Where there is a will there is a way

Saturday, March 24, 2012

How to buy fish with a better conscience - guide for sustainable fish shopping based on Hook, Line and Blinkers book (NZ)

How to know which fish in the supermarket are truly sustainable is a murky issue. If all we have to go on is labelling of the product in the store, that is simply not enough information.

Forest & Bird has put out indepth information, including a wallet guide about which fish they feel is more sustainable, which is great. However, unless you have knowledge about the fishing industry, it's hard to understand the framework in which they have made their choices. That's why I was glad to read a synopsis of this book: Hook, Line and Blinkers: Everything Kiwis never wanted to know about fishing by Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons (Phantom House Books 2011, $35), in Good magazine.

Much of it is new to me - the lists of regulatory bodies, the fishing industry and so on - but it was interesting to get another opinion to weigh alternatively to Forest & Bird's conservatism and the fishing industry's obviously self-serving promises. I tend to be on the conservation side - but I too am not a millionaire and need to feed my family.

Here is a useful tool to assist you in the (ethically) hazardous journey to the supermarket, another opinion of which fish or more (or less) overfished, using the "Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch criterion" at http://www.blinkers.co.nz/wild-caught.aspx
And I have reproduced Good magazine's (Issue 23) original article about Hook, Line and Blinkers, below (but with my emphasis in red at times) to help you understand their thought processes. Reading the book itself would be great, but at least this is something - as we don't all have time to do all the research. Thanks, Good!

Something’s fishyYou’re looking for tasty, healthy and locally sourced food for yourself and your family – including fish. But is it possible to make an eco-friendly choice? Keen fishers and authors of the new book, Hook, Line and Blinkers GARETH MORGAN and GEOFF SIMMONS investigate the options

There are many challenges facing today’s ethical eater. There are carbon emissions to consider, the environmental sustainability of the food we eat and how the workers that grew and harvested the food were treated. That’s before we even think about whether it is healthy to eat, or get tangled up in random trivialities like food miles. Eating fish is no exception.

Gone are the days where the ocean can provide limitless food and hide all our waste. We believe the world has hit the point of depletion we’re calling ‘Peak Fish’ and that we have to think urgently about how we manage our impact on the oceans, before we damage them beyond repair. That needs to start with fishing.

In researching the book Hook, Line and Blinkers we looked at New Zealand’s supposedly world-class fisheries management regime. We were ‘struck’ by the huge gulf in advice about which fish to eat – between environmentalists on the one hand and the fishing industry on the other. It’s a source of huge confusion, with environmental groups telling us to steer clear of most fish on the supermarket shelves, and the fishing industry telling us that if it's in the supermarket, it must be sustainable.

Given the number of issues that a consumer has to consider in making a purchase, this confusion is decidedly unhelpful. But the question that we have to ask is, 'How much environmental damage are we prepared to accept in exchange for our supply of food?' All human activities cause some damage to the planet, but how much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Clearly some environmental groups like Greenpeace and Forest & Bird are prepared to accept only a little bit of damage. By all means eat the fish that they recommend -they are the most environmentally friendly. But should you completely write off the fish on their red list? We have to think about the alternatives. What would we eat instead? If we were to replace this fish protein with farming for animal protein on land, it's very possible that we could end up causing even more environmental damage. I don't know about you, but our heads are starting to hurt.

Certification schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are designed to bring some balance to this debate. This scheme was created by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, and has subsequently put its stamp of approval on an impressive five million tonnes of seafood -around six percent of the global supply, with a total value of $1 billion. In an independent review the MSC criteria were considered the most robust of all certification schemes. However, the MSC system is still far from perfect: it relies on rating agencies that are paid for by the fishing industry -meaning there is some incentive to 'go easy' on the fishery during the rating process. We reckon the MSC needs to sort out this potential conflict of interest before it faces a crisis of confidence of Global Financial Crisis proportions.

