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Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

There aren't plenty of fish in the sea

Have you see that semi-new documentary, Seaspiracy?

As a man I know would say, “Wile hanlin altogether.”

Basically a discourse on how international fishing is affecting climate change and even human slavery, the Netflix show also batters the viewer with an oceanic doomsday scenario: The seas will be empty within 30 years.

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As that same man I know would also say, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the dunkey.” But that’s as bad a prediction as I’ve ever heard.

Climate change is a given, I think we can all agree on that (except the melters) but I can’t help but feel sometimes, that despite living through this so-called Age of Information, we could all benefit from a bit of clarity.

You see, after watching Seaspiracy, I wondered if I could ever eat fish again; it’s grim viewing. One of the experts interviewed in the documentary was professor Callum Roberts, of Exeter University and he wasn’t mincing (or bandying) his words.

“We have dolphins washing up all over the coast of the UK caused by the fishing industry,” he said. “There is huge collateral damage with just about every type of fish you eat.”

With every type of fish I eat? Seriously? Are you for real?

That man I mentioned with the Jesus, Mary and Joseph line; he also spends a lot of time online and I’ve warned him in the past to lay off the web for a while. Conspiracy theories abound in the virtual world, and I would worry about his mental health. And yet, when faced with this moral dilemma on whether to eat fish or not, where did I go? That’s right, the world-wide web.

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It turns out that after some extensive and painstaking research on the matter (I basically Googled ‘what are the most sustainable fish to eat?’) what you think will depend on what you read and who has written what you’re reading.

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According to Greenpeace, “Numbers of fish are dropping faster than they can reproduce and this is causing profound changes to life in our oceans. In reality, there aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.”

However, on the flipside and according to the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide, there are supposed to be healthy populations of fish all over the seven seas.

For example, take that meaty king, beloved of all fish and chip fans, the cod. All told, it’s a mixed bag…

“The sustainability of Atlantic cod varies a lot,” the Good Fish Guide explains.

“There are lots of different populations, and some are in a much healthier state than others. The ‘Best Choices’ are from Iceland and the north-east Arctic, which is the source of most cod sold in the UK. Cod certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is also a ‘Best Choice’. There are a number of sources of cod to avoid, including from UK seas, as many populations are dangerously small. Always check the label to find out where it was caught.”

Always check the label, you say. But surely that’s a bit weak. I mean, if I check the label and it says the cod in the supermarket was caught in the North Sea and therefore, technically from an unsustainable population, the fish has already been fished and up for sale in a supermarket and sure… I might as well eat it anyway. Waste not, want not, right?

Wrong.

“Every purchase matters,” the Good Fish Guide explains.

Every purchase matters, you say. I see. So if I take a notion for cod and I head into the supermarket and I see said cod isn’t from a sustainable population, I shouldn’t buy it and then the extrapolation from that is that consumer trends will force supermarkets to only stock the fish that consumers will consume – phew! I see!

But what if the supermarket is selling hake or coley or haddock or mackerel? How do I know if, like the cod, they are from sustainable stocks or not?

It turns out, like most things in this Age of Information, that there’s an app for just such a scenario and in this case, as it happens, the app is quite excellent.

With and A-Z of fish, from anchovies to zander*, the Good Fish Guide app can tell you which fish are in season and which to avoid completely. So if, like me, you’re stuck in a supermarket wondering if the haddock you’re about to buy is from a sustainable source or not, the app can fill you in. As it happens, haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) from British and Irish seas, the north-east Arctic and Iceland are at healthy and sustainable levels and currently being fished sustainably. So now we know.

I was further glad to see a few recipes on the app along with a guide to eating out and even some top tips on how to reduce our impact on the seas.

“But what about Seaspiracy saying the oceans will be virtually empty in less than 30 years’ time?”

Well, honestly, I don’t know. The Marine Conservation Society is saying something else entirely and from a personal point of view, I know that I’m not eating fish morning, noon and all through the night, so my conscience is clear. I reuse my plastic bags, I recycle to the letter of the law, I don’t eat red meat all the time, I’d buy an electric car if I could afford one and the world turns and turns and turns. I might not be stepping about in vegan friendly, tie-dyed hemp clothes, quaffing kombucha and refusing to eat anything that casts a shadow but at the same time, I do what I can as an omnivore in the first world. I eat a lot of beans (pfft), I bake bread and I only eat fish about once a week – now certified by my new app. Also, I quite like kombucha.

The sad fact is that, as consumers, we are at the bottom end of the food chain in terms of transparency and so it is incumbent on us to seek our own clarity. In an ideal world our government would only allow fish to be sold from sustainable stocks and so we wouldn’t have to worry about cod populations dying out. But this isn’t an ideal world and, Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the donkey knows, we don’t have an ideal government. The onus is on us.

You’ll have noticed the picture of cod portions topped with a basil pesto crumb and baked on lemons and olive oil with some tomatoes thrown in for good measure. You’ll be glad to know that that fish was MSC certified and from Icelandic fishing grounds.

Alas, we’ve run out of room but if you fancy the recipe (it was satisfaction on a plate), drop me an email.

* Zander isn’t on the Good Fish Guide seeing as it’s a freshwater fish but it was the only one I could think of that starts with a ‘z’.

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