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Tom Aikens, Chef

Tom Aikens, ChefSustainable Fish City - Fish Hero starMichelin-starred chef Tom Aikens is a passionate supporter of marine conservation.

Tom also dedicates time to School Food Matters, a charity that campaigns on the importance of good food in school. Tom runs practical sessions promoting cooking in schools, encouraging children to have a go at preparing simple and nutritious meals.

In addition, Tom runs an award winning restaurant in Chelsea, West London, called Tom Aikens Restaurant and Tom’s Kitchen at Somerset House in central London.

Tom Aikens has taken time to explain why he cares so much about this issue, and what he has done to change his menus to support a sustainable fishing industry.


Why do you think sustainable fish is important?

Fishermen put their lives at risk every time they go to sea. Some people argue that we cannot just stop eating or buying fish as it affects so many people's lives. Others say it is the only thing to do, otherwise we will have no fish left. What we have taken out can never be put back, and these terrible things that we have done to the oceans and the fish is very marked.

Globally, people eat more fish than any other type of animal protein, especially within poor coastal communities, and fishing supports the livelihoods of 450 million people. This includes not only fishermen and their families, but also those employed in connected activities such as net making, fish processing, and distribution.

The words of "sustainability", "provenance", "air miles", "environmental impact", "traceability" - they are all the words of today and hopefully the future, regardless of the bad fishing practices that happened in the past. None of that can be changed. It has all been a very valuable learning curve, learning from mistakes that maybe should never have happened. There are many things that can be changed to improve parts of the fishing industry, and we can all do our bit to help.

What inspired you to take action on sustainable fish?

We all have stories of when we first came in touch with fish at a very early age - either through the sight or smell, or the peculiar shapes and sizes - all the many colours and varieties. Or even eating your first piece of fish. My earliest memory was when I must have been about five or six years old and playing in the sands of Salcombe Beach and Noss Mayo down in Devon... seeing for the first time all the bright sea anemones and little crabs in the many rock pools that were strewn along the beach. They were so exciting just to potter around in, with a little net trying to catch anything that moved - all the different coloured seaweeds. And waiting patiently for a shrimp or fish to jump out from the shelter of a loose rock. We use to catch fresh shrimps by the bucket load along the edge of the sea by the line where the water meets the beach line. These were then either put back into the sea, or mother and father would take them home and cook them up for tea.

Newton FerrersThere is a particular view that takes me right back to childhood going to Newton Ferrers, a typical picturesque Devon village with thatched houses and a harbour known locally as the Pool. The road into it leads nowhere except to the village, so you have to make a detour specially to find it. It is on the estuary of the river Yealm, about ten miles from Plymouth, and at low tide you can walk across the causeway to Noss Mayo. You look right out to sea in one direction, but if you look back to the harbour you can see all the boats keeled over in the mud. It was and still is very beautiful, untouched almost. There are steep wooded banks leading down to the estuary and the village, a largely unspoilt landscape where you can still see herons, kingfishers and egrets.

With my elder brother, Mark, and my twin brother Robert, we all use to love this part of the world. Memories of sandcastles and ice-cream - the traditional things. My father had a 19-foot-long, open sailing boat. It was a Drascombe Lugger called "Sea Lavender" which he had bought second-hand in Blakeney. We would go mackerel fishing from the back of the boat with some good days and bad days of catching nothing - if we did catch any fish, they either came home or were given to the neighbours. Days when we would get caught on the sand bar and sit out in the middle of the sea till the tide came back in and lifted us away.

One of my most vivid images is of the sandhoppers on the beach jumping for safety when the tide came in and we used to (of course - boys being boys) stop them from reaching the safety of the dry sand against the advancing tide.

Both my father and grandfather were fond of the sea and both were very keen sailors. We also used to go up to the North Norfolk coast to Blakeney and Suffolk on weekends and in school holidays. One of the most vivid memories was when we were in Blakeney when the tide was out. We used to go and pick the samphire from the muddy flats that went out to sea. We just took this home washed it and then cooked it in butter - it was beautiful.