The clash of ideals over how much environmental damage is acceptable has come to the fore over the New Zealand hoki fishery. The MSC has faced heavy criticism from environmental groups for its certification of the fishery. This criticism was over the use of bottom trawling to catch the fish, the levels of bycatch (particularly mammals and seabirds), and the perceived overfishing during the mid-2000s.

In our opinion, the claims of poor management and overfishing in hoki fisheries are ill-founded. In the early 2000s the allowable catch was slashed from 250,000 tonnes to 90,000.

Environmentalists seized upon this as a sign of overfishing, but fisheries science is a difficult beast, and these rapid cuts were in response to several seasons of low breeding rates. Indeed such rapid cuts in catch are a sign of excellent fisheries management -quickly responding to problems when they arise. As it stands, hoki stocks are voluntarily managed by industry at 35-50 percent of their original population, far higher than the 25 percent target required of most fisheries.

Other areas of the hoki fishery are more debatable. There have been bycatch problems but these have improved significantly over time -something that the MSC continues to watch closely and encourages improvement on. As for bottom trawling -well there is simply no other way to catch the fish. So while it causes damage to habitat. most of this is sandy or muddy seafloor with a comparatively quick recovery time.

As long as the area of trawling is confined, this damage could be deemed acceptable -otherwise we would struggle to catch New Zealand's largest fish stock.

Does that make hoki okay to eat? MSC thinks so, and we reckon they're as good a guide as any. But what about other seafood in our supermarkets?

We decided to put our money where our mouth is and try to develop a more balanced recommendation list. To do this we borrowed the criteria from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch (MBASW) which is respected internationally. You can check out the results in more detail at http://www.blinkers.co.nz/wild-caught.aspx

Of course the sort of fish that gets the approval of Greenpeace and Forest & Bird will pass the test with flying colours. Most of these are small, fast­growing fish that can be caught with little environmental damage - for example sardines, blue cod and kahawai. MBASW's criteria award fish stocks with one major environmental problem but otherwise good management a 'Good Alternative' rating. Hoki with its bottom-trawling issue makes this grade, but other fisheries with more than one problem, such as orange roughy, are rated as 'Avoid'.

How about farmed fish? Just because a seafood is farmed doesn't automatically make it sustainable. Farmed filter feeders like mussels are ideal from an environmental and health perspective. Carnivorous fish like salmon face the problem of needing to eat fish oil to grow, which reduces the total supply of fish for the world population to eat.

Unlike overseas operators, New Zealand salmon farms are well managed environmentally, so they squeak in a 'Good Alternative' rating. Vegetarian fish like basa don't face the feed problem. but they are generally grown in Asia where the management is not so good - so again they get a 'Good Alternative' rating.

Most imported prawns are from farms in Asia, and face the double whammy of the feed problem as well being poorly managed environmentally -so they should be avoided.

The debate over which fish to eat overlooks the question of how much we should be eating in the first place. The health benefits of eating wild fish are well known as it's high in protein, low in fat (depending on how it's cooked) and rich in omega-3 oils. On the other hand, we need to go easy, as we've hit the capacity of the ocean's ability to provide wild fish, and the world's population is still growing.

The recommended intake of fish (100­150g twice a week) for health purposes adds up to about 15 kg per year. Currently there is enough farmed and wild fish for everyone in the world to eat 17kg each. New Zealanders typically munch down around 25kg a year -more than our fair share. And yet Kiwis don't eat seafood as regularly as recommended.

How is this possible? Like most of our eating, portion size is the problem - we scoff large amounts of seafood in one sitting, which significantly lessens the health benefits of omega-3 oils.

The lesson? We need to eat smaller portions of high quality seafood. The sad truth facing ethical consumers is that all of our food choices have some impact on the planet, and there are no easy answers, other than smaller portion sizes. In the end it comes down to how much we're willing to trade off our conscience for taste.


"We're starting to understand what can go horribly wrong when our fishing technology outstrips our ability to restrain ourselves."
- Gareth Morgan, Hook, Line and Blinkers: Everything Kiwis never wanted to know about fishing

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice idea.. thanks for posting.