Tales from the fishy counter

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 3 August 2018

Do you know what you’re buying at the fishmonger? Do you ask the right questions and, more importantly, do you get the right answers? A trip to buy a cod loin or snap up some salmon is a minefield – on both sides of the counter. Clare Fischer grabbed her reusable shopping bag and went on a seafood shop

I’m on a mission to buy some fish. Seems pretty simple on the face of it. But actually, it’s anything but. Because fish are complicated and buying them is even more so. Here’s the thing. We know we need to eat fish that are from sustainable stocks. If we don’t the fish will run out and then we’ll have to eat jellyfish with our chips and nobody wants that.

But how do we know what to ask for? Is a blue tick by the Marine Stewardship Council enough? Well, it’s a start, but as Brexit looms and the Common Fisheries Policy (the law that protects our fish stocks, among other things) becomes a thing for the European Union, seafood consumers in the UK need to know a bit more. So, people, I went to do the footwork and get some top tips for fish shopping for you!

Victorian comic valentine to a fishmonger, C. 1850s/60s. Lithography, hand coloured

Clive and the north sea
My first stop was a high-ish end supermarket. I grabbed a basket and headed to the fish counter. No customers in sight so I went on a circuit until a queue formed and I could blend into the background. I’d grabbed some cat food for the cat we don’t have and by then a middle-aged woman was busy chatting to Clive the fish counter manager – according to his badge. She was all about price and a meaty cut.

I listened in all agog. But there was no mention of sustainability, no mention of North East Atlantic waters, no mention of landings in Whitby. The lady left with her cod loins – I never even knew they had legs.

“Good afternoon madam,” _ said Clive. _“What can I get for you?”.

Long time since I’ve been called madam – I felt a bit like Cynthia Payne.

“Hello, I’m very keen to buy something sustainable Clive. What do you recommend?”.

Clive looked puzzled. He smelt strongly of fish. Then I realised I was leaning over a fish counter – so it was probably his goods not him.

“Anything with a blue tick is recommended by the Marine Stewardship Council and that’s sustainable”.

“Ok, but how do I know if it’s caught in UK waters?” I ventured.

“A lot of the labels say Icelandic. Is that imported then?”.

“Well, it’s caught in Icelandic waters,” said Clive. “Or the North Sea”.

Now my geography isn’t great – was Iceland in the North Sea?

Clive was looking fed up.

“By our fishermen?” I asked, sounding a bit like Nigel Farage.

“Potentially,” said Clive, suspiciously.

“These ray wings Clive – are they sustainable?”.

“They’re trawler caught,” said Clive.

Not really an answer is it Clive? He was floundering.

In general these could be anything from a 3 to a 5 in our ratings. And 99 times out of a hundred when people say skate they mean ray. Skates and rays can be incorrectly recorded when landed – so these could have been skate or ray!! By now we were both out of our depth. A bit like the mackerel who had come over all glassy-eyed.

“Are you going to buy anything?” said Clive.

“I might,” I said. “But not today.”

Fish Market

My next stop was somewhere I felt die-hard seafood customers would know all the right questions to ask and the fishmongers would have all the right answers to give. Breezing through the busy market town, I wasn’t surprised to see the fish stall queue snaking up the main street. This place was a foodies destination which hosts Wales’s largest annual food festival so you’d expect residents to know the difference between pole caught tuna and sustainable pollock… wouldn’t you?

There was an attractive array of fresh fish adorning the large trestle table set up in front of the van. No name badge on the guy who appeared to have no time to ‘ling-er let alone fillet, so I’ll refer to him as Mr. Monger. As I was undercover, I needed evidence, so I whipped out my phone. It was a dull old day and Mr. Monger caught the flash of my camera as I captured his decorative display. He looked at me distrustingly.

I perused the selection of red mullet, sea bass, hake and live winkles and popped a quick question in as he prepared some brill for a customer.

“What’s the most popular fish here today, then”

I asked, to which he unwillingly mumbled, without any eye contact:

“Depends what people want most of really!”.

