The Problem

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You aren’t going to like this …… but YOU are most likely part of the problem – vicariously.

Our society continually has a perception of fish as being a “Cheap” protein  …. and in fact, demands such pricing, in comparison to other proteins. Please take note, …… EVERY TIME THAT YOU DEMAND A “BARGAIN” WITH SEAFOOD, YOU ARE CHAMPIONING AND SUPPORTING MASS CATCH METHODOLOGIES …….. AS THESE  METHODOLOGIES ARE THE ONLY  WAY OF SATISFYING YOUR DEMANDS AND EXPECTATIONS AS A CONSUMER OF WANTING “CHEAP” FISH !!

I hope that the following will change your opinion.

Problem Summary

  • Mass catch techniques (such as trawling, dredging, netting and auto-lining / longlining) are decimating our marine environments and fish stocks on an indiscriminate, industrial scale.
  • These techniques are changing the very nature of the sea environs so that when life does actually resume in the decimated environments, the species that proliferate are not necessarily the same as the endemic species previously populating the region. These species are termed “weed-species”
  • The Benthic sea floor substrate acts as a septic tank, effectively a ‘self-cleaning system’ for the ocean. Trawling and dredging drag up buried toxins, contaminating the environment and also contaminating resident flora and fauna. This ultimately affects the air we breathe, and triggers toxic algal blooms. [See NASA’S SATELLITE picture of Trawlers trails which are visible from space}
  • Mass-catch techniques are being permitted by the authorities (even encouraged, as evidenced by the Supertrawler FV Magiris, whose rights to trawl in Australian waters are being challenged as at August 2012).
  • The Fishing authorities are consistently permitting what is termed as “overshoot”. This is what occurs when the numbers of fish caught is greater than the ability of the remaining fish to repopulate. The gap between fish being caught and their ability to regenerate is getting wider and wider.
  • Typically trawlers throw 70% of what bio-mass they catch back overboard as by-catch (unwanted species – including precious Fauna, Seaweeds and Corals). More often than not these species are thrown back already dead or dying. I refer to their nets as being “an indiscriminate wall of death” …. the  best analogy that I can give you is – for you to picture a pristine wooded mountain, with associated beautiful Flora and Fauna, … and now add a team of bulldozers at either end of that mountain, a heavy chain run across the top and a net thrown over the whole lot. Then slowly start towing the chain down the mountain, so as to make sure that they miss nothing at all …. I ask you, how far would that exercise progress in reality ?? IT HAPPENS IN OUR OCEANS GLOBALLY, AND EVERY DAY !!! You just don’t see it.
  • Current farmed aquaculture ethos is not the solution, as often it takes 4 to 5 kg of wild fish to produce 1 kg of farmed fish, such as Salmon. We DO need Aquaculture for the future [USFDA reports that we will consume more food in the next 50 years, than in the history of mankind], but we must NOT rely on wild stocks to feed them ! It just doesn’t make sense. Yes….aquaculture operations globally are not net-producers of seafood…they are actually net-consumers of seafood.
  • The Fishing authorities are not managing fishing to enable sustainability. What we actually need is the Fishing Authorities to encourage REGENERATION of species, via utilising more sympathetic harvesting techniques and associated promotion of value adding and optimal resource return with regard to pricing & consumer perceptions.
  • Seafood fraud. Do you really know what you’re eating? Recent studies have found that some types of seafood may be mislabelled as much as 70% of the time This means you could be eating unhealthy, illegal, unsustainable fish and not even know it.

When I talk about restaurants/chefs/fishermen who “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk”. They claim to be sustainable and ethical but actually they aren’t and no one holds them up to scrutiny and the average consumer would never know the difference.

In the US, the Senate is currently considering three bills that would increase the level of inspections to ensure compliance and prosecute illegal operators.  I would like to see Australia follow their lead. We do have labelling laws now, … but they need to be far more detailed ….. describing how they were caught, and by which operator.

