Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The big fish review (part 1)

Apologies for the long absence, I was at first lazy and just didn't happen to post up for a while, then away in China for a bit without easy access to the internet. It was fascinating to see all of the live food markets in Hong Kong, if a little bit scary to see the sheer volume of seafood being consumed.

Very often we don't give much of a thought to where our food comes from, the organic revolution in the U.K. helped change this for meats, fruits and vegetables, but sadly fishy food has is a long way behind. Historically we always ate fresh local seafood because it was very difficult to transport and store (excepting a few smoked or salted varieties), so people often have the expectation that nearly all their seafood falls into this category.

Nowadays this is definitely not the case. Food is caught by trawls and long-lines across (see my earlier post on bycatch for for descriptions of fishing methods) the entire area of the worlds oceans, then packed and frozen on giant industrial scale ships. At this point it can be shipped or flown around the whole planet. Added to this, local freshwater delicacies are both farmed and fished then made available to wherever there is demand.

Essentially there are a number of fish around the world, that are either endangered, overfished, loaded with dangerous toxins or use vast resources to capture and transport. I'm going to give a three part run down of fish that for these various reasons you should probably avoid:

1) The freshwater eel: tasty sushi treat or parasite ridden baby snatching

You may have encountered these guys in great tasting sushi dishes. Called Unagi, served cooked, raw on sushi or as a donburi dish (fish, veg and meat simmered together and served over rice...tasty!). Now these guys are farmed, so most people would consider them O.K. to eat. Alas this is definitely not the case for the eel. There are three main species used to make eel based dishes Anguilla japonica (the Japanese eel found in Japan and east Asia funnily enough), Anguilla anguilla (the European eel, also used in jellied eels that are not quite so tasty) and Anguilla rostrata (for my readers over in the States).

All three eels are struggling. The European eel is predictably doing the worst (see my earlier complaints with E.U. fisheries policy) with 80% declines since the 1960s. America led the way in eel farming, now 90% of their eels are farm raised. However, they are not bred in captivity, young eels are collected from the wild and then raised in aquaculture. Essentially it is still a capture fishery, as fishermen go out and steal away the young of each generation. This approach has been shown to be a sustainability nightmare, far worse than capturing adults as it drastically lowers the reproductive capacity of the species. This is why most capture fisheries have rules specifically not to harvest juveniles!

On top of this eel farming is not exactly a refined process. Farmed eels are loaded with parasites (when compared to their free living buddies) and often have very high mercury contents to boot. On top of all of this the open net pens used to farm the fish allow the heavy parasite and disease loads carried by the farmed fish to be carried back into the spawning stock. Finally as carnivorous fish, they are fed other wild caught fish meal, meaning that you have another round of unsustainability heaped on top of the whole process.

So the fresh water eel gets a NO: Big declines, high mercury, parasites and damage to wild stocks

Eels as you may know them

2) Monkfish: deep sea dining, overfished and beyond ugly

Pretty damn ugly

The meaty fleshy fish that we know today as monkfish is actually a range of different species of deep dwelling fish. The two main critters that we are eating are the totally misnamed angelshark (mainly in the E.U.) and several types of anglerfish. Both a pretty ugly, deep dwelling and long lived fish that take substantial amounts of time to reproduce. Now sadly both are over exploited, with the E.U. Stocks of angel sharks listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. That means that every time you chow down on tasty (and often expensive) monkfish you are eating something that is as endangered as a tiger, mountain gorilla, leatherback turtle or polar bear...chew on that.

The anglerfish are probably in better shape (they are a more modern fishery, and were so ugly that no one ever considered eating them for years), but we have no idea how much better. As yet they are not assesed by the IUCN, the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) of UN has no solid measure of the stock size. All we know is that we catch 800 or so tonnes a year in the E.U. using trawl nets, of species that lives for 30 years and grows and reproduces very slowly. As of 2007 a special committee of monkfish experts, together with fishermen and managers could not even agree upon basic numbers like mortality, growth, reproduction and ageing is this species.

So Monkfish gets a big NO: No definitive evidence that European monkfish is even close to being sustainable, you wouldn’t eat a baby tiger would you?

The king of ugly

3) Pacific Orange Roughy: Bright orange, centenarian from the deep

Red in their natural habitat they slowly turn orange after death

This one goes out to all my readers across the pond. Orange roughy is an interesting looking fish of a bright orange colour that lives near deep seamounts (400-900m most of the time but down to 1800m) all over the worlds oceans. These deep water fish live in the icy depths often just above freezing, as such they take a very long time to grow. Indeed most of these guys can live well over 100 years old (with many reaching nearly 150 years) and they take 20-40 years to reach reproductive maturity.

