Fish tales of woe
Last week The Age published a piece entitled Where have all the fish gone? It focused on the Jack Mackerel, whose numbers have been decimated throughout the southern oceans – 90 per cent gone in just 20 years. Rich in essential oils and protein, the fish is a food staple in Africa and is widely used as feed for farmed fish. It takes more than 5kg of Jack Mackerel to raise 1kg of farmed salmon.
In 2006, Chile, New Zealand and Australia pressed for the establishment of a South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation. Only six countries have ratified measures drawn up by 14 countries to protect the southern oceans' fish, in particular the Jack Mackerel. In the meantime fishing fleets from far and wide, not bound by statutory regulation, dashed south to engage in what The Age calls 'a free-for-all in no-man's-water at the bottom of the world'.
The newspaper describes super-trawlers chasing Jack Mackerel with nets measuring 25 metres by 80 metres at the opening. As the catch is hauled on board, the fish are hoovered into the hold by means of giant suction hoses. Read more here.
They're only fish, though, right? But have you seen The End of the Line? It made me cry. I never would have thought that the fate of fish could make me cry. I stopped buying tuna immediately: I used to eat it several times a week. This film should be shown in classrooms worldwide. For information, see here.
For several years in the UK, we only bought fish bearing the Marine Stewardship Council sticker of approval, which meant the fish was sustainably sourced. After The End of the Line we began to ask in restaurants whether they knew the provenance of their fish supplies and if they were responsibly sourced. If they couldn't answer both questions in the affirmative, we didn't order the fish. Fish cakes, a huge favourite of mine, were a complete no-no, since they're invariably made up of fish bits, the sources of all of which would be very difficult to identify.
Here in Brisbane, we asked at James St Market's fish counter where their fish was sourced. They told us that we were the first people ever to have asked that question and that they didn't know the answer. Greenpeace Australia Pacific recommend you ask your fishmonger three questions. Where was the fish caught? How was it caught? Do they have a policy for sourcing only truly sustainable seafood? If they can't answer, go elsewhere. So we did. We limit our fish buying to species we've been able to find out about ourselves.
We've even stopped buying some of the best prawns we've ever eaten from Powerhouse Farmers' Market because they're bottom-trawled. This is an environmentally damaging fishing method whereby a net is trawled along the surface of the seabed. Large amounts of sediment are churned up, increasing the turbidity of the water, reducing light and redistributing pollutants that have previously settled in silt on the bottom. Ecosystems are wrecked, particularly on seamounts rising from the ocean floor where many different forms of sea life congregate.
It's not hard to find out which fish are OK to eat still. Greenpeace have a Seafood Redlist that you can download.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society lists Sustainable Seafood as one of their major campaigns (others include the Sharks in Peril appeal and Save the Great Barrier Reef). Learn more here.
There is a Sustainable Seafood Guide iPhone app that is free to download from the AMCS. If you don't have an iPhone, the information is available on their website or you can obtain a hard copy.
So, no excuses, you seafood-loving Aussies. The more you ask of your fish shop, the more you and they will learn, and perhaps then there's a chance of reversing the dramatic crashes of fish populations the world has seen lately, including in the seas surrounding this continent.
Sustainability is not just the domain of commercial fishing, of course. Recreational fishing is a massive business here. There are regulations in each state, but a recent study has revealed a fair bit of ignorance of them, as well as a perception that recreational fishing is not wide-ranging or ecologically impactful enough to warrant fisheries management. If you are one of four million* Australians who fish for pleasure, take a look at guidelines by Fishers for Conservation.
Then, read this. Swallowing the bait: is recreational fishing in Australia ecologically sustainable? raises issues that I'd never fully considered. There are many ecological impacts of angling: it is by no means an 'environmentally benign' activity. The size and diversity of the recreational catch is not inconsiderable and has been aided massively by technology; discard rates are not adequately quantified and the detriment of taking undersized juveniles is still not fully appreciated by many anglers; the harvesting of bait from intertidal areas impacts on many other animals, such as migratory birds; pollution by hooks and fishing line causes injury and death, as do fishing vessels; introduced species (to bolster depleted stocks) adversely affect endemic species, and not just fish; quotas (bag limits and boat limits) are often ignored and difficult to enforce; the establishment of no-take Marine Protected Areas is not generally supported by anglers, who tend to view the conservation of marine diversity as the stuff of environmental groups rather than legitimate fisheries management; and politicians are reluctant to alienate a large, well-organised and vocal tranche of voters who believe their right to fish is sacrosanct.
Finally, while I am doubtless making myself unpopular, let's talk about sushi. I am the only person I know, apart from my friend, who doesn't eat sushi. I've never tried it, mind. Until the Japanese stop massacring whales and dolphins I will have nothing to do with their country, their customs or their cuisine. In fact, they didn't invent sushi: it was developed originally in Southeast Asia and spread to China before Japan.
I don't know my Narezushi from my Nigirizushi, or my neta from my nori, but I do know that sushi uses a lot of fish, and tuna in particular. I know that the Australia seafood industry focuses on high-value export species that include tuna*. And that Japan is Australia's second-highest-value export market* for edible fisheries produce.
The most valuable species of tuna are the three Bluefin species. It is claimed that the Atlantic Bluefin population has collapsed by 90 per cent since the 1970s, and the Southern Bluefin by 95 per cent since the 1950s. The Pacific Bluefin is also under severe threat. The huge increase in demand for sushi across the world in recent decades has taken a terrible toll. For the view of one marine biologist, go here.
If you don't see why you should give up sushi, but you're worried there might not be any fish to put in it in the not-too-distant future, never fear. Mitsubishu has stockpiled thousands and thousands of tonnes of the critically endangered Bluefin so that, when the poor creature is extinct, it can clean up as the only supplier.
The bottom line with all these issues is the safeguarding of the world's aquatic biodiversity for future generations. Will my children's children ever see something like this?
*Source: Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade