

There’s a stand-off on the pier. It’s me and my fish and chips versus three pigeons and a seagull the size of a bald eagle – and it appears his mates are on the way.

In the ensuing cold war, I hardly notice the succulent white fish crumbling gently in my fingers as I tear open the batter of my favourite lunchtime repast. But hang on a moment – I asked for fish and chips and, by default, was served cod – a fish which marine scientists believe is so overfished in UK waters it should no longer be caught.

Indeed, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), which advises the European Commission on fishery matters, has warned of a serious lack of cod swimming around in British waters. So what’s going on at the chip shop? Why have I been given cod when any other white fish – preferably one not facing destruction – would have done the job?

The truth comes battered in irony – the fish amid my curry sauce and mushy peas was caught nowhere near the Cornish chip shop that served it to me. It was far more likely to have been netted off the coast of Iceland and frozen at sea several days earlier. So think again when you see “fresh fish and chips”; it’s freshly cooked but it’s been frozen for days. If you buy fish and chips in a coastal UK town, you are very unlikely to be eating British fish. You would notice if you were, since each portion would cost well over £5.

But even Icelandic cod supplies are struggling under the pressure according to ICES. So why do chip shops continue to sell us cod when we wouldn’t notice if it was pollock or whiting? »

“Cod and chips is traditional,” explains Geoff Bailey, who runs the Golden Chip in Newquay where cod, haddock and plaice are the most popular fish on the» menu, “down this way you find that fish and chips means cod and chips. If you go to other parts of the country you will find there are different fish of choice.”

Douglas Roxburgh, represents Cornwall at the National Federation of Fish Friers. He says: “As to why we like cod so much, I think it’s just down to historical reasons. Cod was once a bountiful fish on the coast around Devon and Cornwall and it just became synonymous with fish and chips.”

“In ten years’ time I would be very surprised if cod was still the main attraction at fish and chip shops. I believe it will shift to another fish because it all depends on price and there’s the distinct possibility of a price increase in cod with all that’s going on.”

So, if I want to keep it real and make sure I’m doing the best for the local economy without raping the environment, what should I do? The answer is to avoid cod – at least on the fish and chips menu. It also helps if you visit your local fishmonger because then you have control over which fish you buy and from where. Supermarkets are unlikely to provide fresh fish and where they do, greater food miles are involved in its packaging. They will also sell fish from all around the world, and are least likely to be able to tell you where it came from.

Penryn fishmonger David Seabourne believes the best option is to buy local. He said: “The best advice is to go to your local fishmonger. If you’re not sure what fish will suit your needs you can always ask, they will be glad to tell you what has come from where.” Seafood is a substantial industry with consumers in Great Britain spending £1.8 billion on 280,000 tonnes of it a year so by voting with our wallets, we could allow precious stocks of fish to recover.

Back on the pier as the gulls get closer I realise how hard it is to practise what I preach. Next time you’re in the chippy just remember it’s not “fish and chips, please” because that means cod to most people. Try “haddock and chips, please” and maybe we’ll hang on to our fish a little longer.

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TOP FIVE FEEL GOOD FISH FEASTS

• Pollock – choose Alaskan pollock from their well- managed fisheries.
• Haddock – stocks in West Scotland, North Sea, Kattegat & Skaggerak and Iceland are at sustainable levels.
• Whiting – only English Channel stocks are at reasonable levels.
• John Dory – only appears as by-catch so buy it where you
can. • Red Gurnard – fast-growing by-catch fish, so as for John Dory above.

THE OVERFISHED LIST
• Cod – depleted stocks but Iceland and Faro have healthier grounds. Choose line-caught if you must.
• Lobster– many traditional lobster grounds are depleted. Choose pot-caught, mature lobsters only.
• Hake – overfished, simpy avoid.
• Plaice – under pressure, go for mature fish (above 30cm) as they are more likely to have spawned.