See I was expecting a bright engaging answer like ‘cod’ or ‘plaice’ but Mr. Monger was already being purposely evasive – or was he just shy?

I think he thought I was some sort of official. I was wearing dark clothes and shades and, in retrospect, I may have had the look of a Cold War Russian spy about me. But not one to be easily put off I ploughed on:

“There must be a best seller though, surely?”

“Not really, just depends,”

came the rather unhelpful response. By now the queue was starting to lengthen but I wasn’t done yet.

“Do customers ask about sustainability at all?”

He gave me an odd glance and said: “Not really.” Then he turned away and started to serve a real customer.

Our short relationship was over. Mr. Monger and I would never be an item. Not wanting to antagonise the customers any longer, or indeed Mr. Monger, I decided to give up on my undercover investigation and maybe try another day when it wasn’t quite so busy. Or would I just stick to chicken?

“Lady wants something sustainable”
So far my mission to equip you with insightful seafood shopping questions wasn’t going great. But I wasn’t deterred. I headed to a ‘plaice’ where they had bigger fish to fry. A well known fishmonger in a big city centre market which, a quick trip to Google told me, was one of the largest fish retailers in the UK. No need to wait for a crowd to form here, the counter was bustling.

The selection was enormous – salmon, cod, hake, bass, haddock, plaice, mackerel, monkfish plus cockles and mussels, crabs and lobster and lots of prawns. I skirted the shoppers and listened in on a few conversations. Not quite as incisive as I’d hoped.

“I’ll have four of those please… the largest ones you’ve got.”


For goodness sake… I nearly went up and slapped the customer. For a start the labels on the fish were far from informative. So how did she know those big ones hadn’t been tickled to death by small orphan children off the east coast of China?

Cod, plaice, mackerel. No Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ticks and no mention of the sea at all or how the fish were caught. The customer wanted big and the fishmonger couldn’t get them in the bag quick enough. I was next. I sometimes feel like I’m in a scene from Silent Witness when at the fish counter. They all wear those white forensic style boiler suits and some even have the blue plastic shoe covers. I’m almost willing them to say, as they peer into the unseeing eyes of a plaice:

_ “One male plaice, with blunt force trauma to the skull and left fin. You see these deep gashes here and here? Almost certainly made by a beam trawler. It would have been a slow, painful death and the killer is still out there… We need to act fast.”_

Anyway, I’m at the front of the queue and the lady fishmonger is ready for me.

“Yes?”“I’m looking for something sustainable. I can’t see anything on your labels?”

She looks at me and then throws a question out over her left shoulder.

“Lady wants something sustainable.”

She almost spells it out like it’s a new word for everyone.

A jolly ‘Jack-the-lad’ pops up from behind the counter at the back where I imagine he’s busy filleting – he’s certainly doing something with his hands.

“What have you got in mind?” He asks.

We’re shouting at each other now as he’s quite a way away.

“What do you recommend?” I counter.

“Monkfish.” He suggests.

Now I happen to know this is a mover in our latest Good Fish Guide. It’s going from a 4 (pretty bad) to a 3 (still not great but not as bad as before) and it’s pricey. I was obviously looking affluent.

“OK. What’s it like?”

“Nice, tasty”.

“Where’s it caught?”

“North Sea”.

The lady fishmonger was already getting them on the scales.

“How much d’you want?”

“Actually, I’m not sure if I do want the monkfish.” I said.

She looked fed up and Jack shrugged his shoulders. I caught the eye of a crab. But it was a sideways move. So I left.

Supermarket honesty

My next stop was another of our big supermarkets. The fish counter looked enticing with lots of salmon on display. There was fresh tuna and mussels in a net. That was all I could identify from a distance so I moved in for the kill. I think consumers of fresh fish must have fantastic eye sight. I was almost kissing the mackerel, so close did I have to get to read the tiny writing on the rustically written labels.

