“Eating is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” - Wendell Berry
It is difficult to stand at the top of a cliff on a coastline overlooking the ocean horizon, at any corner of the world, and not think of the sea as endless, infinite and eternal. Excusing my poetic licence is the fact that oceans cover 71% of the Earth and have been a source of nutrition for mankind since prehistoric times (Gartside and Kirkegaard. 2015). The idea that oceans would always supply us with an interminable amount of fish, regardless of how we used it, is not an old one, and was supported just in the late 19th Century by prominent biologists, such as Thomas Henry Huxley (Thomas, 2009). Yet today, more than 85% of the world’s fish stock’s are reported to be either fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion (Barber, 2014). In the span of one human lifetime, we have pushed the limits of our oceans at an exponential rate.
As awareness grew in recent years, active response has surged throughout the seafood chain, from an increase in responsible fishing, to more conscientious consumers, to creation of public policies. The contemporary chef, as a driver of demand at one end and supplier at the other, has a crucial role to play in the sustainable seafood economy. As chef Dan Barber puts it, how can someone who is so entirely focused and preoccupied with the final product, not have the same attitude towards its beginning? Whether they are aware of it or not, the contemporary chef is, by definition, an environmentalist: it is our ambition and responsibility to translate nature’s products into incredible flavours, and therefore to care and protect that particular source of food. With predictions for the future depicting an end to seafood as we know it, every chef is faced with the challenge: how do we keep fish on the menu?
The War on Fish
The last three decades have witnessed a drastic depletion of fish stocks across the world’s oceans (Status of World Fisheries, 2006). Climate change has increased sea temperatures and acidity levels, industrialisation has facilitated pollution, and the loss of habitat have put pressure on existing ecosystems. But the worst crime yet has been of our own infliction: our globalised demand for ‘the best catch’ has resulted in extensive overfishing (World Bank, 2009). But if mankind has been developing fishing techniques throughout modern history, why have only the last years been so destructive?
Like the evolution of industrialised and chemical agriculture, overfishing trends can be traced to the end of World War II, where wartime technologies paved the way for the development of the modern fishing industry. Sonar detection equipment, created with the intent of identifying enemy submarines, was adjusted to help locate large schools of fish. (Clover, 2006). Moreover, powerful vessels and modern refrigeration on board eliminated the geographical constraint of previous fishing boats. Since then, “we have been fishing like we were clearing forests” (Barber, 2010).
One of the most destructive fishing techniques is known as trawling, where boats drag mile-long nets at deep water or at the sea floor, hauling tons of fish at once. Charles Clover, Chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, tried to create an imagery of a mile-long net being dragged through an African plain, bringing with it lions, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, impalas, wildebeest, every kind of wild animal, including pregnant females and small cubs, while uprooting trees and bushes in the process. After picking the animals in high market demand, the dead or the bruised are discarded, and a mutilated landscape is left behind (Clover, 2006). This gruesome picture describes the consequences of daily trawling in our oceans, highlighting it’s two distinct ramifications: selectivity and environmental damage. Ocean floors can take decades to recover after heavily-weighted, fine-mesh nets are dragged indiscriminately across the bottom, destroying coral reefs and lifting metres of sediment, impairing natural habitats for deep sea creatures.
As described by Clover, trawling is non-selective, which means it unintentionally hauls fish which are either the wrong sex, at an illegal size or not desired by the market - the latter including endangered dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and sometimes even albatrosses, as well as a plethora of ‘unsellable’ fish. This is known as bycatch. By the mid-90’s it was estimated that 26 million metric tons of bycatch were discarded per year - amounting to one quarter of the world catch at the time (Oceana, 2014). These destructive techniques have been responsible for the depletion of species such as Bluefin Tuna, Northern Cod (Clover, 2006) and most recently, Sea Bass (Guardian, 2015).
Sustainable seafood is defined as the product of fishing or farming methods that ensure the vitality and stability of species as well as their marine environment, and the livelihoods of fishing communities (Oceanwise, 2015).
There are two main approaches to addressing fish sustainability. The first has been the widespread development of fisheries, which allow fish to be farmed and sold without affecting its wild stocks. The other main approach is known as “fishing down the food web”, or officially, the Marine Trophic Index (henceforth, MTI). Created during the Convention on Marine Biology in 2000, the MTI ranks fish according to their hierarchy in the food chain, in other words, how much energy each fish requires to thrive in their environment. High trophic fish, such as tuna or swordfish, need to consume a large amount of smaller fish to survive. By consuming fish with low trophic levels, such as anchovies or sardines, the impact on that particular habitat is diminished.
