Archived site section

Please note that the content on this page has been archived and is not actively reviewed at present.

Sustain Better Food Britain Sustainable fishing

Fishing Bill - let's support improvements on procurement and fish labelling

Two amendments are to be tabled as part of the Committee Stage of the Fisheries Bill 2019, on buying sustainable fish for the public sector, and labelling fish to give consumers sustainability information. 

The following is available as pdf briefings; public procurement and labelling

Fish from sustainable stocks for public sector food

Using public money to support sustainable UK fishers through fish bought for public sector catering would support fishers and our marine environment by:

  • Linking public spending directly with the aims of the Fisheries Bill. £2.4 billion is spent each year on food and catering services for the public sector. The Fisheries Bill will create Management Plans to restore or maintain UK fish stocks at sustainable levels. In some cases, this will require remedial action including reducing catches in the short term. This amendment would help create a market benefit to taking a long term approach to fishing management – which is ultimately more profitable. Such market-based incentives are preferable to more punitive enforcement.
  • Growing the market for sustainable, UK-landed fish. Most fish caught in the UK is exported (up to 80%), and subject to uncertainties in the global market. Increasing domestic demand for sustainably-caught UK fish like hake, haddock, coley, mackerel and crab would create a much-needed boost to the fishing industry in the UK.
  • Supporting the recovery of the UK fish populations that are depleted. Recovering all UK fish stocks would allow 30% more fish to be landed by UK fleets (457,000 tonnes extra), and create 10,000 jobs in fishing and associated industries like localised processing and transport. These jobs would be in some of the most economically deprived parts of the UK including Cornwall, the east coast of England, west Wales and northern Scotland. It would also allow the UK to produce more food for domestic markets and export. The additional tourism and recreational fishing from thriving marine wildlife could add thousands more jobs, with improved biodiversity and more marine wildlife
  • Ensure greater transparency from our public institutions. Publishing compliance data would ensure a level playing field for businesses, allow public bodies to choose catering companies based on previous performance and thus drive improvement
  • Link public buying directly to the aims of the Bill, to ensure Government policy is joined up


Sustainable fish in the public sector at the moment:

Public sector caterers are required to serve fish with certain standards of sustainability – set out in The Government Buying Standards. Compliance with these standards is poor – A Department of Health report, published in 2017 and confirmed by Sustain research in 2018, showed that only half of NHS hospitals were meeting the basic food standards. When standards are enshrined as a statutory obligation (like school food) the research suggests compliance is better than when they aren’t (hospitals).


Are there any challenges for implementation?

Most of the major caterers and suppliers to the public sector now have a policy on sustainable fish sourcing. Businesses serving nearly one billion meals per year have pledged to buy sustainable fish, so fish suppliers are used to meeting the needs of their customers and supplying information.

Sustain’s analysis suggests that at the moment about 70% of the fish served by contract caterers in the UK is imported, even though in some cases there are suitable sources closer to home including coley, whiting, herring, mackerel and farmed trout. A clear, universal plan for increasing the buying of sustainable fish in the public sector would help to introduce the public to less-familiar species and incentivise supply chain companies to produce new products.


Some UK fisheries that could benefit from a boost in their market


Cornwall and the south coast, the North Sea, and West of Scotland


Following stock decline in the 1980s, a recovery plan was introduced based on scientific advice and all stocks are now considered sustainable.

Cornish Hake is Marine Stewardship Council certified


All UK sources including West Scotland, North Sea and South-West England

Stocks considered to be healthy


All UK sources including the Irish Sea, North Sea, and the West of Scotland.

Stocks across the UK considered to be healthy,

Some is Marine Stewardship Council certified



Caught in the east of the UK, including North Irish Sea, North Sea, Eastern English Channel

Some stocks healthy


UK caught from the North Sea

Populations here are increasing


South of England

Stocks considered to be healthy


Some other UK fish stocks are very depleted and overfished, and currently losing out on markets because they are considered ‘Fish to Avoid’ including North Sea cod, some langoustine populations in the North Sea, herring in the west of the UK and whiting in the west of Scotland. Clear, direct incentives for improvement are required.


Labelling fish to ensure consumers can choose sustainable, British produce

An amendment is being proposed to ensure fish products are labelled with information on origin and catch method, to make sure British consumers can choose British fish and support the UK industry.

Negotiations between the EU and UK about fishing quota and tariffs are ongoing and we don’t know how they will conclude. There are several things the UK Government can do now to help the UK industry regardless of the outcome of these negotiations. Guaranteeing that their fish will be identifiable to UK consumers is one of them.


Summary: labelling fish by species and catch method would support consumers, and the UK fishing industry:

  • Information at the point of purchase will enable consumers to make informed choices, including expressing a preference for fish that has been caught in a sustainable way. The British public will benefit from certainty and clarity, and have increased confidence in the quality of the UK produce.
  • Protecting consumers (and British fishers) in post-Brexit trade deals. Leaked documents from November 2019 revealed that the USA are hostile to food labelling, including front of pack nutrition labelling and foods with protected geographical status like Melton Mowbray pies or Cornish sardines. Setting labelling regulations in law will offer protection that UK seafood produce will be distinguishable in the future.
  • Support the aims of the Fisheries Bill - The Bill aims to restore or maintain UK fish stocks at sustainable levels. Labelling fish will help ensure consumers can identify better choices, preferentially choose sustainably sourced fish, and offer an incentive for the industry to be more sustainable. We should create an environment to enable these softer, market-based incentives to flourish. Such methods are preferable to harsh enforcement and financial penalties


Isn’t seafood labelling required already?

