Marine fish stocks are dangerously depleted but consumers can play a part in saving them simply by making more informed choices
By Alex Frew McMillan
When the high-end Hong Kong supermarket ThreeSixty asked Colin Gouldsbury to put on a daytime cooking demonstration in its food hall, he readily agreed. As Executive Chef of the swanky Dot Cod Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, he figured the event might drum up a few extra customers, appealing to the handful of well-off housewives in the store who might recommend his restaurant to their husbands.
Purely by chance, some local representatives of the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) happened to be passing. Since ThreeSixty has a focus on environmentally friendly food, they asked Gouldsbury if he would be interested in adapting all of Dot Cod’s cooking presentations, wherever they are given, to also focus on environmentally friendly seafood.
The chef played along, organising the first ‘green’ cooking demonstration for his customers in October 2007. Since then he has gone on to overhaul his whole menu, placing the restaurant at the forefront of the steadily growing global movement towards fish caught in a sustainable way. The restaurant encourages diners to make menu choices focusing on species that still have large enough numbers to support commercial fishing, and to avoid seafood that is caught in a particularly destructive manner.
It is a vital shift that marine experts say must take place if we’re to continue enjoying a healthy supply and variety of seafood. Three quarters of fisheries are already in trouble. More than half – 52% – of all fish stocks are ‘fully exploited’, according to scientists, meaning they are being fished to their maximum biological capacity. Another 24% are over-exploited or depleted, while only 3% are under-exploited.
To allow fish stocks to recover, or to prevent further damage to the environment, we should skip many of the seafood dishes that commonly crop up on menus around Asia. That does not mean, however, that you should stop eating seafood. Typically there are easy substitutes that can be found – Alaskan pollock, for instance, are in ample supply and form the biggest fishery in the world.
“Fish are incredibly fecund if you give them a chance,” says Suzanne Gendron, Director of Ocean Park, a popular Hong Kong theme park with an commitment to conservation issues. “If fish can reproduce just once, that would make all the difference.”
Gendron has given up eating fish herself as what she calls a “professional courtesy,” but she says she does not expect others to do so. What she and her peers in marine stewardship would like is to see consumers making more informed choices.
“We know how important seafood is to people,” Gendron says. “We just want people to make educated decisions.”
It appears that it is a lack of clear information on fish-consumption choices that puts people off, rather than an unwillingness to switch to environmentally friendly fish. According to a WWF study, 97% of people in Hong Kong said they would reduce their consumption of threatened species. But 70% of respondents said they had no idea where the seafood they ate came from, or whether the species was endangered.
Hong Kong traders started looking to the Philippines for their fish as long ago as 1975, according to a leaflet on the live fish trade in the city by Hong Kong University marine biology professor Yvonne Sadovy, as the quality and number of fish declined in Hong Kong waters due to overfishing.
More than 20 countries now supply Hong Kong with the 100 live fish species available for sale, with six nations – Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and China – accounting for 90% of all live fish in Hong Kong. Worldwide, an estimated 200 million people make part or all of their living from fishing.
Smaller and smaller fish are being caught in many of those countries, with fingerlings often taken now. If fisheries aren’t managed in a way that allows fish to reach maturity and breed properly though, those fisheries may dwindle away in ever-tighter cycles of diminishing returns.
As Gouldsbury studied the issue of sustainable fisheries for his cooking demonstrations at Dot Cod, he realised some of the dishes on his own menu were far from sustainable. Orange roughy, in particular, was one of the most popular menu items. But the WWF has it marked down on a list of fish to avoid at all costs, since they are overexploited and under-managed, their stocks in danger of total collapse.
Gouldsbury promptly pulled orange roughy from the menu. When he substituted black cod and noted on the menu that the species comes from fisheries in North America that are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, the main international group that measures fisheries’ sustainability, customers ate it up. Literally.
“The level of support for it was absolutely incredible,” Gouldsbury says. “On the first day of using black cod, 80% of the orders were for black cod.”
The surprisingly strong demand for better information about the sustainability of the fish led the restaurant to promote a ‘green collection’ featuring recipes such as linguine with calamari and garlic, salmon cannelloni (made with the Alaskan Pacific species as opposed to Norwegian salmon) with a lemon cream sauce, and pecan-crusted leopard coral trout from Australia served with an orange rosemary butter sauce. There are also two dishes inspired by the Japanese chef Nobu, one featuring rock lobster from Western Australia in a salad with lemon dressing, and another serving up Nobu’s famous black cod served with miso sauce.