There were many competitions of catching crabs at the end of Blakeney Pier, all of us used to line up and drop lines of weighted string into the water with pieces of smoked bacon attached, and it was a race to see who could catch the most. There were many times of wading in thick black mud that we all use to cover our selves in. There were other moments as well, my brothers and me would love to go fishing at a local river in Norfolk called the River Yare, it was just five minutes from our house and many afternoons were spent on the river fishing for fresh water fish. They were great times with both my brothers, casting off into the river and catching mainly perch and a few pike now and again, it was the first taste of real freedom and a feeling of being alone next to Nature, but the excitement and buzz you get from catching a fresh water fish is still one of the most exciting things for a child to do. Even catching little insects and water bugs with tiny nets and storing them in little glass jam jars to stare through was rather magical, we would always let the fish go at the end of the day, we all had very competitive streaks in us and the summer times were always at the river either causing havoc or catching fish.

They are very fond memories of childhood - all still very clear - which will remain with me for ever. They were the first instances of my times with the sea. I have always had a great fondness for the sea. And even though some of the reasons have slightly changed, the feeling of what the sea is, and what it holds, is even more important than ever. When I was a child all those years ago, words like "sustainability", "provenance", and "environment" were not even used or really thought about.

BREEF FoundationThe real change came from my late father-in-law, Sir Nicholas Nuttall, who had formed his own conservation group called BREEF - the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation. It was set up to address growing concerns on the state of The Bahamas’ marine environments. Almost single handedly, he turned the organisation into a leader in educating people  about the marine resources, played a role as a watchdog, advocatesd for political change, and educated the public. 

Rules, regulations and policies have now changed the course of fishing for ever. The toll it has taken on the industry - and even the most hearty of fishermen - has had dramatic effects. In the 70s and 80s, the industry was buoyant, with record catches landed from the seas that seemed to be limitless and endless, from the huge numbers of beam trawlers that were scouring and scarring the sea bed for millions of tonnes of fish.

But as we know, all good things will eventually come to an end. We know we have made some terrible mistakes through neglect, greed, misunderstanding, misinterpretation and lack of correct knowledge or understanding of the fragile marine world of fish, plankton, krill, seabirds. Hopefully fitting in with all of this is us. The last thing we want is an apocalypse of the fishing industry.

And what have you done as a result?

I buy all my fish - as much as I can - direct from the source - from Lowesoft to Newlyn to Helford Estuary. I know exactly how it is caught and where it comes from. This is how we try and control out sustainable purchasing of our fish. There are some simple steps to follow when trying to buy sustainable fish.

Always ask about the provenance of the fish and were it came from. Quiz the fishmonger about were it was landed, what type of gear they used to land the fish, how it got from A to B. Perhaps he even knows the boat it was caught on and the fishermen who caught it.

When you are planning a dinner or lunch, you may have your heart set on doing a particular recipe from a cook book. If it does not look like one of the sustainable species of fish that you have now read up on, then try an alternative or something that you may have not tried before. For example, any of the oily fish, like mackerel, sardines, herring or sprats. Or various different white fish, like coley, pollock, gurnard, flounder or black bream. You can always look at a recipe and adapt it to something else. And the great thing with this is that you can try some thing new that you may not have had before.


Try out the Sustainable Fish City Top Ten Swaps and give endangered species a break!

Marine Stewardship Council ecolabelLook for packets that have an ecolabel. For example, some have a tag on the fish that shows that they are line caught, and you can then go online and see exactly were they have come from. And look out for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo (see picture) on either the fish or the packets and this will guarantee you that it has come from a sustainable and reliable source.

Never buy fish that is undersized. If you see fish that are small, don’t accept them from the fishmonger. If more people don’t accept undersized fish, then retailers might also start to accept this, which might even filter down to the fishermen, to stop supplying undersized fish. You may not think that your choice of fish could influence the retailers, but every time you are buying wisely and sustainably, asking questions about its provenance, it will make a difference.

