Sustainable fishing – what to ask and how to use the MCS guide

I’ve already discussed the sustainability emergency, as well as whether it’s possible to get sustainable eel. Now I want to look at sustainable fishing: how to ensure that the fish I’m cooking with is sustainably sourced, what questions to ask my local fishmonger, and how to use the MCS Good Fish Guide.

What is the MCS?

The Marine Conservation Society is a society that looks to minimise damage to the sea from development and climate change. Their aims include:

…to ensure sustainable use of the seas by minimising harm when we harvest resources, for example through fishing and oil extraction.

Stop putting too much into our seas. MCS will work to prevent and clean up marine litter and pollution, and to minimise damage from development and climate change.

One of the main areas that the MCS is known for is the Good Fish Guide. This is a guide that you can use to find out which are the most sustainable. ‘Best choices’ are rated 1 and 2 (green), ‘Think’ are rated 3 and 4 (yellow and amber) and ‘Fish to Avoid’ are rated 5 (red).

For example, if I search for sea bass in the Good Fish Guide, it comes up with this information:

Sustainability information about seabass
Sustainability information about seabass

As you can see, sea bass have a range from 1 (fish to eat) to 5 (fish to avoid). This is because there are a couple of different options – seabass caught at sea is less sustainable because they are vulnerable to over-exploitation and localised depletion. Therefore, the Good Fish Guide suggests not eating sea bass that has been caught at sea.

Farmed sea bass, on the other hand, is more sustainable. There is also a range of sustainability with the farmed sea bass – those that are produced with a recirculating system (land-based tanks that have no interaction with the surrounding environment and therefore prevent escapes, pollution and disease transfer) are more sustainable. Those that are produced with an open net pen are less sustainable due to various environmental concerns including chemical pollution.

What questions should I ask my local butcher/fishmonger?

According to the MCS:

Retailers and brands are required by EU law to state the species of fish, production method (wild  caught/farmed), capture area and capture method for unprocessed seafood products.

However, you may still have questions, or the information may not be found easily. Keeping the information from the Good Fish Guide in mind, (it might be helpful to download the Good Fish Guide app on your phone), some questions to ask your butcher or fishmonger include:

  • Where was this seafood caught? If you use the Good Fish Guide, this will help you know what areas are more sustainable – so with the sea bass example, sea bass caught at sea from the West of Scotland and Ireland are less sustainable than those caught from the English Channel.
  • How was this seafood caught? (Handline, pole and line, pot or trap or dive caught are more sustainable options in comparison to dredging, for example)
  • What species is this seafood? (Sometimes generic terms are used for names of fish e.g. “skate” or “tuna”, but some of these species are more endangered than others)
  • What could I use as a replacement? (If a recipe calls for a specific type of seafood, but you are not able to source it sustainably, ask if a different species could be used instead).

If your questions are not answered satisfactorily, the MCS suggests giving the seafood a miss.

Labels to look out for:

The blue MSC label – this is an accreditation given by the Marine Stewardship Council.


According to the MSC:

When a fishery is successfully certified to the Fisheries Standard, its certified catch can be sold with the blue MSC label.

Certification to the MSC Fisheries Standard is voluntary. It’s open to all fisheries who catch marine or freshwater organisms in the wild. This includes most types of fish and shellfish.

These certifications are carried out by independent certifiers, not the MSC. They look for information about:

  • Fish stocks – the fishing must be at a level that ensures it can continue indefinitely and the fish population can remain productive and healthy.
  • Minimising environmental impact – fishing activity must be managed carefully so that other species and habitats within the ecosystem remain healthy.
  • Effective fisheries management – MSC certified fisheries must comply with relevant laws and be able to adapt to changing environmental circumstances.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council label – this label from the ASC is complimentary to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label; which is used on certified and sustainably wild caught fish. This label demonstrates to consumers that their seafood comes from farms that limit their impacts on the environment and the community.

ASC sustainable fish farming

The ASC farm standards require farm performance to be measured against both environmental and social requirements. Aspects of animal welfare are also covered.

RSPCA Assured label – this is an accreditation (formerly known as Freedom Food) given by the RSPCA that ensures that the farms and everyone else involved in the animals’ lives have been assessed and meet RSPCA animal welfare standards. This includes both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and ensures that greater space, bedding and enrichment materials are provided.

RSPCA Assured logo

Unlike many other labelling schemes, they are completely independent from the food and farming industries. However, this label will only be found on salmon and trout. This is because the vast majority of Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout consumed around the world are farmed intensively.

Soil Association Organic label – this is a very rigorous label that is given by The Social Association. Their licensees must meet strict European laws about the production of organic food. They must also go further in key areas such as animal welfare, protecting human health, and safeguarding the environment.

soil association logo

Once a year there is a physical inspection of each farm’s organic-certified activities. This includes looking at the organic diet the fish eat, and ensuring that there are high welfare standards across the entire fish lifecycle.



By using the Good Fish Guide, and keeping your eyes open for the various labels, you can ensure that you are eating seafood that has been sustainably farmed or caught.

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