No ifs no buts, no wild bass or halibut

By Matthew Couchman, Sales Manager, Southbank Fresh Fish

Three years ago we decided to ban wild Atlantic halibut from the depot. It is red rated ‘5’ by the Marine Conservation Society and is also on the IUCN red list. Certain ethical purchasing decisions go against financial profiteering, and this is one of them. But it is the right decision, especially when there are great farmed alternatives available. I have always felt there is no need to offer an over exploited species. At certain times of year wild halibut prices fall below farmed.  Some suppliers will just switch based solely on a short term profiteering decision. And some chefs lap up the thought of saving a few pennies whereas we believe education as to why these should not be offered is the correct approach.

We have had a strong ethical purchasing policy in place for years and have a long list of certifications to prove it: as a Food Made Good Approved Supplier, with Marine Stewardship Council Chain of Custody, we are certified organic and have RSPCA Freedom Foods certification – among others. And as a qualified fisheries scientist I believe it’s my responsibility to offer insight and honest sustainability advice to my customers, backed up with real knowledge as well as the credentials. Sometimes, that means taking tough decisions made on the basis of what is best for the oceans. We cannot continue to over exploit the oceans and so here at Southbank we are standing firm on two fish in particular – halibut, as mentioned above, and sea bass – to help protect stocks and ensure they are there for future generations.

In December 2015 we saw the announcement by the MCS that all wild bass fisheries local to the UK were to be re classified Red Rated 5 fish to avoid. This was followed by an announcement that a total catch ban of these fishing zones would be implemented from February 1st to March 31st to assist stock recovery. Southbank immediately removed wild bass from our Selfridges counter backed up with a simple statement explaining the decision. We provided customers with literature to help them understand why the fish was no longer available. Onshore farmed French seabass was offered as an alternative which has been successful.

Wild bass was our biggest seller at the concession at Selfridges and so this decision wasn’t taken lightly as my colleague David Palmer who manages the concession explains: “The thought of having a compulsory ban was really worrying to our business. To find out that our depot was leading the way and banning wild bass even though they didn’t have to legally was a massive lift for the team. We could stand proud in front of our customers when telling them why the fish was no longer available. Our boss, the fisheries scientist, he made the decision, the correct decision.”

On January 1st 2016 the Southbank wholesale depot put a complete ban on wild bass sales. No public announcement was made and restaurants were told as and when they asked us about wild bass. It was little trouble for chefs as outside the ban period, Feb-March, they have been able to buy wild bass from every other seafood wholesaler. A limited number of wholesalers do offer advice that the species is red rated and best to avoid however it is still available from them to buy if the chef insists. But why would they still offer a red rated species?

A fairly obvious answer – profit. Any species will continue to be traded until it is made illegal to land. If there is money to be made or the fear of losing a customer they will provide the service – short term thinking.

Initially, at depot and concession level there was a financial impact to the ban but this didn’t last long. The expertise of the team educating and advising best alternatives soon smoothed the ride.

“As a chef, when sourcing fish, my two main concerns are always quality and sustainability. The simple fact is there are so many restaurants these days if we continue to over fish the seas we will not be able to enjoy the fish we all love. This year when Southbank insisted on supplying only farmed bass it was a concern, but the quality of farmed fish has improved a lot over the recent years. The seabass we buy is fantastic and has proved to be one of the most popular dishes on the menu,” said Dale Osborne, Exec Chef at Aqua Shard.

Occasionally there is some adverse reaction and recently a chef told me: “You don’t know what you are talking about, it is not bluefin tuna. If I put bluefin on my menu then people protest outside my door, if I put wild bass on nobody says anything so why should I stop?!”

He is no longer a Southbank customer as the account was closed by me. But this shows the contempt for the issue in some parts of our industry. Similar naïve comments are sent to me via social media from within the industry especially from those who see potential financial impact to their pocket if the species are banned.

We introduced the ban nearly ten months ago yet only now with the launch of the MCS #givewildbassabreak campaign have people realised the decision we implemented and the solitary stance we have made. We do not preach to other wholesalers or chefs. People can buy wild bass if they wish, just not from Southbank Fresh Fish. The MCS have again, based on scientific advice, called for a total catch ban of wild bass in 2017. Wild bass and wild halibut will remain off sale from Southbank Fresh Fish and Southbank @Selfridges until the red rating is lifted.

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