conservation environment food shopping social justice sustainability

fish to eat, fish to avoid

codI had sea bass tonight. I had one in the freezer, but it’s probably the last one I’ll have for a little while. Shame. It was tasty.

Demand for fish has risen to the point that we consume 100 million tons of seafood every year, according to Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book ‘Eating – what we eat and why it matters‘. The result of this appetite is that 25% of commercial fish populations are depleted, and a further 47% are being fished at maximum capacity – we are overfishing three quarters of our common edible fish species.

A fish stock becomes depleted when fish are caught faster than they can breed and replace themselves. Catch becomes smaller and smaller as fish are caught before they are old enough to reproduce, and the numbers of fish plummets. Stocks of fish such as cod, tuna and swordfish are now just 10% of what they were before the industrial revolution.

“It would be easy to conclude that the situation is so hopeless that we might as well give up eating fish altogether”, writes Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, “or gorge ourselves on what’s left while we still can – but there’s more than a glimmer of hope on the horizon. There is evidence that public information and concerted consumer action can play a genuine role in halting the decline of threatened species and environments, and helping them thrive again.”

Nobody owns the seas, so the government is powerless to stop people fishing. The only real power is with consumers. So, let’s eat good fish, and avoid the ones we’re busy eliminating.

There are fish that are threatened, and should be avoided. These include:

  • whitebait
  • cod
  • hake
  • bluefin tuna
  • sharks
  • skate
  • wild halibut
  • dover sole
  • sea bass
  • wild salmon.

There are also fish that can be sustainably caught for the foreseeable future. Eat these ones:

  • sprat
  • pollack
  • pouting
  • mackerel
  • lemon sole
  • black bream
  • grey mullet
  • red gurnard

Read on: the full lists, and the rules of fish buying.

Download the Marine Stewardship Council’s guide.


  1. I can’t agree with the statement with regards to ownership over the sea. Yes there are areas of the sea that aren’t “owned”, and they tend to be out in the very middle of vast oceans. The areas close to shorelines are designated as territorial waters which, in theory, are closely monitored. The problems come because there is a lot of competition in the fish industry. The British government owns waters which contain threatened species (Harbour porpoise for example, which the government is doing a lot to prevent by-catch etc) however the animals move around, which often means they stray into waters that aren’t monitored. If a fish stock moves into British shores, its in our benefit to catch as many as we can before they move into someone elses waters. Governments have control over their waters, but not anyone elses. Unfortunately fish don’t need passports to cross borders.
    We can call on our government to take action within their boundaries, they just can’t do anything if the fish leaves our shores. I do also think that fish stocks aren’t the goverments highest concern, in which case, like you said, we need to start by eating different fish.

  2. Yes, this is true, there are regulated territorial waters and these are controlled. The problem is the bits in the middle. This is where the famous atlantic cod banks were, for centuries, and are now gone because nobody could regulate that part of the sea.
    Actually, Iceland and Canada both claimed parts of the atlantic at one point to try and regulate the trade, and we almost went to war with Iceland. Can you imagine a war with Iceland? How ridiculous.

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