Tuesday 26 January 2016

On fish

I felt shiny. I was mopping up the oil from the last can of sardines everybody brings back from Lisbon and felt shiny. This, if not indicative of January’s strain on one’s psychological well-being, at least shows you the power of advertising. I was feeling how the back of your average tin of cat food promises your cat will feel after nom-nomm-nomming its Extra Fancy Fishies in Real Oil or whatever, which is to say, bright-eyed and silky-furred. 

A week later I was feeling angry. Angry that the salmon we’d bought from the fish man didn’t have its skin on. Angry that I hadn’t checked whether it had its skin on, and angry that I had to check. Why would you cook something without its skin?

Now I felt guilty. That eyes-cast-down-at-your-middle-leg-region kind of guilt. 

“…and of course none of you eat fish, right?”

The room had only just faintly gargled its non-answer to the first of the rhetorical questions it had just been slammed with just a moment before, the “Of course you’re all smart enough not to eat meat, right?”.


We were at the opening speeches of the Youth Food Movement’s year, and I knew that in a week’s time we will have picked up a pig, brought it to slaughter, hung it, brined it and roasted it (although thank god for the surprise element of life, because it turned out we’d also be roasting it out in the snow). I was also feeling very aware of last week’s salmon incident, sardine lunch, a side porting of kibbling to go and two bites of a herring served on the tail (plus pickles and onion though I prefer it cut up). On all counts then, I eat both meat and fish. 

Also with thanks to advertising, I’d been considering McDonalds; specifically, their Fillet-O-Fish®, a picture of a representative of which is currently plastered across most bus stops. Whose fillets? Which fish? Why do we accept ‘fish’ as a description but would be terrified of a product that listed ‘meat’? Why are we happy enough to bread and fry abstract white flakiness, guarantee it not to have bones, and would you like fries with that sir? Back in 2013 when we were all so gosh-darn shocked that we were eating horses, why did the discussion not turn to all that cod that wasn’t cod but which said it was cod?

In parables and allegories fish represent the soul. What are we saying when we don’t bother to distinguish fish A from fish B, dammit fish B is extinct guys, let’s mix in a little of fish C? (After a little looking around, I found that the 'main' fish used in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish®, of which 275 million are sold every year in North America alone, is the Alaskan pollock.)

Sure, fish aren’t cuddly personable like Cecil the lion was; and anyway, who can or cares to tell a halibut from a sole from a plaice? Most of us are happy enough to group them as the flat ones plastered on posters hanging in fish mongers and move on with our lives as theirs are suspended/ended over ice.

But flat as they may be, each (wild) fish has its own place in the natural ecosystem and ocean food webs; two things we’re gung-ho out to destroy what with today's marine fishing is more a matter of large-scale extraction of wildlife than catching dinner. To date, 63% of global fish stocks are considered overfished. We’ve lost about 80% of all top predatory fish from coastal areas of the North Pacific and North Atlantic, 99% of European eels, 95% Southern bluefin and Pacific bluefin tunas. Europe's sea bass stock is on the brink of total collapse. Salmon are no longer in rivers but on threatened species lists. So are the rays. 

Who cares? Other than extinction not being such a great thing, nor, for that matter, the prospect of irreversibly altering entire ocean ecosystems (which, when fish species are lost and replaced by smaller, faster-growing guys like plankton-feeding fish and shellfish, is a real danger), fishing provides billions of people with food, jobs and livelihoods. Back in 1992, 40,000  jobs were lost with the collapse of the Canadian cod fishing industry after the world’s richest fishing grounds were devastated by years of overfishing and incompetent fisheries management. Nowadays, the World Bank estimates that mismanagement of fisheries costs countries $50 billion a year. It's estimated that the salmon industry in southeast Alaska alone is worth nearly 1 billion dollars annually. In Kamchatka, Russia, 80% of the economy is dependent on salmon and other seafood. (And on the flip side of the economic argument, fish figure centrally in myth and indigenous people's beliefs. Take salmon, which hold sacred status for Columbia River Tribes. The Tlingit people of today's Southeast Alaska characterise salmon as part of a hidden underwater tribe that comes earthward with each run to offer themselves to the Tlingit). 

We're taking too much. Seafood might be a critical source of protein for more than 2.5 billion people, but for as long as we use methods capable of taking far more then can be replenished, take indiscriminately and discard what we didn’t ‘mean’ to take; what we fish, we overfish. In 1996, the FAO indicated a catch of 86m tonnes and a decline in fishing of 0.4 tonnes per year. New research indicates that the peak catch was actually 130m tonnes with a decline of 1.2m tonnes a year. But not because we're fishing less. The decline is "due to countries having fished too much and having exhausted one fishery after another", and all because we rather fancy some fish tonight; or are told we should rather fancy some in order to mix up our meat habits. 

And when we take, we take big. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Bulletin of Fishery Fleet Statistics, there are 38,400 factory trawlers in the world (a ship with onboard processing capabilities) with a displacement capacity of 100 tonnes or higher. The largest factory trawler, the Norwegian-built, Irish-commissioned Annelies Ilena (ex Atlantic Dawn), built in the 1990s for E63 million can, when operating at full capacity, catch, process and freeze 400 tonnes of fish every 24 hours and hold up to 7,000 tonnes of processed fish. It has enough fuel to stay at sea for up to five weeks but… fished for many months without an actual licence to fish until someone was paid a lot of money to register the ship as a merchant ship, meaning it could side step all kinds of petty fishing laws as it no longer counted as part of Ireland’s fleet. The ship has since been sold to a Dutch consortium (2007) where it is now registered and is still causing havoc (infringing EU fishing laws in 2013 and found guilty in 2015 in an Irish court. In 2005 it was banned from the waters around Africa’s Mauritania where it was known as the ‘Ship from Hell’). 

But while the Annelies Ilena may be the world’s biggest trawler, it is not the world’s biggest fishing vessel. Nope, naturally it's the big bad Russians that get that prize, with their heavier-than-France’s-nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of a ship, the Lafayette; a monster capable of processing and freezing 1500 tonnes of fish every 24 hours and storing enough fish to fill around 33 million cans of fish. If it were to work every day of the year, which, thankfully, at present, at least, it’s not allowed to, it would freeze and process over half a million tonnes of fish every twelve months

And that's not even considering the holes left in the ocean by smaller fishing vessels, the pharmaceutical industry vacuuming up masses of krill from the Antarctic oceans to put them in health supplements, or those using illegal methods such as bottom trawling and drift nets. These drift nets, capable of stretching 50 miles, have been banned in international waters since 1992 but are still in use thanks largely to the effort of the "Calabrian mafia which is known to run the biggest operation in Europe alongside the biggest cocaine-running operation". And what about the by-catch issue? All those fish (a 2009 WWF report estimated this to account for 40% of global marine catches) caught by 'mistake' and which are thrown back in or, nowadays, brought to shore? One restaurant in Amsterdam at least has been rewarded for its efforts by het Parool's restaurant reviewer, Hiske Versprille. Viscafe De Gouden Hoek makes almost all of its dishes with by-catch. And it got an 8.

I suppose that if all this does anything, it makes you look twice at those chic little sardine cans with all that colourful packaging you don't need anyway because it's just thrown away, doesn't it? (Which, before, at least, when I dared, I was eating spread out on a piece of toasty toast with a big squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and a chilli flake or two.)

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