Ethical fish

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The idea of ethical food is heavily promoted, but when it comes to producing, catching and eating fish, it isn’t easy to determine what ethical means. The worldwide discrepancy over the definition of ethical food is especially evident in fish.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • While most food product labels give enough information to help consumers choose those that are sourced ethically, aquaculture was so far neglected. Only recently has the idea of organic aquaculture been taken seriously on a global scale.
  • Similarly, fish welfare has also so far been neglected. But that is fast changing after a series of research concluded that fish have the same feelings of pain and suffering as birds and animals do.

All about ethical fish

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has reported that nearly 70 per cent of the world's fish stocks are now fully fished, over-fished, or depleted. The OSPAR Commission [1] reports that 40 of the 60 main commercial fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic are outside safe biological limits, or heavily overfished. In the North Sea many once common species such as cod, skate and plaice are now overfished and in the case of cod, stocks are on the verge of commercial collapse, whilst common skate is virtually extinct.

All these have made environmental and sustainable labels a high priority amongst the ethical consumers of today. In view of these problems some consumers have turned to fish produced by farming. But even this doesn’t solve the problem as ecosystems can be badly damaged due to the pollution that these farms create. Many Asian rivers, such as Chinese Yangtze (Yellow River), are highly polluted due to aquaculture operations resulting in a lack of clean drinking water for rural families downstream.

Standards for ethical fish

Issues of organic fish labels have been taken up only recently by organizations such as such as The Soil Association [2] and the Organic Food Federation [3]. They have created their own set of standards, including reduced stocking densities, restrictions on medicines, sustainable feed source and the elimination of toxic contaminants. But still there is no globally recognized organic model.

Another organization, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)[4] runs an ambitious programme to transform the world's seafood markets to a sustainable basis. The MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing offers fisheries a way to confirm sustainability, using a credible, independent, third-party assessment process. This helps fisheries get recognized in the marketplace and buyers and consumers are assured that their seafood comes from a well managed and sustainable source.

What can I do?

Make sure you look out for the "blue tick" logo from the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies that the fish has come from a sustainable and well-managed fishery.

Fish to avoid

Due to over-fishing many fish stocks are in a state of serious decline.

Consumers can play a crucial part in preserving the life in our oceans by knowing which fish to avoid, and substituting these with fish from sustainably managed stocks that are caught or farmed in ways that cause minimum damage to the marine environment. [5]

  • Atlantic and North Sea cod

All north-east Atlantic cod stocks are assessed as being overfished, however stocks in the North Sea, Irish Sea, West of Scotland, eastern Channel, eastern Baltic, Greenland, Skaggerak, Kattegat and Norwegian coast are the most heavily depleted

  • Atlantic halibut

Atlantic halibut is overfished, which means it is caught in such high numbers that a sustainable fishery cannot be maintained by the current population size. It is also assessed by the IUCN World Conservation Union as endangered.

  • Dogfish

Spiny dogfish, spurdog, rock salmon or flake are all species of dogfish, which belong to the same family as sharks and rays. Also assessed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

  • European eel

There is one single European eel stock. This is severely depleted and at a historical minimum which continues to decline.

  • European hake

There are two main stocks for European hake - a northern and southern stock. The northern stock is below the minimum biomass level recommended by marine scientists but harvested sustainably, and the southern stock is depleted. Avoid eating hake from depleted stocks and immature fish below about 50cms and during their breeding season, which is February to July.

  • Porbeagle

Porbeagle is part of a group of sharks known collectively as mackerel sharks. Sharks are vulnerable to exploitation because they are slow-growing, long-lived, and have low reproductive capacity.

  • Plaice

Large numbers of undersized plaice are discarded in particular in areas of the southern North Sea that are trawled for sole and plaice. The Irish Sea stock is currently the only stock classified as healthy and harvested sustainably. Avoid eating immature plaice below 30cm and during their breeding season, from January to March.

  • Seabass

Line-caught seabass is a more sustainable choice. Choose fish which has been sustainably caught by handlining methods in the south-west of England, which is identified by a tag in its gill.

  • Skate

Common, long-nose, black and white skate are all endangered species. The common skate belies its name as it is becoming very rare in UK shallow seas and in European waters, and has been assessed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

  • Sole

Avoid eating immature sole (less than 28cm) and fish caught during the breeding season (April-June).

  • Whitebait

Whitebait are the fry (young) of herring and sprat. As with any fishery's future, sustainability relies on young fish being allowed to mature and reproduce to maintain the population. Taking juveniles before they have a chance to spawn undermines future sustainability.

User Contribution

More on Ethical fish

What can I do to help

Additional information


  • Catching the Ethical Fish: No Strings Attached
  • Fish to avoid


  2. Soil Association
  3. The Organic Food Federation
  4. Marine Stewardship Council