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Should we eat more freshwater fish?

February 10, 2011

Pike (Esox lucius - Image: Wikipedia)

The growing success of campaigns by the Marine Conservation Society, fish2fork, and most recently FishFight in raising awareness of the need for sustainable consumption of marine fish species has led to a search for sustainable alternatives to the traditional cod, haddock, salmon and tuna consumed by many people in Western Europe.  A recent blog post in the Guardian argues that a sustainable alternative may lie in the largely untapped culinary potential of freshwater species such as pike, perch, chub and carp.

It’s certainly an interesting idea – that in Britain we may overlook potentially plentiful, nutritious and tasty species due to cultural norms.  Carp are traditionally a staple food in many Eastern European countries, as they were in medieval monasteries in Britain.  In France, the perch is popular in fish markets and restaurants.

But how sustainable is the idea?  Limiting the focus to Britain, you could raise questions of long-term sustainability on both an ecological and cultural basis.

Culturally, campaigns like Fishfight are demonstrating that encouraging ‘adventurous’ eating of marine fish such as dab, pollack and gurnard is difficult. As such, encouraging the consumption of freshwater fish which are often seen as muddy tasting and generally lacking from current cultural traditions is likely to prove difficult.

Similarly, many freshwater systems in Britain are artificially stocked with fish by angling associations.  Whilst this keeps fish population levels high, it is extremely unlikely to be culturally acceptable to remove these fish on anything other than the smallest scale (if at all).  The British angling press regularly posts articles bemoaning the loss of prize carp to anglers from countries where the fish is traditional eaten.  This tension is only likely to escalate with increased removal of freshwater fish by wider groups of anglers.

Ecologically, it may be argued that many freshwater systems (in Europe, at least) may not hold the stock density of fish to withstand a long-term increase in catch removals. Indeed, in many smaller systems, the removal of large predators such as pike may potentially change the structure and function of the ecosystem.

This has been a very quick and shallow overview of the issue, but there are evidentially a number of interesting questions to ask.

Should we eat more freshwater fish? Is this sustainable? Or do we run the risk of transposing problems of overconsumption of marine species into freshwater systems?

Your comments, questions and ideas are very welcome.

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