Studies show that we may have less than 35 years before the sea completely runs out of fish. And yet of Britain's total seafood stock, industry body Seafish estimates that 57 percent—around 492,000 tonnes—gets classed as waste and discarded. It's enough to make you weep into your fish fingers. "We've all focussed on other forms of food waste but wastage from our oceans has been largely forgotten," say chef Dan Pawson.
He first encountered the problem as a teenager working in Yorkshire restaurant Van Zeller. Every day, the kitchen would throw out huge amounts of fish skin, heads, and tails.
"I thought someone should do something with these," he says.
And so, Pawson began frying the waste fish skins to make crisps, turning a throwaway foodstuff into a moreish snack. It may sound like a novel idea, but the UK is trailing behind other countries in realising what a valuable (and tasty) resource fish offcuts can be.
"I went to Denmark and saw that roe is the foie gras of the sea there," says Pawson, also citing China, where fried fish skins are a staple snack and France, which uses fish and shellfish waste for soups, stocks, and sauces.
What began as a kitchen observation soon turned into a gnawing idea for Pawson. After being diagnosed with adrenal fatigue last year, he found himself with time to reflect and started experimenting with making crisps from fish skin.
"That's when Sea Chips, our business, started," he says, showing me a dainty blue and white packet containing salted salmon skin crisps.
But before all this, Pawson had to decide on which species of fish to use.
"My business partner Dom Smith and I picked salmon as they're the perfect texture and thickness and they crisp up really well. They become like prawn crackers when cooked." I wonder if crackers from fish epidermis are a bit too out there for the British public, who are famous for their fish phobia. But Pawson is unequivocal that his crisps appeal to everyone.
"It's really just a delicious snack. Bar foods needs improving, it's one of the last sectors not to," he says confidently. "They go really nicely with beer, thanks to the saltiness."
Pawson is also confident that in five years, such ichthyophobic attitudes will have changed.
"I don't know why the British are funny about fish, especially as we're an island so surrounded by water," he says. "Some people are a bit scared when they first try Sea Chips, but they're never how they expect. When they have one, they love them. Everyone's getting more open minded." Pawson sells his Sea Chips for £1.50 for a packet, but he's keen to point out that you can make fish crisps at home too. The first step is to boil and dehydrate the fish skins, which he does with a dehydrating machine at Sea Chips HQ in Yorkshire.
"The beauty is in the simplicity," Pawson says. "Boil them for three minutes to soften the skin so it doesn't taste chewy, and it kills any bacteria present. You can get a food dehydrator from Lakeland. We dehydrate at 63 degrees Celsius for three hours and 15 minutes."
Next, the chips are fried in oil.
"Rapeseed oil is best, it's light and a neutral flavour," explains Pawson. "We fry the skin at 204 degrees Celsius, this is the smoking point of our Yorkshire rapeseed oil."
After 30 seconds, the crisps puff up and curl like Quavers. Pawson has laid out small piles of Cornish sea salt, dehydrated malt vinegar, and chili and sprinkles them over the crisps while they're still hot, allowing the skin to absorb the flavour. The final touch is a squeeze of lime.
When the crisps are cool, I eagerly take a handful. They remind me of pork scratchings but with a much lighter texture. I'm also pleasantly surprised to find there is no fishy aftertaste. I only wish I had a pint to wash them down with. Although Sea Chips are a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to addressing Britain's fish waste problem, Pawson has pledged to donate 10 percent of his profits to ocean charities. And with high-end London department store Fenwick already in talks to stock Sea Chips, this could end up having a real impact. Of course, it's not glamorous being a fish waste crisp producer.
"I turn up to meetings smelling like fish, it's the odour of success," laughs Pawson.
But for this chef, it's all worth it: "I hope to see Sea Chips across the supermarkets and bars everywhere soon. I'm not an eco warrior, it's just sensible, there are small things we can do."