50 Years of British Fish

When the UK joined the European Common Market in 1973, the UK’s fishing fleet was vast, and supported numerous coastal towns and cities. During our time in the European Union the size of our fishing fleet dwindled to almost nothing and yet it became a focal point of the Brexit debate. Despite being an island…


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Post-Brexit, we do still have a small fishing industry, which is desperately hoping to realise the promised benefits of taking back control of our fishing waters.  For centuries the fish in the waters surrounding the British Isles have been plundered by foreign fishing boats, which have become ever larger and more destructive of our ocean floor.  The role that our ocean can play in fighting climate change is greater than what can possibly be achieved on land, yet we are still to take action in banning destructive bottom trawling.  One the positive side, five new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) have been proposed and public consultation was completed on 28th September 2022, with action promised by July 2023.  During his short tenure as Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, increased the fine that water companies could be charged for dumping sewage into our rivers and seas to £250 million, although there are reports that Thérèse Coffey is unhappy with this level of fine.

If we cared more about fish, perhaps we would shout louder about the environmental destruction wrought in our ocean.  Creating a viable market for any endangered food is a critical element in their survival, and arguably even more so where the issue of visibility is a huge part of the problem.  Before we left the EU, British fishermen seemed to clearly understand that creating a home market for their fish was going to be a significant part of their role because whilst we are mainly eating imported fish, 80% of what is landed here is exported! The 10-15% higher price paid abroad seems to have led many of our fishermen to give up on developing the home market, but as fisherman have been subject to the same high fuel prices that have affected food production on land, ensuring a catch covers costs is understandable.  As fuel prices come down, hopefully the cheaper species will become worth promoting here.

If you can remember back 50 years you will see just how much more adventurous we have become in the fish we eat, partly thanks to foreign travel but even more so thanks to the explosion in eating out.  When I first visited Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in the 1980s (an all time low for fish consumption in the UK) there was virtually nowhere else serving fish and I had to send back the crab sandwich I had ordered in my seafront restaurant because the crab was clearly off!  Let’s look at some figures.

Some Statistics

Per capita, we eat 18.5 kg of fish a year, compared with a global average of 20.5 kg. This figure has  remained relatively stable overt time, with an all-time high of 22.1 kg in 2006 and an all-time low of 16.0 kg in 1980 (source:Faostat). 

So, we consume slightly fewer fish than the global average, but this average includes landlocked countries, where consumption is generally lower.  For example, in Germany the average consumption is only 12.63kg per capita, whilst in Spain it is 42.4kg, France 34.24kg and Italy 29.82kg (2019 figures via Statista).   It is said that nowhere in the British Isles is more than 70 miles from the sea (although Lichfield in Staffordshire claims to be 84 miles away) which makes our use of the natural resource from the surrounding sea pretty poor.

NHS guidelines state:

A healthy, balanced diet should include at least 2 portions of fish a week, including 1 of oily fish.  A portion is around 140g (4.9oz).

This would add up to a per capita consumption of 14.56 kg, against our 1980 low of 16kg and average of 18.5kg, so on average we meet the NHS recommended consumption, although I’ll come back to the oily fish part later.

Just five species of fish make up the bulk of the fish we eat in Britain: Salmon, Cod, Haddock, Prawns and Tuna.  This lack of diversity is even more of an issue than our overall consumption level.

Some people, including most recently, chef Angela Hartnett, have attributed this narrow range to a something approaching a phobia of fish, and certainly a lack in cooking skills.  Fish was one of the cookery courses I used to teach.  There was never any less demand for this subject than other courses, but people did say that they were less confident about cooking fish than other foods. The difficulty in obtaining fresh fish, coupled with the price, meant that they cooked it less frequently than other food.

According to a 2012 report commissioned by Sainsbury’s in association with the Future Foundation, the main reason for not eating fish was cost (46%).  Other significant barriers to eating fish cited were lack of recipe knowledge (34%), lack of availability of fresh fish in local shops (28 per cent), lack of time to prepare from scratch (28%), not liking the smell it makes (24%) and difficulties planning ahead for meals (17%).

A fish phobia?

Doubtless Angela Hartnett was just trying to be provocative in suggesting that British people have a fish phobia.  I am confident that they do not, and these are some of my observations that led me to this conclusion:

