9. Mar, 2015

Eating Seafood at Five to Twelve

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals, using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilisation is all about – farming replacing hunting.” –Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

The sands of time are fast running out for the world's oceans. They are being abused and over-exploited beyond comprehension, and unless we come to our senses they will eventually become barren sewers. I cannot bring myself to imagine a world without Fish and Chips, Grilled Sole, Avocado Ritz, Peri-Peri Prawns or Crab Curry, yet if we don't alter our behaviour both drastically and soon they will become relics like Dodo a la King and Grilled Blue Walleye.

Human beings come from the sea. Ever since an odd-looking descendant of the Coelacanth crawled out onto terra firma, our bodies have been evolving away from a marine existence yet our souls have retained a bond with water and the creatures that live in it. This subconscious link is borne out by mankind’s habit of spending  their free time next to rivers, lakes or the ocean and the status attached to owning a holiday home by the sea. Ditto the eating of fish and seafood. In most cultures, these are regarded as somehow more “sophisticated” than terrestrial animals. As a consequence, previously poor people start consuming seafood when they enter the ranks of the middle class.

Herein lies the rub. In days gone by, the world’s population was much smaller and only a modest part of it consumed seafood because of a lack of modern transport and cold storage. In 1800, the world’s population was just under 1 billion, and perhaps 300 million of them ate seafood. By 1900, a 500 million people were doing so, increasing to 1 billion in 1950 and 1.5 billion in 1980, when the global population reached 4.5 million. Today – with 7 billion + people on earth - it is safe to assume that the number of consumers is approaching 4 billion, thanks to a combination of growth in numbers and access to seafood.

Sadly, it is not just the demand for seafood that has ballooned. On the supply side, the immense pressure on finite resources have decimated the stocks of fish and other marine creatures. Almost 80% of all fish stocks are now fully- to over-exploited, depleted or in a state of collapse. The decline is worst among large predatory fish like tuna, marlin and swordfish, where 90% of populations are threatened with extinction. Large, long-lived fish like these are also contaminated with pollutants like mercury, which render them hazardous to humans.

The reality is that, for way too long, mankind has regarded the ocean as a large supermarket where one doesn’t have to pay. Rapacious practices have not only diminished target species, but irreparably harmed “bycatch” – other creatures which happened to be in the vicinity. To grasp just how large the impact of modern trawl nets are, imagine a net so big that 13 Boeing 747s can pass through its opening – simultaneously! Bottom trawling with heavily weighted nets for species like monkfish and soles literally scours thousands of square miles of the ocean floor bare.      

Against this backdrop, one would expect the world’s leaders to take decisive action to salvage oceanic life. Not so. Greed and chauvinism seem to trump responsibility and justice at every turn. Even the European Union, the “greenest” polity on earth, has not managed to lower quotas significantly. Some of its members, most notably Spain, are notorious plunderers of stocks off Africa and in the Southern Ocean where enforcement of national sovereignty and quotas are all but non-existent. To add insult to injury, catches are often extremely wasteful – to wit killing millions of sharks every year only for their fins!

In an effort to augment the rapidly diminishing stocks of sought-after fish and seafood, many countries have heeded Cousteau’s call to “farm” them. Aquaculture now produces almost half of commercially sold marine produce, with salmon and prawns making up the bulk of this biomass. While the intent is laudable, the outcomes are often negative. Since most of the farmed fish species are predators, they have to be fed fish themselves – salmon consume more than 5 kg of sardines and anchovies for every kilo of salmon sold. Below the holding pens, excreta and other waste create vast barren patches on the sea floor. Prawn farms are similarly a mixed blessing: they have contributed to massive destruction of wetlands and mangrove swamps, as well as harming biodiversity.  

The over-exploitation of the sea’s resources is unfortunately not the only threat to its health. While man is busy exterminating the top of the marine food chain, he is also busy destroying its foundations through pollution and exacerbating climate change. More than 8 million metric tonnes of non-biodegradable waste is dumped in the sea every year, adding to the vast amount of effluent, oil and chemicals released into it. Less patently visible is the harm done by atmospheric warming: rising water temperatures is playing havoc with coral reefs, altering the flow of major currents and harming the fertility rates of basic foodstuffs like plankton and krill.

So what needs to be done to rectify matters? Sadly, civil society will have to start guarding the guardians. Politicians are too preoccupied with the votes of constituencies like fishing communities and used to the baksheesh dished out by industrial polluters to tackle the problem head-on. Civil servants in many of the worst-affected countries are unfortunately often on the take as well. In the words of Gaylord Nelson, co-founder of Earth Day: “The ultimate test of Man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks he will not hear.”

Organisations like Greenpeace may be controversial, but without their efforts many whale species would have been extinct today. Other, less militant, NGOs like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and South Africa’s South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) have taken the lead in educating the public, informing them on which species are harvested in a sustainable manner, and naming and shaming unscrupulous suppliers and vendors.

Apart from staying informed and buying only sustainably produced sea foods, there are a number of things we as consumers can do to contribute to healthier oceans:

  • Look for the endorsement of bodies like the MSC or SASSI, and give preference to products classified as “sustainable”.
  • Where possible, buy line fish. The traditional hook-and-line method is by far the fishing technique with the lowest impact, and is the most labour-intensive. The same cannot be said of long line fishing, though.
  • Purse seine nets, which target individual shoals of fish like sardines, mackerel and anchovies, are the least harmful of the “industrial” methods, and also provide work to local communities.
  • Fish and crustaceans like lobsters caught in artisanal pots and traps are generally subject to quotas and regulations that protect them, and can be regarded as sustainable.
  • Mid-water trawling for species like hake and herring can be quite selective, and does not harm the ocean floor. Provided the trawling company abides by laws and quotas, their products may be bought without qualms.
  • Avoid big pelagic predators like Bluefin Tuna and Swordfish. They are not only rare, but contain hefty doses of toxins which accumulate in their bodies over the years. Smaller, fast-growing species like Sailfish and Dorado are better alternatives.
  • Avoid species which are bottom-trawled, like monkfish, Orange Roughy and skates.
  • Eat lower down the food chain. Smaller fish like sardines, anchovies and mackerel are not just more abundant, but higher in good stuff like Omega-3 and lower in toxins than bigger fish.
  • If possible, buy farmed molluscs and crustaceans like abalone, clams, oysters, prawns and crabs. The only caveat is to check on their origin, as many (mainly Asian) producers are not too bothered about ethics or quality control.
  • Farmed fish represent a conundrum. They are certainly not as tasty as their wild brethren, and some farming practices are questionable. My advice would be to buy farmed fish if the species in question is not a real delicacy to begin with, or if it is to be used in a strongly-flavoured dish, e.g. catfish or tilapia. I am less keen on farmed salmon, kob or flatfish, though!
  • Calamari lovers can relax for now: squid populations are robust, and they are mostly caught sustainably. Octopus, being more localised, are under mounting pressure but not threatened.
  • Lobster and crayfish populations are in surprisingly good shape, which is good news. The bad news is that this is due to a combination of their primary predators (e.g. cod) being wiped out and warming oceans!

I hope this post hasn’t made you despondent; the aim was rather to get you thinking about this very important subject. As informed consumers we can make a difference by bringing our purchasing power (or the withholding thereof) to bear on producers and vendors. As Gandhi once remarked, we must be the change we wish to see in this world...       

“Monkfish is called the poor man’s lobster. As long as people never see what it looks like whole, they love it.” – Werner Auer.