Yes, in 2013 EU regulation 1379/2013 set out requirements for unprocessed and some forms of processed fish to be labelled or marked with:

  • the exact species used (the scientific name and also the ‘Commercial Designation’, like cod or Dover Sole, which make more sense to the consumer than scientific species names)
  • how this species has been produced, and
  • where it originates from.


Why do we need this? Won't the labelling regulations will be transposed into UK law as per the EU Withdrawal Act 2018?

There are a few reasons why these labelling regulations should be put into the Fisheries Bill:

  • The Internal Market Bill proposed by Government last week includes the power to override the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, which could include the labelling regulations
  • There are powers in the Fishing Bill to change labelling rules
  • The USA have expressed a particular interest in challenging the UK on labelling, including front-of-pack health labelling and Protected Geographical Origin labelling in a trade deal, so there’s a risk they could insist on changing fish labelling regulations as well

Adding this into law would therefore give fish processing and retail businesses certainty about the packaging they need to produce going forward. It would also protect consumers from labelling regulations being watered down in the future. It would also send a clear signal to the fishing industry that if you use more sustainable fishing methods, and are a UK fisher, this information will be recognised on packaging for customers to see.


Which products or species could particularly benefit?

Salmon: Scottish farmed salmon is rated ‘3’ by the Marine Conservation Society, considered OK to eat. Salmon imported from Chile, and farmed using methods with a more significant environmental impact has a lower rating of ‘4’. (

Consumers require information on the country of origin and farming method to be able to choose between the two. Whether consumers make decisions on sustainability, or wanting to support the Scottish industry, this information would allow them to do that.

Plaice – some UK stocks of plaice are showing good signs of recovery and sustainable management, especially in the North Sea and English Channel. The 2007 recovery plan successfully brought fishing pressure down to sustainable levels, and the stock has since dramatically increased in size. Scientific advice from ICES now says that 166,000 tonnes can be caught sustainably. In the early 2000s, they recommended only around 60,000 tonnes (see Table 7 via this link). This labelling would differentiate fish caught in the North Sea, the English Channel, and the west coast of the UK including the North-west, from those caught in some parts of the Baltic sea which are at much lower level and considered ‘Fish to Avoid’.

Hake – Hake is the 10th most valuable species for UK fishing – in 2018 landings were worth 25.4 million. It is landed mainly in Cornwall, Devon, and around the Scottish coast. Following stock decline in the 1980s, a recovery plan was introduced based on scientific advice and all stocks are now considered sustainable.

Catches have been able to increase – without depleting the stock.

This labelling regulation would allow consumers to differentiate UK hake and imported hake (mostly from South Africa) caught by Otter trawl and with a lower sustainability rating (see

Herring – Herring is the UK’s 8th most valuable species (worth 45.3million in 2018). Most herring is exported at the moment but the UK market is growing and a bigger domestic market would be beneficial to the industry. Labelling would allow consumers to differentiate sustainable UK herring caught in in the east of the UK, including north Irish Sea, North Sea, eastern English Channel.


Wouldn’t it make some UK species look bad, as it would identify them as unsustainable?

Unfortunately it could. Consumers could look at packaging, identify it as an unsustainably caught fish and choose not to buy it. This could include the following:

  • UK cod from the North Sea: As it happens, most of the catches for this species are sold to foodservice (mainly restaurants), not retailers, so they wouldn’t be covered by the labelling rules
  • UK Nephrops (Langoustines) caught in certain areas: Again, most are exported to overseas markets
  • UK Scallops: Again, most go to restaurants but the key challenge for scallops is the lack of data on stocks and catches. This rule won’t solve that problem – data deficiency has been a problem for years, and must be solved by other means!

Ultimately, we must find a way to incentivise and recognise sustainable fishing. The solution is not to hide information from consumers, but improve the sustainability of fisheries so the industry will see the benefits of preferential consumer choice. Such ‘soft’ mechanisms like labelling are part of a range of measures to improve sustainability and would – we believe - be preferable to more punitive measures to deliver on the aims of this Bill.


Can’t we just label with country of origin? Isn’t that enough?

Country of origin labelling is not adequate information to determine the sustainability status of a fish, and therefore would not, by itself, allow consumers to make choices on this basis. It would not provide differentiation for more sustainable UK fishers, and therefore not provide the market benefits or incentives to improve.

Giving as much information to the consumer as possible allows the government to use consumers as a tool to help deliver the aims of this Bill. It comes at very low cost, and is happening already.



All sustainability information is correct at the time of writing (September 2020) but the status of fisheries changes over time. Up to date information can be found in the Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide. Certified sustainable wild-caught fisheries can be found via the Marine Stewardship Council, and responsible farmed fish via the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.


Contact: Ruth Westcott, ruth [at]

Further briefings from Sustain on farming, fishing, Brexit, food standards and trade


Better Food Britain: We want everyone to be able to enjoy food that is good for our health, produced in a way that supports good livelihoods, reduced waste and greenhouse gas emissions, high animal welfare and restoration of nature. Find out how.

Support our campaign

Your donation will help our work in fighting for a better food Britain following Brexit.


The Green House
244-254 Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9DA

020 3559 6777

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

© Sustain 2024
Registered charity (no. 1018643)
Data privacy & cookies