 Exacerbating the problem is that mass-catch techniques are permitted by the relevant authorities, and industry decision makers, globally: Dredging  / Trawling / Long-line  and auto-line fishing are lucrative mass-catch methodologies used prolifically for “advanced” modern day fishing. Sure, they catch more fish …… but at a lower quality …… and thereby DEVALUING the resource !! In my lifetime I have observed many marketplaces, and myriads of fishing techniques throughout the world, so I feel that I can make the following statement with some credence. My “control” is an individually hand caught Iki-jime grade fish which I will say has totally optimised and value added the resource ie. 100%. I have continually observed mass caught product achieve as low as 5% to perhaps a maximum of 70% … and if I had to put an average … I would be being generous with say 40%.  It really defies belief … and they aren’t “fishing” they are “bulldozer operators”, and “clear fellers” – only getting away with it, because you either can’t see it, or don’t understand it !!.

I want to give you the tools to “see” and “understand it”.

Trawling / Dredging involves dragging a massive net or steel scoop along the sea bed. The damage created is on an industrial scale. The haul is entirely indiscriminate, ripping up everything in their path and throwing unwanted by-catch back into the sea. Almost all are dead, and entirely wasted. Add to that abhorrent vision that you have … the ludicrous situation where our authorities [because of the indiscriminate nature of these methods] force the operator to throw back “incidental catch” that they are not licenced / or don’t have quota for – including protected species !! I have observed many reports on the percentage of bio-mass that is discarded over the side of the average trawler [and of course, my own observations] …… suffice to say that in reality, at least as much bio-mass is shovelled over the side as to that which is kept by the vessel operator. Yes, just as ludicrous as the comedy skit “nothing to see here !!”

With long-lines and auto-lines, it’s a similar scenario, regardless of how these fishing lines are used – ie. “line caught” can also be catastrophic. The lines can stretch for a 100 km and they slowly drown any organism caught they hook. There are several billion hooks set this way annually, around the planet. When we first started Longlining, we used 50 or 100 hooks and every fish caught was in premium condition [and by the way, many of my Japanese customers yearn for an industry return to that ethos of highest quality product] … now, many longliners set several thousand hooks, catching quantity at an “average” price over 3 week trip durations. And Autoliners actually boast about having 3000 hooks “fishing” at any one time. The waste and degradation of the resource is an utter disgrace.

I firmly believe that “People Power” will force the need for methodology change. If the average consumer is educated sufficiently about what he or she should be requesting from their local Fishmonger / Restaurateur [and actually savvy enough to know how to tell the difference] – then there will be no demand for “Mass caught” products … and these operators will then ultimately be forced to change their methodology.

It doesn’t stop there though. Everybody has to be prepared to ACTUALLY “walk the walk” …. and not just “talk the talk”. An ethical and sustainable fisherman [with a zero operational footprint] is likely to catch only 5 to 10%  of a mass catch operator [who has a MASSIVE footprint] ….. yet their costs will be almost identical, and the ethical operator will often need to work much longer hours.

Comparison perspectives are therefore very  important – to genuinely understand. Recently one of the highest profiled Chefs in our glorious nation said to me “Mark, how do we alter the public’s perception that seafood should be ‘cheap’ ?? Even though 9 out of 10 diners favourite fare is some form of seafood dish –  the average punter will come into one of my restaurants – and think nothing of paying $120 for a Wagyu or Truffle dish ….. yet balk at paying half of that for a premium fish dish !?!? …. and often retort ‘I’m not paying that price … it’s just fish’ !”

Let me begin by saying that I also come from very proud Cattle farming stock …. I admire the Wagyu guys – and nothing that I am about to state is meant to undermine them in any way whatsoever, the comparison is purely to achieve a direct perspective for the average consumer.

