Seafood restaurants are a commodity all over the world. No matter the country you’re in, it is always a treat to sit in a restaurant by the water, in which a row of colourful fishing boats are anchored, enjoying a seafood platter and a glass of wine. It creates the impression that the fish you’re having was caught in those very boats earlier that day. But unfortunately, the truth is they probably weren’t. The hake quite possibly came from a fishing farm in Vietnam, where these farms cause severe habitat degradation. The mussels were probably farmed in China, causing water pollution and the prawns are likely to have been farmed in India, where the fishing farms result in the deforestation of the local mangroves.
This is how Martin Purves (pictured, right), the South African Programme Manager of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) starts explaining the skewed import and export industries of fish across the world. “The hake we eat in South Africa come from Namibia or Argentina mostly and the 7,500 tonnes of Calamari caught in South Africa per year are exported to Italy, Portugal or Japan. We’re getting fish from everywhere except our own fisheries.”
Michael Marriott (pictured above), the South African Commercial Manager at the MSC, highlighted other problems in the fishing industry, namely illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Inadequate management systems and the wrong fishing gear lead to severe eco system impacts and overfishing. “Overfishing is considered by some as the second biggest environmental problem after climate change,” said Marriott.
We read about these problems daily, but we tend to feel helpless in the issue. The problems seem too great to be solved by individual members of the public. Luckily, the power of the consumer is becoming ever greater. If we buy only fish products that originate from local and sustainable fisheries, more companies will realise that they need to change their practice in order to stay in business. And with the MSC’s blue eco-label, it is easy to recognise which fish products to buy.
What is an MSC eco-label?
The label is blue with a white tick and the MSC logo (see below) and it certifies that the product in store, or the dish on a seafood restaurant’s menu, is approved according MSC’s standards. The MSC is an international organisation that has been prevalent in the sustainable fishing movement since 1997. The two standards by which they operate are sustainability and traceability. Sustainability, according to Marriott, means “the capacity to endure and maintain” and refers to the amount of fish being caught and the level of responsible management conducted on the vessel or at the farm. Traceability means that the fish can be traced back to the boat it was caught on. This cancels out the possibility that fish was caught illegally, on an unnamed vessel somewhere in the pacific.
These eco-labels are becoming increasingly visible, especially in grocery stores around the country. By buying these products instead of others, you’re not only supporting the MSC’s mission to save the state of the oceans, but you’re also contributing to the movement itself. The power of the consumer is great and the more we buy products with eco-labels, and refrain from buying the ones without, the more suppliers will pressure the fisheries to look into their methods of practice.
Where to buy
Woolworths has the blue eco-label on a great variety of their seafood products, having made a visible promise to sell more sustainable seafood. I&J, Sea Harvest and Ocean King also display the label on many of their products. They list products and stores from all over the world and they also inform visitors which restaurants have MSC approved items on their menu. The only restaurant in Africa with this status, is The Shoreline Cafe at the V&A Waterfront, having earned it earlier this year. Two fisheries in Africa have been assessed and certified by the MSC and another ten have completed their pre-assessment.
The issue of mislabeling
Another more discreet problem with the fishing industry, is mislabeling. Donna Cawthorn did her PhD in Food Science on the subject. She explains that in general, 40% of the content of fishing nets are bycatch. This means it landed in the net by accident and that it could quite possibly be endangered fish that is illegal to sell. But by packaging the fish as something legal, they get away with it and further ruin the ecosystem. “Endangered fish species are still actively sold on markets despite all the environmental efforts,” said Cawthorn.
In KwaZulu Natal, 56% of the products they tested were mislabeled. Hake, for example, is being replaced by the New Zealand Ling, a highly endangered species. In some cases, the fish being mislabeled can be harmful to our health.
“Consumers are being ripped off and deprived of their right to make healthy decisions,” explained Cawthorn.
Questions you can ask
Another way you can motivate fisheries to enter into assessment for MSC certification and perhaps to counter the problem of mislabeling, is to ask questions at markets and in restaurants about the origin of the fish.
Here are a few things you can ask the supplier:
- What species is the fish they’re selling?
- Where exactly did the fish come from?
- Are these fish wild or farmed?
- What were the catching methods?
By asking these questions and by buying only MSC approved fish in stores, at restaurants and markets, you, the consumer, can have a strong impact on suppliers. The oceans are unable to supply us with all the fish we consume and it is good to know that we have power in our hands to motivate restaurants to reconsider their own practices.