  • The queue for the fish stall at my local market is the longest of any of the stands and, as it tours the diverse Somerset markets, I asked how the different towns varied in their demand.  Not much apparently, and although farmed salmon is their biggest seller, they have no problem selling lesser-known varieties just by passing on a few cooking tips.
  • The fishmonger & restaurant that we use in Bristol is almost always full and encompasses a wide range of age and ethnicities.  The fish they sell arrives daily from Brixham and almost never includes any of the “big five”.  As I explained to my nephews before taking them for lunch recently, they sell fish and they sell chips, but not “Fish and Chips”.  They seemed to like this phrase, and understood that we would be eating the fish that swim in the sea closest to where we live.  Scallops, Wild Atlantic Prawns, Monkfish and Lobster were all enjoyed, with crab cakes being the only thing they were less sure of.  They loved all of the paraphernalia of cracking claws, picking meat and using finger bowls.  It was certainly a greater success than I have so far been able to achieve with vegetables!
  • All around our coast there are restaurants serving locally sourced fish and they never seem to have a problem persuading people to eat lesser-known varieties. For example, when Rick Stein opened The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow in 1975, the unnamed fish he used in Fish and Chips was sea bass.  Now that has become so popular that we farm it.  The popularity of Fish and Chips does mean that almost any variety that is suggested as an alternative to cod or haddock soon also becomes endangered, most recently this applied to pollock.  But whilst continuing to consider different fish varieties, I think we should take encouragement from the enduring popularity of Fish and Chips and its place in our Food Culture.  Imagine the riot that would ensue were Fish and Chips to disappear from the Friday menu of works canteens throughout the north of England, or the vehemence of opinion over regional differences as regards cooking fat – these are things to be celebrated. 

I might say that fish is marginally more popular with women than men, an observation echoed by my experience of teaching fish cookery, but the margin is not huge.  If there is one factor that men are concerned about it would be bones, and a general reluctance to spend time doing anything with food before it can be consumed.   For me, an hour spent cracking and picking over a crab is an integral part of the enjoyment, but I have come to realise that everyone at the table needs to be equally enjoying the experience!  Both men and women seem to value the nutritional benefits of fish, and the speed of cooking.  If you are late home from work and need to have supper on the table quickly, fish fits the bill and is more easily digested than meat if you have to eat late. Complete meals for home delivery are popular and I have heard of several people who have learnt to cook this way.  Fish boxes delivered to your door really took off during lockdowns and, as long as you can find a reliable delivery company, look set to remain a good way to buy fish for those who live nowhere near a fishmonger. 

However, fish seems to be something we are more likely to eat out than at home.  I’m sure you know the old joke about Lobster Thermidor being one of two things you never get at home!  Most shellfish should be alive until cooked, so buying it is the first half of the problem.   Even I, in addition to all the hard to source shellfish, never cook fish and chips or make sushi at home.  Whilst visibility of fresh fish is a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation, it is, for me, the major issue.  Even where I can buy it, the range is never that great. 

I am delighted to see that the “Fish in School Hero” programme, which began last year, is aiming to ensure that every child gets a chance to prepare, cook and eat fish before they leave school.  It made me recognise the need to take my nephews out to experience different fish, as I buy mine on a Wednesday but they usually  eat with me on a Tuesday.

Why the Big Five?

 I doubt many people often encounter a choice that goes beyond the “big five” varieties.  This is a disaster for our fishermen, the environment and the individual species. 

Supermarkets have largely given up on having a fresh fish counter, and certainly on one manned by a knowledgeable fishmonger; so, for those who buy their fish in supermarkets, the only choice usually is between frozen or fresh, and these will be prepared ready for cooking. These five varieties also dominate the ready meal and takeaway markets.  We are led to believe these are the varieties that people want, when in reality they are the ones that suit our food system.  Let’s look at them one by one:


50 years ago, when we joined the Common Market, we still ate wild salmon, now it is so endangered that almost any that are caught are returned to the water. 

Many possible reasons have been put forward for the collapse in numbers of Wild Atlantic salmon, including the increased salinity of the sea, river pollution and physical barriers like dams.  They have probably all contributed, but the most compelling argument for me is the rise in salmon farming.  It can’t be just coincidence that the wild salmon runs that remain in the world are in those parts without salmon farms – headed by Alaska, which has none, and followed by Russia, which has very few.

The decline in wild salmon numbers had already been noticed before salmon farming began in the 1970s, since when we have supposedly cleaned up our rivers. However, the escape of farmed salmon into the wild has overwhelmed recovery efforts. The genetics of wild salmon are influenced by the individual rivers in which they grew up so that they are quite distinct from those from another river.  This is thought to be a major factor in helping them find their way back to their birth river when the time comes to spawn. Although farmed salmon were originally bred from the Wild Atlantic, they were selected from just three rivers with the goal of achieving a salmon that would put on weight more quickly and from less food.  Farmed salmon are now so different to wild, both genetically and physiologically, that many consider they should now be identified as a separate species.  Although the farmed salmon are not well equipped to survive in the wild, they do compete for food, introduce disease, and interbreed, all of which reduce the survival chances for wild salmon.

Wild Fish have put together a comprehensive73-page document explaining their case in calling for a ban on the practise of open-net salmon farming, which I would urge you to read in full.  With Farmed Salmon being the UK’s single largest food export, it seems unlikely that the government will respond to their call for a ban, although it is interesting to read that Norway has announced plans to increase tax on the industry there.  And well done to those chefs who are already displaying the “Off the Table” logo to show that farmed salmon is not used in their restaurant.  Let hope this message spreads.   