An average sustainable and ethical fishing operation has a similar capital investment to that of the Wagyu farmer. The Wagyu farmer can work 365 days per year [in a pretty nice work environment] – yet the average Tasmanian fisherman can only work open waters around 80 days per year [and often in the harshest conditions imaginable]. The Wagyu guy has a total guarantee on his invested capital and effort …. the fisherman has none. The fisherman’s fixed costs for Licenses, quotas and fees are reaching a crippling level, yet the Wagyu guy’s equivalent costs are minimal by comparison. The Wagyu guys are forever trying to achieve an organic status – yet there is nothing more organic than the Ocean environs. …. and if that isn’t enough for you …. here’s the absolute “kicker” ….. The Wagyu guy says goodbye to his family and announces what time he will be home for dinner. The fisherman says goodbye to his family, ……… and wonders if he will ever see them again !?!? ….. I have lost 4 fisherman mates in the past 12 months … all under 30 y.o., and all with beautiful families. As Sir Walter Scott said – “It’s not the fish that you are buying, it’s men’s lives”.

Oh, sorry, I’m not quite done yet, either ….. THEN on top of all that, we ethical and sustainable lobbyists ask of this poor soul …. please, please use a sustainable technique that will uphold that ethos …… and thereby catch 5 to 10% of the Mass Catch operators …. BUT when you come back in, we will use the “Mass Catch prices” to keep your price down so that it is affordable for we consumers !?!?!

If you took that business-model to an Accountant, Investment Advisor or Bank Manager, they would think that you were an idiot.

I ask of you to truly consider, given the above, on the “scales and balances” what price should the Premium fish dish be in comparison to the Wagyu dish !?!?

Similarly, would you barter a Ferrari Dealer with “It’s just a red car mate …. I can buy a red car across the road for 15 Grand !!” … or to a purveyor of fine wines “That Dom Perignon is just a bottle of Bubbly mate … I can buy a bottle of Bubbly for 3 bucks down the road !!”  Of course, you are scoffing at those scenarios … but surely the same ludicrous analogy is being used by the Diner mentioned above ….. and many of us are guilty of that very same thought process. Iki-jime grade Sustainably and Ethically caught Seafood are “DIAMONDS” … and need to be acknowledged, respected and priced to reflect their actual value.

Stock sustainability “Science” that we often hear from our ‘Peers’ is a fictional nonsense. Any Scientist will require [for even the most rudimentary analysis] … that you MUST have a “pristine control” to compare results to. We have plundered and ‘Mass Caught’ in the planet’s Oceans since the 14th Century. IF we have “quality of information” – at best it is only for the past 20 to 30 years – compared to a “control” that has been tainted continually for several hundred years …….

By utilising Mass Catch techniques untold damage is done to marine wildlife, the delicate sea beds and eco-systems. Many organisms and their habitats are destroyed as “collateral damage” resultant from our excesses. The by-catch can include sea birds, dolphins, turtles and any species the fisherman chooses not to keep or has been partially eaten by a predator whilst attached to the hook. All returned to the sea dead.

Biodiversity is threatened. Food security is threatened. If we persist with these fishing methodologies we will have no fishing industry in the future.

Unfortunately we must protect breeding nurseries with Marine Parks in order to ensure the survival of the marine wildlife. I am of the firm belief that if all fish were sustainably caught in the first place, Marine Parks would never be necessary – perhaps that will be the case for our future generations.

Why is Tasmania so important?: In Tasmania only 1% of the marine environment is actually protected. However 90% of Tasmania’s marine wildlife is unique to Tasmania. Once these species are gone. That’s it.

Then there’s the consideration of all the other animals impacted such as the sea birds, dolphins, turtles, migrating species and any other organisms that rely on or inhabit these delicate ecosystems. The impact doesn’t stop at the seabed that’s just been brutalised. There’s many more organisms who depend on a healthy marine ecosystem besides the small minority of fishermen who decimate and benefit directly from it. We all own these waters.

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Mark Eather

FB Connect