I was approached by a bespectacled fish man who told me he was hard of hearing so I would need to shout.

“IS ALL YOUR FISH FARMED?” I yelled at him.

“Mostly,” he said. “Except the wild salmon, bass and tuna”.


My bespectacled friend looked a bit blank. I wasn’t sure if he hadn’t heard (pretty much everybody else in the store had), or if he didn’t know.

Turns out he didn’t know.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. But I’m sure it is”.

A customer arrived so I stood aside and pretended to be perusing his plaice. The lady asked for two big salmon and plenty of special butter. My man looked relieved and gave me the thumbs up. I gave him a thumbs up back. I have no idea why.

It’s the price that makes it sustainable

The last stop on my mission to bring you top shopping tips was a traditional family fishmonger in a small city market. They’d been flogging fish in the same place for 40 years plus. My main man looked like he’d just stepped off a trawler, all beardy and cheerful. He was dressed in a blue hat and blue pinnie and was onto me like a shot.

I wondered how many customers he’d had as there was very little fish on the ice.

“I’ve got loads in the fridge,” he said. Question answered. Then without me needing to ask a thing, he was straight in.

“The ling is from Brixham, very popular at the moment. Nice and meaty. I’ve got Milford Haven cod from some day boats or what about some nice gilt head bream…it’s farmed in Turkey although sometimes we get it from Greece. Perhaps you’d like some Dover sole…?”

We locked eyes across the long ling – not that great actually Captain – it doesn’t rate too well in the Good Fish Guide. Back to the Dover sole.

“Is it sustainable?” I asked.

“Oh yes…it’s the price that keeps it sustainable you see. Very expensive. In fact there’s no real problem with flatfish at all.”

This was a new way of looking at things. Dover sole is OK from the Western Channel, Celtic Sea south, North Sea, south west of Ireland as long as it’s MSC certified. But choices from other areas are less good.

He leaned over conspiratorially:

“The word is that cod is off the endangered list but haddock is now running out. So I’m trying to steer people away from haddock. Otherwise it’ll end up like cod”.

Interesting line from Captain Birdseye – some haddock (Rockall, Irish Sea, Iceland, North East Arctic and MSC certified) is on our Best Choice list but many sources aren’t. And cod – well MSC certified from North East Artic or Iceland is now rated green.

“What’s the most popular fish round here then?”.

“Well, people love ling, hake and kippers… we sell tons of kippers. People round here have them for breakfast, lunch and tea. Would you like some kippers?”.

Did I really look like someone who ate kippers for fun? Kippers are herring that are smoked. A Fish to Eat only if he’s MSC certified from the central Baltic Sea.

“Not today. I may well be back though. When are you open?”

“Tuesday to Saturday madam. Don’t open on a Monday because the fish will have been landed the previous Friday or before so it won’t be that fresh… never buy fish on a Monday that’s my advice”.

Top tip. And with that, I was on my way.

All at sea

So what can we take from my mystery shopping moments? You see we can all envisage the lambs in the field, we actually see them in fact. We know they go to market… we may well have been and watched an auction. We know they go to the slaughterhouse… we don’t dwell on that bit but assume it’s all humane and then we see the meat at the butchers with a red tractor and next stop is gravy and mint sauce.

But fish? Well, we don’t see them in the sea, few know what a demersal trawl is or even a line and pole. We don’t really know what happens at sea on the fishing boat and most of us will never go to a fish market. And then there are these funny looking things on the ice with names like gurnard and brill. So, in the main, consumers don’t know what to ask and so don’t quiz their fishmonger and the fishmonger, who doesn’t get asked many questions, doesn’t really have any answers. When it comes to buying fish – we’re all at sea

Overfishing and damaging fishing practices have reduced many fish stocks and harmed the seabed, threatening marine wildlife and coastal communities.

The UK government has opened a public consultation asking how we think they should manage our fisheries after Brexit through a new Fisheries Bill. fisheries To have your say on the consultation, click the image. It will take 1 minute.