Imports leave producers facing tough task to reel in customers


Three-quarters of the seafood we consume is imported, while the same amount of what we catch is exported. That fact alone should push us to think more about the fish we eat

IN AN era of declining popular fish stocks one thing everyone agrees on is that locally caught fish and shellfish are more sustainable than fish caught or farmed on another continent.

So when did eating fish become so complicated? Is it still frowned upon to eat cod? Where do we stand with tuna? And what fish should we be buying if we want to avoid making some of our most popular species extinct?

“It’s an absolute minefield,” says Sally McKenna, food publisher and Bridgestone Guide editor. “I try to read up about it and I still find it very confusing.”

Ms McKenna encourages people to question their fishmongers and restaurant staff about the origin of their fish. She stresses the need to buy local and says anyone buying prawns from the Pacific region is “guilty of an act of treason” when they have the finest Irish prawns on their doorstep.

“Pacific prawns are shipped half way around the world. They are bottom-feeders and we have the most fabulous prawns in Ireland.”

She is also critical of the imported Vietnamese white fish pangasius. She says it is selling for just $3 (€2.40) a kilo, skinned and filleted and so is very common in the food service industry. But she questions its sustainability, given the distance it travels.

Queries about responsible fishing practices from his international customers led fisherman Frank Fleming and colleagues to set up the Responsible Irish Fish label three years ago. It can be seen on produce in Irish supermarkets and is supported by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and Bord Bia.

Some 100 vessels have signed up to the code of practice that includes commitments to various conservation measures. Members use fishing gear that allows undersized fish to escape the net alive. They also work with scientists on stock assessment and sampling programmes.

Mr Fleming says a lot of generalisations are made about eating fish ethically. He cites the example of cod which has become plentiful again in certain areas.

The cod quota in the Celtic Sea was increased by 77 per cent in December. Irish fishermen are allowed to take only 10 per cent of the total cod catch “so our overall impact on the stock is low anyway”, says Mr Fleming.

“But the purists would still say it’s not sustainable. For many species all we can do is to fish responsibly and this contributes to sustainability.”

He says three-quarters of the seafood we eat is imported while three-quarters of what we catch is exported. “It’s a crazy situation.”

Last year, Europe’s top two fish imports were Alaskan pollock and Vietnamese pangasius, accounting for 1.5 million tonnes between them. In contrast, the Irish quota for white fish was just 32,000 tonnes.

“Imagine being an Irish producer, doing your best to operate responsibly and selling into a market alongside producers who are absolutely unrestricted in many cases?”

Amy Caviston and her husband Shane Willis run A Caviston’s restaurant and fish shop in Greystones.

They decided early on to support Irish producers so up to 85 per cent of fish comes from them. “It would be a higher percentage in the restaurant,” says Mr Willis.

They rarely feature cod on their menu, instead opting for fish such as red gurnard, blossom – which is similar to haddock – ling and white and black pollock.

“Ling is a super fish and is hugely popular in our fish shop,” he says. “I would prefer a ling and chips any day to a cod and chips.”

He says the best prawns in the world are Dublin Bay prawns, but people don’t realise that when they opt for the “rubbery and tasteless” Pacific prawns.

Ms McKenna also encourages people to try different varieties, such as gurnard and megrim.

“Our herring industry is flourishing,” she says. “For a while we had forgotten how to cook it but it’s so good for you. It’s the same with mackerel.”

Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy Cafe in Kinsale, Co Cork, says restaurants are reliant on their suppliers when it comes to responsible fishing so they must buy from a reputable company.

He encourages people to ask about the origin or sustainability of fish as it puts pressure on the restaurant to have this information. He would much rather sit down with a piece of mackerel caught off Kinsale than a piece of pangasius from thousands of miles away.

The Marine Stewardship Council runs an approval scheme for sustainable fish but its standards are extremely rigorous and can be difficult to attain in mixed fisheries. If several countries harvest a particular stock but don’t want to meet those standards, it can be difficult for the country that wants to get approval.

Three fisheries in Ireland have attained MSC certification: RSW Mackerel, Polyvalent Mackerel and Celtic Sea Herrings. However, MSC has suspended certification for North Atlantic mackerel because of a dispute with Iceland and the Faroe Islands over standards.

The MSC website lists more than 90 approved products in Ireland, many from Aldi and Lidl supermarket chains.

Numerous guides to responsible fish-eating can be found on the websites of conservation groups such as Britain’s Marine Conservation Society. It offers an app to help people make responsible choices.

It suggests avoiding fish such as wild Atlantic salmon, bluefin tuna, wild king and tiger prawns, shark and wild sturgeon caviar, instead recommending organically farmed Atlantic salmon, coley, herring, mackerel, mussels and organically farmed king or tiger prawns and skipjack tuna.


* INSTEAD OF relying on the big five – cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns – look at fish such as coley, gurnard, mackerel and pilchards.

* Choose fish caught using methods with lower environmental impact, such as hand-lined or pot caught.

* Look out for labels on products that identify sustainable and responsible fishing practices.

* Choose organic when buying farmed seafood.

* Avoid eating sharks and deepwater fish such as redfish and orange roughy because they breed slowly and, consequently, are vulnerable to overfishing.

Source:Marine Conservation Society