Many more fish in the sea?

Myself and the girlfriend wandered through Howth, in Dublin, over the weekend, looking for a restaurant to eat at. Howth has a large fishing port, crammed with trawlers, with their nets and rusty gear. The harbour – in one of Dublin’s most exclusive northside neighbourhoods – is lined with fish mongers and fish restaurants. We entered the most famous of them – Wrights of Howth. They boast their credentials as an “Irish” fish shop, but the shop itself was full of foreign fish – from as far away as Argentina in one case. Quite what the trawlers just 20 feet away in the harbour were catching I don’t know. I expected fresh fish, practically still jumping. Instead, we were getting fish flown half-way around the world. Standing as we were, in the middle of a movie-set-like fishing port, looking at fish that originated 10,000 miles away. This struck me as surreal, and somewhat disheartening. 

Now I’ve just read this very disturbing report from the New York Times in today’s paper (free registration required), entitled “Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade”. In this article, Elisabeth Rosenthal outlines the recent trend for European’s to switch their love of fish from their overfished local waters to foreign seas. And due to lack of regulation and profiteering fishing fleets, those waters tend to be third-world ones, like West Africa.

Very alarmingly:

In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.

And where the money goes…:

Prices have doubled and tripled in response to surging demand, scarcity and recent fishing quotas imposed by the European Union in a desperate effort to save native species. In London, a kilogram of lowly cod, the traditional ingredient of fish and chips, now costs up to £30, or close to $60, up from £6 four years ago.

So money and profit is driving prices ever higher, international fishing companies are bending and breaking the law to overfish third-world fisheries, and western consumers are turning a blind eye. I found that this particular quote got to the heart of the matter:

“There isn’t a market we can’t access anymore,” said Lee Fawcitt, selling tuna from Sri Lanka, salmon and cod from Norway, halibut from Canada, tilapia from China, shrimp from Madagascar and snapper from Indonesia and Senegal. [in Billinsgate Market, London]

To many traders, the origin of the fish hardly matters. “We try to do something, but once it’s here, my attitude is that if it’s been caught it should be sold.” Mr. Fawcitt said. “I’d hate to see it being thrown away.”

Quite. That’d be such a shame, to throw it away, now wouldn’t it. It’s the shrug-of-the-shoulders, moral disinterest that bothers me. Consumers can presumably take the same attitude, retailers can say they are only meeting consumer demand (as if that demand has to be satisfied) and I am sure the fishermen plead a similar case. All of it is morally bankrupt. Ignorance substituting for moral deliberation.

A single consumer can refuse to buy unsustainably-caught fish, refuse to sample that Argentinian trout or that Indonesian shrimp. God knows it won’t stop anything destroying the world’s oceans, but sometimes it’s all we can do.

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