My final point about salmon relates to its supposed health benefits.  Remember the NHS guideline that I gave earlier recommends that one of our portions of fish per week be of oily fish.  25 years ago, the Omega 3 content of salmon, which is the critical element for health, was based on wild salmon. In farmed fish this is much lower, as an increasing proportion of the feed has come from plants in response to criticisms about the unsustainability of feeding a higher proportion of wild fish to a given weight of farmed.  Between 2006 and 2015, the Omega 3 content of farmed salmon has halved, making it barely count as an “oily fish”.


Most of the tuna eaten in the UK is canned and as with salmon, people mistakenly think they are eating it for it’s health benefits.  Tuna contains relatively little Omega 3 even in its fresh state, but canning completely destroys what little there was.  The NHS has removed it from its list of oily fish.

The destruction of Omega 3 in the caning process is unique to tuna, and does not apply to other fish such as sardines, which would be an excellent swop in people’s diets.  The important point to note however, is that whilst we are meeting our overall fish consumption target we are almost certainly not obtaining half of this from oily fish, or they would feature in our “most consumed” list.  The oily fish category is the number one priority for change, and I have suggested suitable varieties and a recipe below.

Cod and Haddock

The popularity of Fish and Chips is what drives our consumption of these two species, although haddock is also often sold smoked.

Both Cod and Haddock are still caught in the Atlantic, but warming seas are driving them further north.  The UK consumes about 115,000 tonnes of cod each year but only 15,000 tonnes comes from the North Sea, with the rest imported mainly from the fertile grounds in the Barents Sea and around Norway and Iceland. Haddock is generally considered a sustainable option, although as it often swims in the same areas as cod both species are often caught together. 

Such is the popularity if Fish and Chips that stocks of almost any suggested alternative have quickly come under pressure, as we saw with Pollock.

Which is the most important element – Fish or Chips?  My nephews appeared quite happy to eat monkfish provided it was accompanied by a bowl of chips.  Hake is another white fish that is caught in more southerly waters.  Or perhaps we could eat Moules Frites like they do in Belgium.  And who remembers Scampi and Chips in a basket?  This was popularised by Berni Inns in the 1970’s when pub food was in its infancy.  At that time the scampi contained the whole tails of Dublin Bay Prawns (Langoustine) which are probably my favourite shellfish, although subsequently they were often substituted (Monkfish was one substitution).

As fish and chips is almost invariably eaten outside of the home, it is down to the shops and pubs to introduce variations, and hopefully not to all alight on the same one!


With prawns, the biggest concern is with the farming of warm water prawns in Asia, which use wild-caught fish as feed and often destroys trees in order to create new fish farms.

The small cold-water prawns found in our waters are not an issue, but it is the King and Tiger prawns that you will find in so many takeaway meals that we need to avoid. These are also often sold frozen in supermarkets and so are potentially one of the few fish we cook at home.

Non-native Signal Crayfish have almost wiped out our native white-clawed crayfish, which are now protected.  Eating Signal Crayfish (sometimes sold in sandwiches) helps protect our own species and prevent the damage they do to our waterways.

Potted shrimp are sold in some supermarkets and provide a flavour far greater their size.  A true British delicacy.

More on Oily Fish

Oily fish, or fish oil supplements, were first recommended to me when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis because of the neuroprotective qualities of the Omega 3 fatty acid.   It is beneficial in numerous other health conditions including Alzheimer’s, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, certain cancers and heart disease.    

A serendipitous practical benefit of the high fat content is that these fish are frequently preserved, which overcomes the problem of fresh fish supplies and should make them easy to include in your diet once a week

Having identified oily fish as the category we most need to eat more of, let’s look at some options from our waters. 

  • Mackerel

I think the British people love mackerel because I often hear people asking the fish monger when they are likely to make their appearance.   They were the first fish I caught and gutted because they swim close to our shore making it possible to fish from the beach or from a boat in the bay.  This was an essential element of my childhood holidays.  They swim in large shoals, as do most other oily fish.  This means that when they do arrive, they are caught in large numbers.  Mackerel contained the highest percentage of oil of the group and historically they were the only fish that were allowed to be sold on a Sunday because the oil content meant they would not keep.  The most common method of preserving mackerel is smoking.

  • Herring

Like Mackerel, these are pelagic fish, a characteristic that plays a huge part in their history.  Even the name herring, from the German word heer meaning an army, reflects the vast shoals in which they swim.  The trouble with these shoals is that they appear and disappear on a whim.  During the 13th and 14th centuries, Skâne (then in Denmark, now part of Southern Sweden) was the capital of herring until the shoals disappeared, quite suddenly, around the beginning of the 15th century and reappeared in the North Sea.  The shoal tended to migrate around the British Isles in a south-westerly direction, and Scottish “Herring Girls” who had developed a tremendous speed and skill in cleaning and salting the fish, followed the shoal to provide their services.

