Webchat with Neil Nugent and Quentin Clark

This is an edited transcript of a live webchat on 22 June 2009 with fish experts Neil Nugent and Quentin Clark from Waitrose, sponsors of film The End of the Line.

Sustainable fishing | Buying fish | Cooking fish

Hello, this is Quentin Clark and I am the senior fish buyer at Waitrose. Thanks to all of you for joining us today. Just to let you know why we are here hosting this chat. We supported the launch of the film End of the Line because this was a great way to raise the profile of something we have been working on for a long time - the sustainable sourcing of fish. It a complex area so a webchat is a really good way to discuss the issues with interested people. Hope I can help and excuse my spelling when typing at speed.

Hi all, my name is Neil Nugent, I'm the executive chef at Waitrose - I develop food for our brand as well as recipes etc. Happy to answer any questions on cooking and preparing fish. Cheers.

Sustainable fishing

Letter Qtraceybath: Would definitely like more information on which fish are sustainable and, ideally, for you to stop selling the ones that are over-fished. And more recipes please for the cod pretender-type fish.

Letter AQuentinClark: First off, let's look at how you can tell if fish is sustainable. You can look for some third-party certification such as the Marine Conservation Society, which has a blue tick on the pack or ticket but the trouble is there are lots of them around the world so it gets confusing. We know that so we took the decision to make sure all the fish we sell meet the following criteria must:

  • Not be an endangered or threatened species
  • Come from a fishery that is scientifically managed so the stocks are healthy
  • Be using the most environmentally friendly catching method possible
  • Be fully traceable so no illegal fish can get into the supply chain (and keeps up the quality).

Letter QDoyouthinktheysaurus: I'm forever flummoxed by the fish counter. Which fish should we be buying from a sustainability point of view? And which fish should we avoid? Is cod ever a 'green' option or should we all avoid it all together?

Letter AQuentinClark: Are certain types of fish more sustainable than others? Definitely, but it's down to where it comes from, too. Cod is great from Iceland or Norway but not from the North Sea, for example. Good thing to check is the list from fishonline.org, which lists all the fish recomendations from the Marine Conservation Society. 

Letter Qsophable: How can you justify selling any farmed salmon at all given what you know about the huge risks to health because of PCPs and dioxins which are concentrated in their food and antibiotics and sealice treatments, all of which pose risks to human health from ingestion?

From a marine conservation point of view, selling farmed salmon is criminal as it takes more than 3lb of wild fish to raise 1lb of farmed salmon, and said fish are often juveniles of endangered species. I shop in Waitrose but hope fervently that you will take the lead in raising awareness that far from being a health-giving food, farmed salmon is both a health risk and an ecological disaster.

And before you plead that not all farmed salmon is equal, please know that I am fully aware that even so called 'organic' farmed salmon is treated with 'SLICE', a sealice treatment which is carcinogenic. The soil association have let their brand down badly in allowing the term organic to be applied to farmed salmon. The same conservation issues outlined above apply to all farmed salmon.

Further any farmed salmon's flesh would be grey were it not for the addition of canthaxanthin, a substance that was banned as a tanning pill in the UK because it accumulates in the retina. Why are you stocking this stuff? Can I recommend the book Bottom Feeder by Taras Grescoe. The End of the Line cites much of the same research. If you are really promoting this film, what are you doing selling anything but wild salmon? It really is not acceptable.

Please, please do read my posts and don't come back with an argument that the farmed salmon you stock is better because of less stocking in cages and faster flowing water because in the end they all use SLICE and the differences are minimal. All the health and environmental issues stand unaddressed.

The public don't realise that we're paying a potentially health and planet threatening price for fish like salmon (which used to be a once or twice a year luxury for most) to become cheap and plentiful. I've started with salmon but we could go into farmed seabass, prawns etc.

There are fish that are sustainable, plentiful and that Waitrose can and should be plugging like crazy.

Letter AQuentinClark: There is a lot of discussion about farmed fish and is it good or bad. The main isses are environmental, welfare and sustainability. A lot of care is taken to make sure that the sites are in areas that have high tidal flow so that it is kept clean and actually the fish have to swim - that keeps them lean and fit.

Welfare at Waitrose is a key priority and we stock with fewer fish to give them plenty of room. The whole thing about the environmental siting really helps too.

Sustainability of the feed is next. We have similar principles for the sustainability of the feed as we do for our fish for sale. One thing we won't do is to take out the marine ingredients and replace with vegetable materials. Why? Salmon are carnivores and it is better for them and we want the omega 3 to be there when you eat the fish later.

