Monday, 25 April 2011

The big fish review (part 2)

Last time we looked at a few less well known or more unusual types of fish. Many people could probably read the last article with a pretty clear conscious. Orange Roughy isn't really eaten very extensively outside of America, eels only feature in one sushi dish over here in the West (unless you like jellied eels) and shark is rarely ever on the menu outside of Chinese fine dining. Monkfish might have hit a little closer to home but is an expensive treat for most rather than a day to day fish meal. Now its time to turn up the heat! In this article the selection of fish are the ones we eat in our daily lives, these are the tasty guys that are driving the industrial fishing machine. They are the most important fish that we should reconsider and change our buying and eating habits. With this in mind I will suggest some viable and sustainable alternatives to each fish. So here is the next rogue gallery of the underwater wolrd:

5) Atlantic Cod: Fish, chips and crippled ecosystems

Above, Modern day expected sizes for adult and juvenile cod and below the large size that the fish historically were capable of reaching.

Gadus morhua the staple of British fish and chips, alongside salted cod dishes in northern Europe, Spain, Portugal and just about everywhere else. The cod are a member of the Gadidae family, distinguished by their awesome goatees. These chin barbels are used to help feel out (and also taste) the sea floor for crabs and shellfish that cod are fond of eating. Historically cod have been both large (2m+) and abundant (tales of being able to walk from Scotland to Iceland on the backs of cod abound) and today that is definitely not the case.

The history of cod is long, it has been a key part of the British diet and culture for many hundreds of years. To try and sum it up in a few short paragraphs would be foolish. I recommend reading the book Cod by Mark Kurlansky for a full overview of the history of this species. Instead I will review some of the recent scientific evidence showing why buying North Sea and even north Eastern Atlantic cod is a very bad idea.

Turn your attention to figure 1:

This shows the steady decline of north sea cod from the 1960s up until 2000. The key part is the blue line, starting at around 15000 tonnes the total stock of the fish has fallen to 5000. That means in 40 years the stock is now 1/3 what it used to be.

On top of this the bars show the numbers of new juveniles entering into the fishery at age one. This has strong yearly cycles, which is very normal for oceanic fish, but notice how year on year the number of new recruits (fishery term here) is falling. We no longer get the good years where there are 700000 recruits, it is now a bad year every year. This is because the good years (where food is abundant and the climate is good) are best exploited by the larger older females. These old girls are super breeders, they pump out many more eggs than younger females and they are of a higher quality. When times are good they are able to exploit this and produce lots of young, sadly there are virtually none of these old girls left.

The vast majority of cod caught in the North Sea is what I would call undersized. Cod only breed after 2-4 years. The average age of capture in North East Atlantic is 2 years, the majority of the fish captured will never have had a chance to reproduce. If you think back to your childhood or ask your parents, the size of fish in fish and chips was much, much larger than it is today. Nearly all cod sold in fish and chips shops will be about 1 year old. These are the last remnants of a stock on the brink of collapse.

Here in figure 2 is what might happen next if our stocks go the same way as the Newfoundland cod fishery:

There was a steady increase in fishing effort peaking in the 1960-70s this resulted in increased catches and then a mighty crash. The population was decimated, the last few undersized and juvenile cod huddled together for safety in small family groups in the 1990s. This may work against predators but it made them even easier to target with nets and as such the local population was virtually eradicated. The ecosystem here is decimated, the grand banks economy has collapsed. This population may well never recover, the loss of such an abundant top predator has shifted the entire ecosystem structure, many scientists predict it may take 200 years for a similar ecosystem to emerge.

It pains me to see information like this, and I hope that we act in time before our ecosystem is totally decimated in the same way. As of early 2000 we were still removing more than 60% of our fishable stock every single year. Urgent call were made by scientists and managers to radically reduce catch limits or even place a moratorium on North Sea cod. So far there have been small reductions in the length of the season and marginal catch limits (300 tonne reduction in the UK out of 2700).

Please DO NOT BUY Atlantic cod, I recommend the vastly more sustainable pollock if at all possible. Pollock is a little flakier than cod, but has slightly stronger taste. Fish fingers are a good sustainable food choice as they are made from pollock. Sainsbury's have recently tried to re brand the fish as Colin in an effort to boost sales, pollock was traditionally used in cat food so the new name is designed to get away from its less savoury past. Pollock decimates cod in the sustainability front, stocks are healthy, they breed younger and produce many more eggs.