Both of these approaches have their own intrinsic controversies. The Marine Trophic Index promotes the consumption of lower trophic level fish. Critics, however, argue that by creating demand for a ‘sustainable’ fish will promote overfishing and, consequentially, make that particular fish unsustainable. Aquaculture, while avoiding a direct impact on the wild counterpart of their produce, are highly pollutant and inefficient. A tuna farm, for example, has a feed conversion ration of 15:1. That is, 15 kilograms of wild fish are needed to gain one kilogram of tuna. This translates to 1.5-2 tons of squid and mackerel to produce a 100kg bluefin tuna (FAO, 2008). Moreover, recent evidence has pointed to some fish farms using processed feed, which can include chicken pellets and other animal sources, which is an ethical controversy in itself (Barber, 2010).
There are several interesting examples occurring in the food industry with regards to increasing awareness and action towards seafood sustainability. The Marine Conservation Society for example, has released a free app called the Good Fish Guide: the consumer guide to sustainable seafood (fishonline.org). This provides an easily accessible tool where the sustainability of each species is indicated by a red, yellow or green light, allowing consumers to identify their purchase “on the go”. A lot of progress has been made in certification of sustainable fisheries, the Marine Stewardship Council being a prominent example, where a market benchmark for accreditation and traceability of seafood is instated. Labels, such as organic and fair-trade, have proved successful tools in turning awareness into conscious consumption.
Other initiatives are directly involved in engaging chefs into action. Dock to Dish is a project operating in the West Coast of North America that supply sustainably caught fish directly from local fisherman to restaurants such as Le Bernardin and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Dock to Dish, 2015). By ‘cutting the middle men’, this initiative guarantees a higher source of income for local fishermen, which in turn can continue to fish extensively and not intensively.
Another interesting example is when Oceana, the world’s largest international advocacy organisation focused solely on ocean conservation, created a campaign called “Save the Oceans, Feed the World” (Oceana, 2015), where chefs committed to serving low trophic level fish such as sardines and herring on their restaurants worldwide. Committed to the initiative were chefs such as Grant Achatz (Alinea, USA), Gastón Acurio (Astrid y Gastón, Peru), Ferran Adrià (el Bulli Foundation, Spain), Andoni Luiz Aduriz (Mugaritz, Spain), Alex Atala (D.O.M., Brazil), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Italy), Brett Graham (The Ledbury, UK), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park, USA), René Redzepi (Noma, Denmark), Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca, Spain), and Ashley Palmer-Watts (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, UK). All of these restaurants are currently ranked in the World’s Top 20 and the hope is that these chefs can influence others throughout the industry.
All of the examples above illustrate how there is a clear indication of a move towards action on seafood sustainability throughout the industry. It is a promising and positive indication that a necessary change is underway. However, sustainability remains an alternative choice to the established status quo - the real demand is for systemic change. For sustainability to cease to be the alternative and become the mainstream, there needs to be a way where the seafood industry can sustain itself, both in ecological and financial terms. And that example already exists.
Veta La Palma is a farm in the southwest part of Spain and covers an area of 28,000 acres within the Doñana National Park. Formerly and cattle business, the farm is comprised mainly of wetlands and a complex system of canals that drained the land. But since the 1990’s, the farm has been converted into a fish farm. Veta La Palma reversed the flow of the previously built system of canals and flooded the area, creating an incredibly rich habitat for phytoplankton, crustaceans, fish and birds to thrive. The environment created by the farm is so healthy that is not only does it purify the water coming in from the adjacent rivers, but there is no feed conversion ratio - the sea bass and grey mullet reared in Vetal La Palma feed off the environment. Moreover, it is home to over 600,000 birds (in 250 different species) and is now the most important private bird sanctuary in the European Union (Barber, 2010). As controversial as this sounds, Veta La Palma is a for profit farm that does not feed its animals and measures its success on the health of their predators. Yet it is precisely the success of the integration of the different systems within the farm that allow it to be not only a profitable but also sustainable fish farm.
Large-scale industrial fishing (the same can be said for agriculture) is a self-destructive business. It is set for failure from the start. It is a business that, since its inception, has been eroding the ecological capital that makes that very production possible. In other words, either that capital will end and the business will demise, or the very nature of that business will have to change. Examples such as Veta La Palma are the proof that this change is possible. And, as chefs, as long as we want to continue putting seafood on our menus, it is our responsibility to promote awareness and drive the demand for sustainable fish.