Mitch Tonks: “Restaurants are being misled on line-caught fish”

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Mitch Tonks MSC ambassador

Related tags: Restaurants, Seafood

Seafood specialist Mitch Tonks (The Seahorse, Rockfish) is now an ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council, a high profile NGO that encourages sustainable fishing practices by certifying fisheries.

How did your new role with the MSC come about?
I’ve been working with the MSC and using MSC products since Rockfish (Tonk’s group of casual fish restaurants) launched eight years ago. I’ve always been a supporter. It’s an important eco-label that’s especially well-suited to restaurants that serve high volumes of seafood. When fish is being harvested in huge amounts it’s very important that it is monitored closely and that scientists and fishermen work together. The work also needs to be communicated to chefs and consumers. My key role at the MSC will be talking to journalists, as well as other chefs.

Is everything you serve at your restaurants MSC certified?
No. We work with a number of species that aren’t MSC certified including Dover sole and gurnard. But I’m very close to the south coast fisheries and am confident that stocks are extremely well managed. I’ve been working with seafood for a long time - my specialist knowledge of the fishing industry allows me to source with confidence. It’s difficult for many of the fisheries on the south coast to gain MSC certification because there’s a cost attached to it and they generally trawl multiple species. In the huge cod and haddock fisheries in around Norway and in the Barents Sea the boats are only targeting one species so it’s a bit more straightforward.

Are restaurants getting better at responsible fish sourcing?
Yes. Larger companies are increasingly seeking out well-managed high volume species. Most top-end places major on South Coast fish, and stocks there tend to be well managed. There is still confusion and frustration over catchment methods. There are lots of restaurants serving line caught this and diver caught that. Quite often, they’re being misled by unscrupulous middlemen because there’s simple not enough of that sort of product to go around. It’s also very hard to tell the difference when the produce comes in.

How do you communicate your seafood’s sustainability credentials at Rockfish?
We use the MSC logo on our menu. I have visited the majority of the fisheries that we deal with so the team and I know the back story. One recent success story worth flagging up to consumers is the newish MSC certified hake fishery. The species has been fished around our coasts for some time but not very well, it was usually landed in poor condition. Three or four fishermen on the south coast started catching hake and really looking after it and built a market for it, and then invested in getting an MSC certification.

What’s your view on frozen fish?
I’m a big fan. All the cod and haddock we serve at Rockfish is from the Barents Sea and Norway and is frozen at sea. The problem with buying fresh cod from fisheries that are nearer the UK is that it spends a long time at sea and then has to be offloaded and driven halfway across the country. I do use some fresh cod for the The Seahorse (Tonk's more high-end restaurant in Dartmouth) that comes into Brixham but we’re talking small volumes.

How is the expansion of Rockfish going?
We’re up to six and we have a site that is about to open in Exeter. There are three more in the pipeline. We are gradually moving eastwards along the south coast. It’s been a slowish process because we’re doing it all organically, we’re not private equity backed or anything like that.

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