This fishes name has an interesting story. Originally called the slimehead as it is the largest member of the slimehead family of fish. These guys are named after their obviously gastronomically appealing mucus generating canals that riddle their heads. Now the US National Marine Fisheries Service decided this rather unpleasant name may well be affecting sales. So they came up with the orange roughy, slapped in a few celerity chef endorsements and amazingly all thought of slimy mucus secretion was forgotten. The increase in demand was so great that the deep sea fisheries collapsed to less than 10% of their original size in a few short years. Very soon it was listed as endangered by both Australia and New Zealand who stopped exporting these fish to the US.

Some word has got out, the celebrities have pulled back from endorsing the fish and demand has fallen. Even so, these fish are still being trawled the world over and their stocks have not even begun to recover. Indeed based on how long they live and how long it takes them to breed, this will not happen in mine or even any of your lifetimes. These fish have had their population decimated not just in our generation, but our great grandchildren most likely will not be able to eat sustainably sourced orange roughy.

Huge NO for the orange roughy: They live over 100 years, take 30 years to breed, are trawled and to top it all off they have canals of slime that run out of their heads. I think there are better seafood choices out there!

A full net of roughy, thats thousands of years of history in one trawl!

4) Any and all Sharks including Shark fin soup

A marvel of nature, scary and awesome all at the same time!

Jaws is dead, along with 104,000 of his mates every single day. This is based on the conservative estimate of Murdoch et al (confirmed by work by Sally Clarke and E.J Millner Gulland, who I drop in because she taught me when I did my masters) of 26-73 million sharks caught annually. I took the median (middle) value of 33 million and simply divided it by 365. Note that these values are calculated from point of sale, hence they are conservative, this doesn’t include all the non target sharks caught in longlines, that are very often killed and simply thrown back.

104,000 sharks killed every single day is a huge number. Including all of our wars, epidemics, heart disease, cancer and accidents about 70,000 people die each day. Thought of in this way it is like we are waging a sustained and continuous war on the entire global shark population.

Sharks are reproductively similar to us. They are slow growing, they have few offspring (many sharks have live births and long gestation periods), they can live to ripe old ages (many species over 100) and they have very few natural predators (apart from other bigger sharks!). Quite simply they just cant handle the strain of this relentless overfishing.

Overfishing is indeed the correct word, as apart from the sheer scale of the slaughter of sharks, we also have good evidence that there are real declines in shark numbers. Here is some data mostly from North America, but it is repeatable globally. It is a quite a bit of information so here is a handy list:

Hammerhead Sharks declined in abundance by 89% since 1986
White Sharks declined in abundance 79% since 1990
Tiger Shark catch rates have declined 65% (with increased effort) since 1986
Thresher Sharks have declined 80% since 1986 across their entire Atlantic range
Blue Sharks have declined by 60% since 1990 across their entire Atlantic range
Oceanic Whitetip Sharks have declined by 70% since 1989 across their entire Atlantic range

This shows nothing short of total collapse of shark fisheries in the Atlantic, a feat now being reproduced across the entire of the worlds oceans.

There are few sharks that actually taste nice. In England we eat a few different types of dogfish that are sold under the name of rock salmon. The starry seahound and common dogfish are now both critically endangered in the North East Atlantic (I always find it tragically ironic that animals with common in their name are now listed as critically endangered) due to our fish and chips habit. They have declined by 95% in 50 years. Yet very few other people eat sharks, the vast majority of the global trade is for shark fin soup.

Just a small boat full of fins

I wont go into the full details here (I could write a small book about shark finning) suffice to say a great deal of sharks have their fins hacked off and are then thrown back overboard in order to slowly and painfully drown or bleed to death. The fins are collected and dried, then they are used as a thickener in soup. The shark cartilage in the fin adds no flavour to the dish, which is subsequently flavoured with pork, beef or chicken stock. Sharks are dramatically and globally overexploited, please do not buy sharkfin soup.

What the soup looks like if you are ever offered it

Sharks and sharkfin soup get some of my biggest NOs: Sharks have special place in my heart, they are beautiful top predators, just a scary and powerful as a lion or tiger, so in my eye just as wonderful and compelling. They are being decimated globally for food and also for their fins.

The fate that awaits many of those who are finned

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