Element - - Cover Story -

The num­ber of dif­fer­ent ‘good fish guides’ pub­lished re­cently has mud­died the water to some ex­tent on what we should con­sider sus­tain­able. But the in­for­ma­tion con­tained within them must give us pause for thought. Ac­cord­ing to For­est and Bird the high­est-rank­ing fish­eries rep­re­sent­ing the best seafood choices are an­chovies, pilchards and sprats. So at the very least they pro­vide a chill­ing warn­ing of what we will be re­duced to eat­ing if we don’t get our act to­gether.

Hoki is a great ex­am­ple of the com­plex­i­ties in­volved. The Ma­rine Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil (MSC), which is sup­ported by the en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion WWF, has cer­ti­fied New Zealand’s en­tire hoki fish­ery as sus­tain­able since 2001. New Zealand’s Seafood In­dus­try Coun­cil says hoki has never been over­fished and is one of the best-man­aged fish stocks in the world. But Green­peace and For­est and Bird have added hoki to their ‘Red Lists’ of un­sus­tain­able fish that con­sumers should avoid. These or­gan­i­sa­tions point to, among other things, the de­cline in the Western Hoki stock, catch­ing of ju­ve­nile fish, the destruc­tion caused to ocean ecol­ogy by bot­tom trawl­ing and by­catch of fur seals, threat­ened bird species and glob­ally threat­ened bask­ing sharks. Green­peace has even gone so far as to say that in their opin­ion no fully cred­i­ble cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem for sus­tain­able seafood cur­rently ex­ists.

In re­sponse, MSC spokesman Pa­trick Ca­leo de­fended the rigour of MSC pro­cesses, and pointed out that For­est and Bird is a mem­ber of MSC’S stake­holder coun­cil. Which re­ally leaves the shop­per at the shelves won­der­ing who to trust.

At least some de­ci­sions seem clearer cut. One of the most pop­u­lar and recog­nis­able fish in the wa­tery naughty corner in ev­ery sus­tain­able fish guide el­e­ment came across is orange roughy, also known as Deepsea perch, sea perch or, ap­petis­ingly, slime­head. The U.S. is the main im­porter of orange roughy, and New Zealand is the main sup­plier.

The con­cerns in­clude claims that pop­u­la­tions are now at most one third of what they were be­fore com­mer­cial fish­ing be­gan and some pop­u­la­tions may have been re­duced to just three per cent of their pre­fish­ing num­bers. Orange roughy is also be­lieved to be a slow breed­ing fish, mean­ing stocks take a rel­a­tively long time to re­plen­ish and the deep sea trawl­ing that catches them de­stroys seabed habi­tats.

But they are still fished by all three ma­jor fish­ing com­pa­nies, which main­tain suf­fi­cient con­trols to pro­vide a sus­tain­able yield are in place and are un­der­stand­ably reluc­tant to aban­don or se­verely re­strict lu­cra­tive fish­eries.

Partly this is be­cause of the risk this will sim­ply leave them open for other, of­ten less scrupu­lous, fleets to ex­ploit. A gov­ern­ment joint min­is­te­rial in­quiry into the use of for­eign char­tered boats to fish quota in New Zealand’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone is due to re­port back in the next few days. The in­quiry fol­lows re­ports of quota vi­o­la­tions, unsea­wor­thy ships, filthy liv­ing con­di­tions on board, and even hu­man rights abuses.

Five Korean men are cur­rently fac­ing charges of aid­ing the dump­ing of un­der­size fish, and dis­hon­estly re­port­ing the catch. Last Au­gust the 38-year-old Oyang 70 sank, killing six, and in De­cem­ber’s 22 fish­er­men were killed when the 31-year-old No.1 In­sung, op­er­at­ing out of Bluff, sank in the Ross Sea be­tween New Zealand and Antarc­tica.

Reg­u­lat­ing the peo­ple work­ing out on the high seas may prove to be at least as im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult an is­sue as pro­tect­ing the fish stocks they harvest.

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