For the first time, Britain’s Royal Mail has issued stamps championing an environmental issue – and that issue is sustainable fishing. Over-fishing has long been a problem – policy-makers don’t seem to understand if you take more fish out of the sea than can be replaced then you will run out. One way things might change is by consumers voting with their purses and choosing to buy only fish that can be caught sustainably. Research by the Royal Mail, though, has revealed that little is known by the public about which fish are in trouble and which we can eat.
Half of the species illustrated are fish that are at risk in UK waters: Common Skate; Spiny Dogfish (Rock Salmon); Wolffish; Sturgeon and Conger Eel. The other half are species from what are probably sustainable populations and suitable alternatives: Herring; Red Gurnard; Dab; Pouting and Cornish Sardine.
Professor Callum Roberts who acted as consultant for Royal Mail on the stamp issue said: “Marine protected areas that are off limits to fishing could recover endangered species like those on the stamps, as well as providing a boost to the fishing industry through recovered stocks. Only one thousandth of 1% of UK seas are fully protected from fishing at present. To bring back endangered fish species, we need a huge increase in the coverage of such protected areas.”
The Threatened Fish
Common Skate, Dipturus batis
The largest skate found in European waters, with females growing up to 285 cm. They can live up to 100 years. Previously widespread – as the name implies – they are now extinct in the Mediterranean and greatly reduced in range around Britain. Retaining and landing common skate is now prohibited in EU waters. Common skate is assessed as Critically Endangered.
Woffish, Anarhichas lupus
Wolffish live on the seabed. They do not reproduce until they are 8 to 10 years old. Modern fishing methods have severely reduced wolffish numbers, not just by catching the fish but also by destroying their habitat and breeding grounds with intensive, repeated bottom trawling.
Conger Eel, Conger conger
This massive fish can grow to almost 3 m (10 ft) long, the females often being bigger than the males. Congers breed only once in their lives, commonly when they reach 5 years old, after which they die. As they breed only once, just about all eels which are caught in fishing nets are juveniles which have not yet reached spawning age. They only become sexually mature during the journey to the spawning areas.
Spiny Dogfish, Squalus acanthias
More commonly known in the fishmongers as Rock Salmon, the spiny dogfish is critically endangered. It is a long-lived, slow-growing and late-maturing species and therefore particularly vulnerable to fishing. Pregnancy lasts between 18 and 22 months, one of the longest recorded for any vertebrate, and they give birth to live young. Older females produce 10 to 21 pups, but younger ones (who are smaller than 1 m) produce less.
Sturgeon, Acipenser, Huso spp
Although some sturgeon sold are farmed, those caught in nets should be avoided. According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) “The value of wild sturgeon caviar is so high that there is a substantial illegal fishery for sturgeon that is completely unregulated. Consequently many species are in rapid decline.”
Fish that are OK to Eat
Pouting or Bib, Trisopterus luscus
Called Pouting on the stamp but known to divers as Bib. A member of the cod family, matures at just 1 to 2 years and around 23 cm long. Pouting is considered an “under-utilised species”: the ones that fishermen don’t catch their full quota of; or they catch them but then discard the fish because no one wants to buy them. Can be used in recipes specifying white fish.
Herring, Clupea harengus
Herring is a familiar fish. Its sustainability depends on the methods of the fishery catching it. Look for certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to show that the Herring were caught responsibly.
Red Gurnard, Aspitrigla cuculus
Gurnards are a non-quota species so are often discarded due to low market demand. If we eat these it will stop fish being wasted in this way. Avoid eating immature fish – those less than 25cm – and fresh fish caught in summer during the spawning season.
Cornish Sardine, Sardina pilchardus
Look for MSC certified fish with the Blue tick logo on the package. The most sustainable sardine fishery are the Cornish boats using traditional pilchard drift nets. Sardines and pilchards are the same fish, the larger fish are known and pilchards and the smaller as sardines.
Dab, Limanda limanda
Dab is one of the most abundant fish in the North Sea and can be eaten instead of other flat fish like plaice.