A few months ago I decided to take my kids to eat fish and chips with my partner, Kylie, in Melbourne’s south, where we work and live. Being New Zealand-born, with a childhood spent on the coast, a trip to the chippy stirs fond memories for me, as it no doubt would for many Australians. And while I’ve always enjoyed the experience and love being able to create those food memories with my own children, this time we came home disappointed.

We visited several fish’n’chip shops that day, but none gave me confidence I was buying something truly sustainable. The opposite, in fact.

Australia’s waters have benefited from years of hard work by environmentalists and governments and the message cooks are given these days is that everything is okay with our fisheries and oceans. But that’s not entirely true. Without proper care, fishing as a business remains potentially problematic, harmful and ugly.

When diners look at menus or read the packaging at the supermarket and at the fishmonger, we are rarely told anything important about the actual journey that brings that fish to our plates.

For instance, if you order flake from a fish’n’chip shop you should be getting gummy shark, but because of a loophole in Australia’s national environment laws, endangered shark species are caught side-by-side with gummy shark in unsustainable numbers – so it’s impossible to know what you’re receiving.

In addition, labelling laws in Australia mean restaurants and fish’n’chip shops don’t need to accurately list the fish species and where they came from, so there are no checks and balances. That means it’s the responsibility of cooks and fishmongers to tell diners the truth about what they are eating – just as it’s important for diners to use this information to make a better choice.

One solution is the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s #GiveFlakeABreak campaign, which is encouraging seafood fans to take a break from flake and choose a sustainable alternative [see below for order suggestions by the Marine Conservation Society].

Our oceans are not as full as they once were, just as our forests are not as dense and our soils not quite as rich, and campaigns like this one are part of our generation reversing the mistakes of the past. It might seem like a sacrifice, sure. But it can also be seen as an opportunity – a chance to enjoy new tastes and have an experience we know hasn’t caused as much harm.

As an environmentally conscious chef, I have a responsibility to think, ask questions and adapt – to treat ingredients with care, to realise the planet is not limitless and to respond when things aren’t okay. Living your principles as a chef is not always comfortable or easy – just as it’s sometimes easier to not think too hard as consumers. Sometimes it’s simpler thinking we’re ordering gummy shark and not a majestic, endangered shark species.

Decisions to protect the environment, to tell the story of country and choose sustainable ingredients are everyone’s to make. But for me, that choice is easy: if I don’t make sacrifices today then my children won’t be able to have fond food memories with their children, and then nobody really wins.

After a year like 2020, we all deserve to take pleasure in things like fish’n’chips with those important people in our lives. But by thinking a little more carefully about what we choose, we won’t have to pay for it in the future.

What to order instead
The Australian Marine Conservation Society suggests dusky flathead as an affordable and sustainable alternative. Silver perch is a farmed fish and fries well, while tailor fish is another well priced and underutilised species.

Ben Shewry is a chef and ambassador for GoodFish, a guide to sustainable seafood in Australia by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. See more about the #GiveFlakeABreak campaign.