The fish and chips dilemma: can our national dish be both sustainable and British?

When it comes to a traditional battered cod and chips, is there no such thing as a good catch?

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You can’t get more British than fish and chips. Winston Churchill exempted the dish from wartime rationing, Amy Winehouse ate them on her wedding anniversary, and George Orwell believed they could avert revolution.

But can our national icon be both British and sustainable? Not if you want cod, according to the criteria of the 28th National Fish and Chip Awards.

Over five months and three rounds of judging, the awards scour the UK’s 10,500 chippies to find the best experience in terms of both service and taste. The search culminated in this afternoon's ceremony hosted by Seafish in central London, and a haul of prizes including the “Good Catch Award” for the best sustainable seafood.

The shortlist for this category was narrowed to just three businesses: Habourside Fish & Chips and Kingfisher Fish & Chips, both in Plymouth, Devon, and Olley’s Fish Experience in Herne Hill, London. All were selected for the care they take in ensuring their fish is "Blue Tick" approved. This means that the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)  has deemed that the produce comes from a fishery practising responsible stock management.

At Olley’s restaurant, certification involved ditching swordfish, replacing wild halibut with farmed halibut, and sourcing its cod – the heart and shoal of any self-respecting chippie – from Norway rather than the UK’s North Sea. By 2006, severe over-fishing in the North Sea had almost wiped out its native cod species, prompting a decade of strict catch-controls. Yet this year some are hopeful that 2016 could see a sea-change in this sad story.

In September, MSC experts began a new assessment of North Sea cod’s “stock status”, raising hopes it could soon join Scottish haddock and Cornish hake on the list of certified British fish. As the MSC's James Simpson tells me: “The question will be if it has recovered enough to be considered sustainable while it continues to improve. In more straightforward terms, ‘Are there enough fish in the sea?’”.

Furthermore, this month sees the launch of the EU’s "discards" ban. This legislation obliges fishermen to land their surplus catch, rather than throwing it straight back into the ocean. After a long campaign to end the practice, led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish-Fight team, it is widely regarded as a hopeful step towards greater sustainability.

However, things could be set to get worse before they get – cough – batter.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations says: “The landings obligation was a misconceived reaction to a misleading public campaign”. And the EU’s approach to the issue of discards is certainly baffling. It is insisting that no part of the surplus-to-quota catch can be used for human consumption. A policy that seems to overlook the fact fishermen have little control over what kinds of fish swim into their nets, and that many fisheries are populated by more than species. The winner here: tiddles the cat and his fish-jerky treats. The losers: the fishermen who now have to freeze and pack fish for which they will receive no payment. And, of course, the fish themselves.

The British government could also be inadvertently making matters worse. Thanks to re-negotiated EU quotas, from next year, fishermen in the North Sea will be permitted to catch 15 per cent more cod something conservationists fear could slow or even reverse the current population recovery.​

For now, however, Plymouth's Kingfisher Fish & Chips at least has something to smile about, having just been named winner of the "Good Catch" award AND runner up for "Independent Takeaway Fish and Chip Shop of the Year". Co-sponsor of the awards and UK Commercial Manager of MSC, George Clark, says: “This year’s entries have proven once again how progressive the fish and chip industry is when it comes to good sourcing practices.”

Ensuring such reform continues will take close co-operation between government, the industry and consumers. For cod's sake, let’s hope they can get it right.

India Bourke is an editor at AFP Asia Pacific and was previously environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman