“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters of religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.” Mark Twain.
Thursday, 30 October 2014
Every fish you eat is an environmental mystery, but would you pay more to know the truth?
Matthew Evans in The Guardian
The boat’s winch slowly hauls in the net, dripping with mud, with holes finer than my little finger. The boat has been bottom trawling only a few hundred metres off Thailand’s coast, where they’re not meant to be operating. The catch is embarrassingly small compared to even two years ago says my translator, who’s done this trip many times before.
The net drags up crabs the size of my thumbnail, juvenile fish that make sardines look large, broken starfish, jellyfish – every single thing from the water column. It makes me weep.
Virtually none of the catch is for human consumption. These immature fish, a whole ecosystem pillaged from the sea, will be turned into fishmeal to feed farmed white (Vannamei) shrimp, just so we in the west can eat cheap prawns.
I used to have an open mind about sustainable seafood. After countless boat journeys, visits to numerous fish farms, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants while filming What’s the Catch?, a seafood documentary for SBS, I’ve now got a very strong opinion on eating fish: if you don’t know what’s on your plate, if you can’t be sure you aren’t part of the annihilation of the ocean, then don’t eat seafood.
72% of seafood consumed in Australia is imported. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. Australian waters aren’t highly productive (it’s complex, but has to do with our impoverished soil, low rainfall and narrow continental shelf, among other things), so imports are necessary unless we substantially increase fish farming.
There are those that can, and do, profit from obscuring the true origins of our seafood. Estimates suggest 70% of Australians believe we’re eating local seafood, when less than 30% of it is actually from our waters. We’re not told exactly what species we’re eating, where it is from, and how it was caught or farmed, in order to obscure its origins.
Weak labelling laws make things worse. Flathead can be one of a few local species, or a totally unrelated species fished off Argentina, that should be called “stick fish”. Flake can be one of 400 different species of shark, all with different life cycles, maturity rates and environmental consequences.
The fishy mystery is even worse with ready-to-eat seafood; the fish you eat when you go out for a meal. Call it “fish” and eateries don’t have to provide any information on what the fish actually is, or where it’s from. In good restaurants and chippers they’ll tell you that, plus how it’s caught or if it was farmed. But legislators aren’t there to protect us from the good and the noble.
In the dodgy eateries, you won’t even know exactly which fish is on your plate. Pacific Dory? That name’s been used for a non-dory species from Vietnam called Basa, which could be known as Mekong Delta Catfish (an omnivore and potentially efficient fish to farm, so long as it’s done cleanly). Butterfish? Could be South African Hake or local Morwong. Cod? We don’t even have the European species of cod in Australia.
What I’ve seen has given me motivation for change. I want seafood lovers to also become ocean lovers, aware of what they eat and the impact it can have. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen chefs swapping out species of dubious origin for fast growing, locally caught fish. We’ve convinced a pizza chain to replace imported prawns with better tasting, certified sustainable Australian prawns. You can, if you know what to look for, buy independently certified sustainable Hoki from NZ or Hake from South Africa.
Sadly, they’re the exceptions. I think of the vandalism happening in our names off foreign shores. I think back to the destruction I witnessed on a single day in Thailand, in a country that should be encouraged to make their fishing and fish farming sustainable, and I think an honest, fair and open system to tell us what’s on our plates is the very least we in Australia should expect.
If we have to pay a little more so the seas off poorer nations don’t end up completely broken, then – as a world citizen – it’s the price in clear conscience we all must pay.