I also recommend coley and pouting (or bib). Pouting especially has a very fast life cycle and gets high marks on the sustainability front. If you absolutely have to eat cod then I recommend you search for the North East Arctic or Eastern Baltic stock labels as these stocks are well managed, but good luck trying to find them!

So a big NO to cod and a huge hello to pollock, coley and pouting

This is pollock and chips, I bet you a pint (underage people and non drinkers are welcome to another appropriate beverage!) that you couldnt even tell the diference to cod!

6) Atlantic Flounder, Halibut, Sole and Plaice: Flat, trawled and not so common

These are the flatfish, strange because they start their lives swimming upright. As they mature, either the left or the right eye (depending on the species), begins to migrate around the head until both are on the same side. At this point they settle down on the sea floor and evade predators buy half burying themselves in the sand. These are well known food fish and are included on fish and chip shop menus and all the way up to very expensive fine dining.

Above, the young halibut swims around with both eyes on top and below, the adult skulks on the sea floor one eye now migrated around its head.

These fish we traditionally hard to find and required patience and practice to fish with traditional methods. The advent of the bottom trawl changed all this. Trawling uses a net anchored by a wooden beam or bar which is dragged along the sea floor. This not only catches pretty much anything that happens to be in the trawl but also smashes and destroys the delicate living structures such a corals, oyster beds and seaweed growth that are essential habitat for much marine life. These flatfish are caught by trawls and as slow moving bottom fish, have very little chance of escape.

These fish used to be very numerous. Now many are threatened or endangered. Atlantic halibut is considered and endangered sub population, overfished to the brink of extinction. Sole and flounder populations are at only 10% of their pre industrial levels. Plaice are now a fraction of the size that they were 50 years ago. Plaice are supposed to live up to the age of 40, it is very rare to find one over the age of 6 as they are simply all being caught.

These fish are both long lived and slow growing. On top of this they are caught usi9ng one of the most destructive industrial fishing methods, trawling not only indiscriminately targets a range of species but destroys the structure of marine ecosystems, preventing life from returning to overfished seas.

The North Sea is a good example of damage caused by extremely intensive trawling. If you look at the North Sea it appears to be a dark greeny brown soup. Of course as a British and European sea that has wind and rain throughout the year many people would not be surprised by this, the North Sea was never a tropical blue lagoon, but also it wasn't a dark green sludge. Historical records and plankton surveys show that the water was much cleaner and less loaded with planktonic algae before the rise of industrial fishing. So what happened?

This is an example of an otter trawl, less damaaging than a beam trawl, just two planks at each end of the net are dragged along the bottom. You can still see the potential for damage to the enviornment.

The combined trawling fleets of the E.U. Have scoured the North Sea and destroyed all of its cold water corals and most importantly huge oyster beds. These used to be so large that they would grow out of the sea to form oyster reefs that would endanger ships. The oysters were smashed to rubble and as such could no longer feed on all of the plankton, this built up in the sea and obscured the light reaching the sea floor, as such many corals and marine plants died off and entire chain of destruction reached back through the ecosystem. The ecosystem shifted, now the plankton is too dense to allow mussels and oysters to grow effectively and it will take many hundreds of years for the sea to recover, even if we stopped all trawling.

This shows the type of damage done by trawling to our marine environment

I strongly urge you to avoid eating any flatfish that is not explicitly pole and line caught. In addition any fish that has been caught using trawling I would recommend avoiding.

As for alternatives, there are some good ones here. Dab and megrim are the two that immediately spring to mind. These are smaller flat fish with shorter life cycles, and because they are virtually unknown they are often very cheap. The bad thig is they wont be at your local supermarket, you would have to go straight to a big fish market like Billingsgate (in London) to fins these guys. There is one drawback, they are still caught through trawling. If you want a cheap, tasty alternative that is fully sustainable I would recommend gurnard. These fish are really ugly but taste great, have virtually no bones and get thumbs up both from me and the much more respectable Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

So flatfish of all kinds are off the menu and gurnard is back on.

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