Sustainable sea fish – what is the right fish to eat? by Andrew Ormerod

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Photo courtesy of Nick Howell, The  Pilchard Works.

Eden Fish debate Harvest Festival ‘2013

Three Cornish based experts in different aspects of the fish trade had their say.


Damion Oxford – The Old Life Boat Station restaurant – Coverack   Established by Damion and his brother Edward.  The Sunday Times named it best Fish and Chip restaurant 2011.

Nick Howell – long experience in the fish trade in Newlyn owner of The Pilchard Works.
(Nick has some interesting views based on practical experience and speaks his mind.)

Sanjay Kumar  Chef Headlands Hotel,  chairman of Slow Food Cornwall,  founder of the School of Cornish Sardines. – link to Sanjay’s educational work. For information about Sanjay’s latest effort with healthy food campaign see:-

Fashion in fish

Nick talked about the history of sardines.   They are pelagic fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (This group includes anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herrings, sprats).

The European sardine stock (Sardina pilchardus) stretches from Cornwall to Morocco they are one of the largest stocks in Western Europe.  In the food chain pilchards eat zooplankton and phytoplankton and they themselves are then eaten by other species such as Hake, Cod and Pollock to follow on up the food chain.

In the 17th century Cornish called them sardines – in France they called them pilchards.  Later the names swapped round between the countries.  Nick’s original business at The Pilchard Works was traditional salted pilchards, with the main market being in Italy since 1555.  Changes in EU  (European Union) legislation requiring retail refrigeration led to the end of this trade.   There are plenty of sardines in the sea around Cornwall. (Estimated stock by Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) is 600,000-800,000 tonnes)

What’s in a name

The problem is that names are linked to perception of what fish are like.  Our perceptions of pilchards are linked to tinned fish possibly in tomato sauce, by contrast our perception of sardines are grilled in a Mediterranean setting.   Retailer Marks and Spencer worked with Nick and Co. and launched the Cornish Sardine Fillet in 1998.

Sanjay spoke about his development of smoked pilchard Scotch Eggs served at Lords Cricket grounds as an example of new ways of eating under utilized fish.

Looks matter

Nick said “In the 1960’s Monk Fish were thrown away as they were ugly and in the 1970’s in Cornwall spider crabs were being smashed – as no one wanted them at that time”.  (They are now an important export to the continent – however the UK market isn’t as highly developed).

Damion Oxford mentioned Gurnards are ugly beasts but fantastic to eat.   Damion has made them more acceptable in his restaurant as fish nuggets rather than chicken nuggets.

Nick said “Megrim used to be cheap as there was not much interest in this large flat fish which is an alternative to Lemon or Dover Sole in the past.  Although there are large boats involved in Megrim fishing out of Newlyn –  the fishery has remained sustainable since the 1970’s due to the amount of feed constantly redistributed on the fishing grounds by the trawlers.”

Environmental Impact

Nick spoke about the pressure from environmental groups who won’t work together because they all have their headquarters to look after.
Nick said fishermen pay a levy under the Marine Stewardship Scheme for scientists to conduct surveys.

Nick is skeptical about any fish being seriously endangered if it is on sale in supermarkets because they will have checked its sustainability.

1, No supermarket is going to have endangered species on their counter.

2, There are world-wide organizations like ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) that set the quotas based on proper scientific evidence.   Since 2006 there has been a campaign to question the scientific evidence.   It was just in the news at the time of speaking; in Australia politicians banned a large fishing boat from fishing in Tasmania due to wholly political pressure.  Its nets were the same size as a normal boat it just had larger freezer capacity and it had quotas based on science.

3, Nick has worked with supermarkets including Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer – they have spent huge amount of money with often with little or no publicity in relation to working with fishermen on sustainable fisheries.  There is a difference between supermarkets in relation to their level of involvement in this.  Before 1998  only 7 tonnes of pilchards were landed in Cornwall because of lack of demand.  A lot of work has gone on to secure and develop the Cornish Sardine brand, the market and whole supply chain from fishermen to end users and to ensure a fair prices for the fish for the sardine fisherman.  This has resulted in demand going up to 2,000 tones a year.