Although to date there has been little information to guide Asian consumers in eating fish, that is now starting to change. The WWF in Hong Kong has introduced a pocket guide for seafood eaters (downloadable from www.wwf.org.hk) that divides some of the most common seafood menu items under three headings: a green group that is ‘Recommended‘, a yellow about which you should ‘Think twice’ and a red list under ‘Avoid’. The idea is that people can keep it on them and use it as a reference in restaurants or the supermarket.
Some items that commonly appear on Hong Kong menus and in the tanks of Chinese seafood restaurants are on that ‘Avoid’ list including South China Sea cuttlefish and mantis shrimp, South African abalone and swordfish sourced from anywhere.
Sometimes it is the method of gathering the seafood that is the problem. Shrimp fisheries are some of the worst offenders, their trawlers laying waste to the bottom of the ocean and catching everything in their path for a relatively meagre return.
“For every 10 pounds of shrimp, you get 20 pounds of bycatch,” Clarus Chu, Senior Marine Conservation Officer at the WWF in Hong Kong, says. He has even accompanied fishing expeditions in Hong Kong’s notoriously depleted waters on which the boats have a return of 1kg of shrimp for 20kg of waste.
At Dot Cod, it has not all gone perfectly. The restaurant has its share of elderly regulars, some of whom were pretty peeved that the fish they had been eating for years had disappeared off the menu.
“If you tell someone who is 60 or 70 years old that analysis shows the levels of the fish they like will be very low in 20 or 30 years, they aren’t that concerned,” Gouldsbury admits. The restaurant had to accept losing a handful of long-time customers.
But he believes the restaurant has gained as many regulars as a result of its efforts, besides also raising awareness of an important issue. That said, the restaurant has not yet shifted entirely to a sustainable menu, but it is working away at the issue.
“Bit by bit, I’m looking to introduce more sustainable fish,” Gouldsbury says. Bluefin tuna and Hong Kong grouper have joined orange roughy in the exodus off the menu, in a bid to prevent these overfished species’ joining the exodus of animal species off the planet.
Typically though it is customers, not restaurants, that initiate such change. And at the moment, progress is very slow – you get a lot of blank stares if you start flashing around the WWF’s pocket guide in a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, demanding to know where all the grouper came from.
It may take years for the message to get through. But advocates of sustainable fisheries hope the steady drip, drip, drip of questions from informed customers will prompt a change from the people selling the fish.
“In fact, consumers are the educators,” Chu says. He thinks that restaurants and fish sellers probably don’t care the first time they’re quizzed by customers on the origins and farming practices of their seafood. “But after it happens 10 times, maybe they start paying attention.”
The WWF has been lobbying supermarkets in Hong Kong too to start carrying labels denoting which fish is farmed in a sustainable manner. ThreeSixty was the first to sign on and display Marine Stewardship Council logos. According to WWF, the CitySuper and Sogo chains are also participating, but you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence if you look around their stores at the moment.
A recent guide to buying fish put out by ParkNShop, a large Hong Kong supermarket chain, pays attention to recipes but pays no heed to anything to do with sustainability. It includes orange roughy as one of its featured fish – there’s a tasty suggested dish with citrus sauce. But the guide notes only that the fish has a “mild and delicate flavour, moist with large-flaked meat,” without noting it is on the WWF’s ‘Avoid’ list.
Resigned to losing some old timers, Gouldsbury is now targeting younger customers as the way to get the message across. The very youngest customers, in fact. That’s why this March, the executive chef was dressed in full chefs whites, lecturing 12 pre-teens on how to cook Alaskan black cod with penne and tomato sauce.
As the kids prepare their meal, they vary in their attention to detail. Some seem happy just messing around with the tomato sauce. Others are focused on scoring points for presentation. Some are just waiting for the meal to come.
Gouldsbury, WWF and others working on this issue are hoping that the children learn the lessons – and not just the recipes – well. Otherwise in the future they could all be waiting a long, long time indeed between tastes of wild-caught fish.
First published in 2009.