North Sea fishermen hit out at Masterchef over cod

BBC’s hit show MasterChef is at the centre of a heated “cod war” for backing advice which blacklists the fish being caught in the North Sea as being a high-risk species.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) has accused the programme of damaging the hard work done by local trawlermen in helping cod stocks recover after years of being in decline.

They have, however, welcomed the shows’ producers saying that they are willing to listen to other arguments about the sustainability of Scottish cod.

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The popular series, which regularly attracts audiences of several million, directs viewers at the end of each programme to a website on sustainable fishing, which is linked to advice from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

The MCS still rates cod as a “Fish to Avoid”.

The link states: “With the exception of cod from the northeast Arctic, Iceland, Baltic and Celtic Sea, all other cod stocks in the northeast Atlantic are overfished, inefficiently managed or at an unknown level.

“The most depleted stocks are the Faroes, Rockall, Irish Sea, North Sea, Skagerrak, Kattegat, Eastern Channel, Norweigan coast, Greenland and west of Scotland.”

The MCS has constantly been attacked by the fishermen’s body for jeopardising jobs in the industry by their stance.

Bertie Armstrong, SFF chief executive, said: “The current MCS advice on cod is totally perplexing and underlines the lightweight and superficial nature of their traffic light scheme for eating fish.

“Here we have a stock that is carefully managed under a long term plan and which is showing rapid year-on-year recovery, with the independent science predicting another significant increase in the stock this year.

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“The MCS advice is quite simply wrong and totally discredits their guide to eating sustainable seafood. Even more worrying is the damaging impact such mistaken messages have on our hardworking fishermen, processors and retailers who depend upon sustainably caught cod and other seafood for their livelihoods.

“Our industry has made huge efforts and sacrifices to ensure the recovery of the cod stock and the promotion of negative messages such as this is like a kick in the teeth.”

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He added: “What the consumer needs to be told is that every Scottish landed fish that ends up on a fish counter has been caught under a quota and a fisheries management plan to ensure a sustainable future.

“All stocks will be subject to short-term population cycles due to natural causal factors in the marine environment, but it is the bigger long-term picture that needs to be taken into account, and that is one of declining fishing pressure and increased fish abundance.”

A spokeswoman for BBC MasterChef said: “We are very keen to give out the right advice with regards to sustainable fish.

“We refer to the Marine Society guidelines but we appreciate this is an ever-changing situation and welcome any updated information based on new research and findings.”

They insisted that cod had not been banned from MasterChef - as the amateur chefs had used it as an ingredient during this series - and that the link at the end of the show was “a guide for viewers to find out more information”

Mr Armstrong said: “We welcome the fact that the programme is being open-minded and willing to review the situation.

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“We will be sending the latest advice from the International Council of the Exploration of the Sea, which shows that mortality (fishing pressure) for North Sea cod has fallen dramatically since about 2001 and that the spawning stock biomass has been increasing annually since 2006. The advice is predicting another significant increase in the SSB for 2014.”

But the MCS was standing by its views on Scottish cod, with a spokesman saying: “The Marine Conservation Society currently uses a methodology for rating fish stocks based on the best available science for single-stock assessments, which is the same scientific advice that is used to set quotas.

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“This science shows that cod stocks in the North Sea have only now, after years of restrictions and hard work from the fishing industry, just come up to precautionary limits.”

Their website, to which Masterchef directs viewers, also states: “Avoid eating cod from stocks which are depleted and where fishing is at unsustainable levels.

“To help reduce the impact of fishing on fish stocks where fishing mortality is too high, the marine environment, and other marine species, choose line-caught cod where available.”

Cod is given various “ratings” depending on where the fish is caught, with the most serious according to the MCS being”likely to have significant environmental issues associated with its production”.