After the chat, Quentin posted: I think that it was always going to be hard to deal with the complex issues of a sustainable fishing policy in a short webchat. This has taken us 12 years and, unfortunately, one hour of webchatting only gave me time to post a few hasty responses to a few well-directed questions.

Firstly, eating fish: there's no reason to stop eating fish - it is a vital and healthy part of any diet quite apart from being delicious. What we MUST all do is to support sustainable fishing. Wherever you choose to buy your fish from, we are just urging you to ensure that it is from sustainable sources so that we all become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Now fish farming. Half the fish we sell is farmed and we are very aware that farming on its own is not a solution because of the impact on wild species used for feed etc. That is why we apply similar criteria to the sourcing of wild feed species as we do to the fish we have for human consumption. We also use the waste from the fish production in the feed at around 25%.

The replacement of marine oils and proteins with vegetable substitutes is cheaper but we will not do that because it is bad for the fish and eventually we want to offer nutritious fish with high omega 3 levels in the correct balance to the omega 6.

The other issue is that of residual PCBs and dioxins that are persistent in the environment following industrial activity before the 1980s. The issue is one of risk. The levels are extremely low, subject to control and monitoring and declining.

The benefits of eating oily fish far outweigh the absolutely minuscule risk and, in fact, not doing so increases the risk of other negatives such as cardiovascular disease. This is at the route of government advice to eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily fish. There are many examples of how we need to balance risk. There is a minute risk associated with vaccinations but a much bigger one associated with not vaccinating.

We sponsored the film End of The Line just to raise the profile of the debate in this way but there is no better way to see what we are talking about than to see it yourself. I would like to extend a personal invitation to Sophable to come to Scotland and visit our salmon farming operation up there. We will pay for the flight and hotel accommodation and it would take about two days. Sophable, over to you...

It is inevitable that some will see our involvement in sustainable fishing as some sort of gimmick. I can assure you that this is not true and we want to be able to continue selling fish forever. We can use our buying effort to encourage change and that is just what we do. This is a journey towards the ultimate solution to solve the issue we all face. Waitrose is still on that journey, we are constantly debating with and taking advice from a variety of stakeholders on how to get there. We may not all agree about the approach, but from your comments, I believe we all share the same goal. All fish you can buy in Waitrose meets our four-point sustainability plan, including frozen.

Letter QMiniMarmite: I think it is great that Waitrose is sponsoring this film and find that Waitrose does stock more sustainably sourced fish than my other local supermarkets (I live in the Greater London area). Having said that I still find that there is not the range that I am looking for, the usual suspects of cod, salmon and haddock seem to be the norm. There are wonderful fish in our waters and it seems that a lot of the good stuff is still being sold to France and Spain - where are the langoustine and local prawns, for example? Does Waitrose have plans to change this?

Letter AQuentinClark: We take fish from anywhere that meets our strict quality and sustainabilty criteria. We are taking great seabass from Wales, for example, and have lots of fish from Cornwall. We love new sources of fish and constantly look out for them. We will have a look at your suggestions.

Letter QMiniMarmite: Thank you, some prawns from Norfolk would be just lovely! I do feel quite concerned about the large amount of prawns available from far-flung places where working conditions are reported to be extremely poor. What is Waitrose's approach when sourcing this type of product?

Letter AQuentinClark: We have to buy the tropical prawns from tropical areas where they are farmed. Cold water (smaller) come from the northern seas. I am proud to say we will be launching the first Fair Trade prawn soon.

Buying fish

Letter QMrsSeanBean: I find it's often difficult to use the 'smell' test to guage whether fish is really fresh, as it all seems to smell vile to start with. Is it normal for fish to have a strong smell? It may be that I am just hypersensitive to / dislike fishy smells.

Letter A QuentinClark: Fresh fish does not smell, it has clean clear eyes and red (not brown) gills. In fact, sometimes people complain of a lack of flavour from very fresh fish, so you can keep it a bit longer if you like. Our cod was swimming on Monday if you buy on Thursday.

Letter AQuentinClark: Looking at fish species in general, I don't want to continually advertise our offer but all the fish we sell meets our criteria for sustainability. But we also encourage people to look around and try new species - they're great for the cooking repertoire and help to take any pressure off. Why not try whiting, pollack or coley as a change from cod? Tilapia is a great fish and is farmed using mainly vegetarian food because it is a vegetarian fish.

Letter QTheUnstrungHarp: Quentin/Neil, is there anything at all you can say that might persuade mumsnetters to feed your beautifully packaged but apparently toxic farmed salmon to our children?

Letter AQuentinClark: Farmed salmon does not pose any risk to health. In fact, the benefits of the omega 3 far outweigh any possible concerns over the past issues of PCBs etc, which have been present in all foods in minute and decreasing amounts following action in the 1980s to limit the industrial processes responsible.

Letter QTheUnstrungHarp: Quentin, the study that recommended eating farmed salmon no more than once a month was from 2004, not the 1980s. 

Letter AQuentinClark: Sorry, I was not referring to that, just that the industrial processes current in the 1980s were responsible for the background level of PCBs etc in the environment. They are now 25% less than then and will halve again in the next 10 years. Levels are very low and we carefully monitor levels to make sure we are ok.

Letter Qchampagnesupernova: I get my groceries delivered (Ocado) as I work quite long hours and live in a fairly rural area (so no Nigella-esque fishmonger round the corner). What is best way to try new fish for someone restricted in this way?

Letter ANeilNugent: You can get filleted fish which can be boneless and very easy to prepare. Salmon fillets for example can be seared and served in minutes with a rocket salad, or try our mackerel fillets cooked with a little butter and lemon, finished with caper berries and finely cut shallots. 

Letter QMagnaCarta: I'm not a huge fish eater although I love sashimi and am a bit lost how to cook it, so I need educating. Which are the best fish for omega 3s and do you have some great ideas on what to do with them?

Letter ANeilNugent: MagnaCarta, we're looking at sashimi- its very specific cuts and techniques - and we might trial it in our London stores. Best fish for omega 3 are mackerel and salmon.

Letter QLilymaid: Why do you now call skate 'ray' (yes, know that skate is ray) and is it overfished?

Letter AQuentinClark: Skate (the common skate) is endangered and we don't sell it. We do sell ray species that are are sustainable and that is why we have changed the name to ray so that customers know they are OK to buy.

Cooking fish 

Letter Qwhooosh: Neil, is there a fail-safe way for me to cook fish and NOT have it stink the whole house out? Even when wrapped tightly in foil I see to have the problem. 

Letter ANeilNugent: If the fish is fresh it shouldn't be too smelly, although things like smoked fish can be bit smelly. Best to poach fish gently or 'en papillote', which is cooked in a sealed bag in the oven - we sell our fish in bags of our counter - it a brilliant and simple method. Cook the fish very simply either by poaching, pan frying or roasting. Sauces that enhance fish or encourage kids to eat fish are good - sauce depends on fish species. Example: poached salmon and tomato sauce works well. If you're cooking fish for younger children, one thing in preparing the fish is to remove the bones, you can ask your fishmonger to do this but a pair of tweezers are a handy tool to remove the odd stray one.

Letter QHuffwardlyRudge: I have a question from my three-year-old daughter who would like to know if she can eat the fish's tongue and eyes when I bake a whole fish.

Letter ANeilNugent: Yes you can, though eyes are pretty grim. The tongues are delicious, as are cheeks (they go for a real premium in some countries). I once cooked at the cod museum in Bergen and my starter was tongue and cheek- with persillade (parsley dressing).

Letter QFlappyTheBat: Waitrose do sell tilapia but when I asked about it, they weren't very enthusiastic about it. However, both dds really seem to like it. Would love some recipes for tilapia as it doesn't have a lot of flavour and all I seem to do are tomato and garlic based sauces for it.

Letter ANeilNugent: Talapia does need a bit help to bring out the flavour. I find seared and finished with lime juice, a little chilli and coriander works well. Serve with steamed rice and pak choy.

NeilNugent: Quick coley recipe: pan roast fillet with spinach pine nuts and sultanas. Sear the coley fillets in a hot ovenable pan in a little olive oil, finish cooking in a warm oven (120C) for 5/6 mins. Try not to overcook. Once cooked, remove from pan onto a bed of cooked buttered spinach, add a knob of butter, handful of pine nuts and sultanas, and a good squeeze of lemon, then cook for two mins until butter melted, nuts colour and sultanas puff up. Add a little salt and serve over fish.

NeilNugent: Other species are mackerel and sardines- simple to cook and and prepare, simply grill them or this time of year they go well on the BBQ. Once cooked, they scream for lemon juice and freshly ground pepper.

QuentinClark: Thanks to everybody. It is a massive subject and I know we have just touched the tip of the iceberg. I also know that you probably don't have the time to follow up on everything when you shop so hopefully you can see that we have tried to make it that much easier when you buy and cook fish.

Last updated: 9 months ago