Fish have seasons - times when you can buy them, and times when they should be left in the sea. Never buy fish in its spawning season (the time when it is breeding) as this is bad for the continuation of fish stocks. Also, the fish quality is at its worst - the fish is putting all its effort into producing eggs. The flesh of the fish is flabby and watery, and a large part of the fish is all full of roe. When lobsters are spawning, they are called "berried lobsters". Again, please do not purchase these. They should not be fished or caught and sold. You can do your bit by not using fish or shellfish when they are spawning or berried.

Tom's list of Fishy Favourites

I've put together a great list of some of the best fish to try. Some may be new varieties to you that you may never have heard of, or even contemplated trying. They are not in any particular order of favourites, they are just some of my preferred choices to eat and cook, and those that can be eaten with a clear conscience. Also look out for logos that show the fish is a better choice, such as MSC, and line-caught fish from the Handline Fishermen's Association.

 

Fish  Shellfish
 Red Gurnard and Grey Gurnard   Cockles from the Burry Inlet
 Pollock  Mussels from the Isle of Shula
 Loch Duart salmon  Brown crab
 Dab  Spider crab
 Flounder  Dived scallops
 Megrim sole  Creel caught langoustine
 Grey mullet  Razor clams
 Sardines  Hand picked winkles
 Mackerel  Falmouth oysters
 Coley  British jigged squid
 Pouting  Whelks
 Black bream  
MSC certified Pacific cod  

What would you say to a restaurant who is interested in serving sustainable fish?

There are many websites and sustainable fishery groups that will help you in your choice of fish and sourcing of the fish, for example the Marine Stewardship Council, This is an independent non-profit organisation that promotes responsible fishing practices, to help find Marine Stewardship Council ecolabela solution to the problem of over fishing. It harnesses consumer purchasing power to generate change and promote environmentally responsible marine stewardship. This is indicated by ecolabels on fish with a blue tick, which means you can eat the fish with a clear conscience.

Fishermen from the South West have been hand-lining for mackerel, pollack and bass for over 40 years, providing a vital source of income for many inshore fishermen. Unfortunately, in recent years imports of farmed bass and worries about the sustainability of pair-trawl caught bass has badly affected the prices of the line caught bass fishermen receive for their catch. The South West Handline Fishermen’s Association which represents over 50 handline fishermen in southwest England. They are a group of fishermen who are passionate about the fish they catch and how they are caught and the website has been developed with a tagging scheme to provide guaranteed ‘hook to plate’ traceability. This site can be used by anyone in the supply chain - from wholesaler to restaurateur - to see who caught their bass.

When you buy the line caught bass you can be assured that the fish has been caught using the traditional fishing method of hook and line. This method has minimal environmental impact and as all fish are caught live it ensures the fish are in top condition before being stored in ice. Small fish are rarely caught, but if caught they are returned alive immediately. With the tagging of fish you can see exactly where the fish has come from, and the consumer can be assured of genuine line caught fish, which will maximise the quality of the fish that is landed.

Some more websites recommended by Tom are:

Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants: http://www.pisces-rfr.org/
Has a lot of info on where to catch your fish and all the details of sourcing.

Good Catch: http://www.goodcatch.org.uk/
This is a great website detailing all the species of fish you can and cannot use, and fish tips on sourcing.

Fish2Fork: http://www.fish2fork.co.uk/
Lists all the good and bad restaurants that feed us fish, those that are sustainable and those that are not.

What would you say to a business that hasn't yet tackled the issue of sustainable fish?

It's very much in your favour to be sourcing sustainable seafood. We have all got to do our bit in protecting what the sea gives us. And if we are to be sure of its future then we must source sustainable fish. It's good business practice too, as more and more people are interested in where the fish is sourced from, and it will be a complete story of proper sourcing from source to plate. This is added value.

Rosie Boycott, London Food Board

Taking a sustainable approach to fish is critical to the food security of our city. It is shocking to think that within our lifetimes, we could lose some of our favourite species from the seas forever.

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