Nick contrasted impact on the environment of agriculture and fishing.  He highlighted nutrient depletion in farming which does not happen in the case of fishing. Fishing activities do not affect the basic nutrient; zoo or phytoplankton – the start of the food chain for fish – pollution does.

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Coverack harbour and the Life Boat House restaurant


Nick explained quotas have been around for over 20 years and they don’t work.  In the EU for example the French are very good at negotiating – in France they have compulsory membership of chambers of commerce – in the UK it is voluntary.  In France they have data to instantly know how many people are involved in industry – the UK appeared slow to act at the time in providing the data required.  The significance is that for the popular species the annual quota  was based on the amount of fish declared as being caught by each EU country.  So in the English channel the French have 63% of the cod quota  and the UK has only 8%.   Because of relative stability if the annual quota goes up or down the percentage that each country can catch remains unchanged.   If there is a 1000 tonne increase in the quota – French can catch an extra 630 tonnes –  while British fishermen can only catch an extra 80 tonnes.  This means British boats go over quota rapidly and the fish over the limit of the quota can’t be kept on board.

A question were raised about skate wings.  You are not now allowed to land large skate or sharks – although they are caught.  Nick mentioned so the Shark Trust, who lobbied for the landing ban. He said “The problem is now we have no knowledge of how many are landed as they are thrown back.” He argued it is better to make scientific decisions made locally.

Damion said one disadvantage of quotas is that it drives up the price of fish.

No simple answer to address this.  Most successful revival in fisheries and eco management is if local fishermen manage their local area and may be have a local brand associated with that area.  Conflict of interest exists in Cornwall because the French have historic rights in 3 miles up to 6 mile limits.  This has resulted in local fisherman considering if I don’t have it the French will.

Nick didn’t think Hugh’s fish fight was the overall solution.

Sanjay mentioned Maria Damanaki, European Fisheries Commissioner has much more of a focus now on listening to local fishermen – to create local areas.  Sustainable fishing is not just an issue in European waters – pirate fishing is a challenge in Africa, China and Spain.

Lack of publicity for sustainable initiatives
There was an issue a few years ago with Cornish fishermen catching tuna and accidentally caught 6 dolphins.  Some environmental organizations were invited to be involved in helping to develop dolphin friendly nets but were not interested.  Cornish fishermen developed a dolphin friendly net – but with no publicity.

(Nick Howell said since the talk the most recent scientific evidence –(not the NGO and environmental organizations)– has shown that world-wide nearly all fish stocks are in better shape than they have been since the 1950’s.   This hasn’t received much media attention check it out on:

Fish education
Sanjay talked about the important role that supermarkets can play in influencing public buying habits as they are an important sector of the market.

he said  “You watch a Spanish house wife cooking fish they know the differences between a line caught and trawled fish”.    There are differences in appearance depending on how they are landed.   Nick was then asked about differences between fresh and frozen fish in terms of appearance and quality.

Damon said “Our fish came straight from a day boat in Newlyn and are sold within 24 hours. We are driven to use fresh fish rather than frozen fish.  Fresh fish is better for the environment, better for yourself, and better tasting.   We stay clear of certain species such as cod and serve a wide range of species to try to encourage and educate.  Batter acts as a steamer to cook the fish.”

Sanjay said  “chefs can become educators – to help the public choose the right products.   One of the challenges is public preconditioning to what they choose to eat – such as cod and chips. There are differences in the taste and texture between super fresh fish and tired fish.  Part of the joy of fish mongers was the chance to compare different types of fish.”  Sanjay thought cod was popular because it was easier to say on a Friday night after going to the pub!    However by contrast if you ask for something unusual it is much more likely to be freshly fried.

Damion agreed that as well as educating the public there was an important role for fish and chip shops to educate their staff about different fish that they serve, something they do at Lifeboat House restaurant in Coverack.  He said “The people behind the counter are often the people who don’t know about the diversity in fish – you might get young people straight out of school in fish and chip shops doing their first job”.  They get involved in an educational role – sometimes they have been involved in classes for charity.   He said “Home economics classes in schools have a role to play to make a difference – raising awareness and getting more people into serving better food.  However it is like steering a large ship  that takes a long time to turn.”


Mevagissey Harbour

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013

About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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