Between 1950 and 1960 the herring catch in the North Sea fell by half, and this was not a result of natural movement of the shoal but over-fishing.  It spelt the end of many of the herring fisheries and our consumption of Kippers (smoked herring) obviously fell too.  That is until quite recently, because stocks of herring in the North Sea are now back at a sustainable level and rated as a “Fish to Eat” by the Marine Conservation Society. 

Herrings are mostly sold cured.  In Britain we specialise in smoking them to make kippers, which extends their shelf life and has probably played a significant part in the revival of their popularity.  In Scandinavia they are more often soused (pickled) although there is one company in Orkney that preserves them in this way.

Kippers were traditionally served for breakfast, and you will still encounter them in most hotel breakfast menus.  I more often eat them for lunch.  Both smoked mackerel and kippers make excellent pate, an old 70s starter, which is also easily transported for a work lunch.

  • Sardines

The impact of canning on Omega 3 is peculiar to tuna and not true for sardines, which is the method most often used for preserving them and makes them an essential store cupboard ingredient.  Sardines canned whole, i.e. on the bone, are actually said to improve with age.  Margaret Costa’s classic Four Seasons cookery book devotes a whole chapter to the subject of tinned sardines.  From this I learnt that Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, founded a vintage sardine club before the war and held tastings from members sardine cellars.  They considered 1959 to be the best post-war sardine vintage.  Sardines should actually be kept for at least a year before they are eaten, which makes them ideal for buying in bulk.  I used to have to get my supplies from France or Spain because they canned the whole, not filleted, sardine in olive oil rather than the sweetened tomato sauce which seemed to be favoured in the UK.  However, I am delighted that Mitch Tonks, a wonderful ambassador for British fish, is now selling a superior range of canned fish, including sardines.  Rockfish tinned British fish & seafood – sustainable seafood (therockfish.co.uk)

Larger sardines are called Pilchards and are strongly associated with Cornwall, but also, unfortunately, with memories of wartime food in the form of pilchards on toast.  They underwent a spot of re-marketing to sell them as sardines, which the British associate more with foreign holidays and barbeques!

The recipe I use for Pasta con Le Sarde is made with tinned sardines.  It is actually one of my all-time favourite dishes, I make it most weeks throughout the summer when I have fresh fennel growing.

Pasta con Le Sarde

This recipe comes from Sicily where fennel grows abundantly in the wild.  If you do not grow herb fennel you might find it quite hard to buy.  If so, you will have to substitute it with the fennel bulb (including the green frondy tops if you are lucky enough to buy a bulb with them still attached).

Serves 2

Large bunch of fennel

1 onion, chopped

pinch of saffron

4 anchovy fillets (optional)

2 tins of sardines in olive oil

good handful of currants

handful of pine nuts

olive oil

breadcrumbs (from approx. 2 slices of stale white bread)

clove of garlic

Bucatini pasta (thicker than Spaghetti – with a hollow centre) or other dried pasta

Bring a large saucepan of heavily salted water to the boil (2 tbsps salt/5 pints water).  Put in the fennel and blanch for a minute.  Lift out the fennel (a blanching basket makes this easier, but you can use tongs).  Refresh the fennel under cold water and press to drain the excess water.  The water in which you blanched the fennel will be used for cooking the pasta and also in the sauce.

Heat the oven to 150C/Gas Mark 3.  Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a baking tray (you can use the oil from one of the cans of sardines) and add the clove of garlic, cut into slices, to flavour it.  Put into the oven to heat for a couple of minutes and then spread the breadcrumbs out in the tray.  Turn them so that they are lightly coated with oil (adding more oil if necessary).  Return to the oven so that they toast whilst you cook the sauce.

Put the chopped onion into a frying pan with a ladleful of the water from the pasta pot, a pinch of saffron, and oil from the second tine of sardines. (If you are using bulb fennel you should slice it and cook it with the onion).  Cook over a fairly high heat until the water has evaporated and, in the meantime, bring the pasta water back up to a rolling boil.  Check the time because you need to have the sauce ready by the time the pasta has cooked (about 10 minutes but check the pack).

Add the chopped anchovies to the onions.  Turn the heat down so that it cooks more gently.

Chop the fennel and add it to the onions together with the pine nuts and raisins.  Finally add the sardine fillets.  You can slightly loosen the sauce with a little of the pasta water if it needs it, as this will help it to combine smoothly with the pasta.

Check the pasta is cooked by biting it; it should still have a little “bite” in the centre.  Drain and toss immediately with the sauce.  Top with the toasted breadcrumbs before serving.

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