One of the key things I learned during my ten years as the manager of a food market and co-owner of a cooking school was to talk with the greengrocers, butchers, poulterers and fishmongers – and ask about the origins of the fresh produce that I was buying from them. The chefs I worked with were always keen to know and, as the chief cook for a family of four, so was I.
Gourmet Farmer, chef and former restaurant critic, Matthew Evans, shares this philosophy. 'Over time I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way that we Australians can make informed choices about what we’re eating is if we’re given sufficient information, if we’re told exactly what’s on the plate,' he told me in an interview. This is particularly important when it comes to seafood.
According to Matthew, Australia is the 'world citizen' when it comes to fisheries. That said, he believes that fish labelling needs to be streamlined. Fishmongers are required to label their products with the country of origin, but there's no rule stipulating that the species is named. Further, at cafes and restaurants, consumers have no clue if the seafood they are eating has come from the jetty at the end of the road, or from the other side of the world.
A new SBS series presented by Matthew aims to get Australians better informed and armed with the right information so they can become part of the solution and choose seafood that is good for the oceans, as well for their own health. What’s The Catch? highlights the complex and sometimes shocking truth about the imported seafood consumed in Australia. Throughout the series, Matthew’s journey takes him from the industrial salmon farms of his home state of Tasmania, to the catastrophic trawling of Asian seas to feed our love of cheap prawns. His discoveries provoke him to ask some tough questions. Hence, what's the catch?
Australia imports more than 70% of its seafood from overseas, where, unlike our home shores, sustainability comes a distant second to the increasing demands of commercial production. With this in mind, Matthew has embarked on a campaign for truth in labelling. His goal is for all Australian seafood – fresh, cooked or preserved – to carry labels that tell consumers clearly what species it is, where it is from and how it was caught or farmed. Most folks assume that the seafood they buy and consume is all sustainably-fished in Australia’s own crystal clear waters. But the reality is far more complicated and ugly! As an example, a major percentage of the prawns consumed in Australia come from overseas. In Asia, prawns are farmed intensively with heavy use of antibiotics to combat the spread of disease. Blue sunscreen is dumped into the ponds to stop the prawns from overheating. The prawns are fed on 'trash fish' which Matthew describes as 'an indiscriminate collection of rotting marine life that has been swept from the ocean floor, then crunched up, cooked and turned into meal for prawn farming'. And if that's not shocking enough, you might be surprised to learn that it's takes four kilograms of trash fish to produce just one kilogram of farmed Thai prawns. Yep, you read that correctly. It's enough to make one think twice about those prawn cutlets at the local.
The problem goes deeper than just prawns. It applies to all seafood, including sharks. In some parts of the world 'live finning' of sharks takes place. This is where the fins are sliced off the shark while it is still alive. The creature is then thrown back into the ocean to die a long, slow death. Some species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Sharks are 'top level predators', so if they are killed out there is a cascade effect that leaves the ecosystem out of balance. This then raises the question that perhaps until the accurate labelling of 'flake' or shark is enforced, we should all stop eating it. There are more sustainable options: bream, mackerel, trevally and whiting, for instance. By making these choices, consumers can send a positive message back through the supply chain. What's the Catch delves into which species should be farmed and how it can be done sustainably.
What's the Catch? premieres on SBS ONE on Thursday, 30 October at 8.30pm and is available on iTunes the day after each episode goes to air. You can join the conversation via social media with the hash tag #WhatsTheCatch @SBSDocumentary.
My conversation with Matthew Evans...
I spoke with Matthew earlier this week, following the launch of What's the Catch and the Label My Fish campaign. Our conversation follows:
Firstly, it's an excellent series, Matthew, congratulations, and it's about time someone tackled the issue. Tell me, what inspired it for you, other than the bleeding obvious?
Thank you, Lizzy. A couple of things inspired it. One is that the thing I've always wanted to do from the start of my career in writing and then broadcasting, is to tell the Australian story... so to see things from our angle. I also had an underlying unease about the state of fish stocks in Australia and what we were eating. And then I realised it wasn't just me, it was a lot of people.
What was the biggest surprise or shock as part of your investigation?
The biggest shock was simply the stats... that such a large percentage (72%) of the seafood we eat in Australia is imported. Imported as such doesn't equal 'bad', but it does equal 'unknown' in terms of how it's produced, or how it's farmed, or how it's fished. So we have this campaign running, which was launched today. It's called labelmyfish.com (see video below). We're trying to get actual legislative change so that people know what's on their plate. That way people can make choices around sustainability, they can know the facts around what they're eating, what country it's from, how it was caught and how it was farmed.
Did you get good support from the chefs?
Yes, we've had great support from the chefs. What's interesting is that the Restaurant and Catering Association are saying that it's going to be too hard to properly label seafood and that it's going to cost $8,000-10,000 AUD per establishment per year. I don't know if the price of chalk has gone up recently, but good restaurants already do it! They already tell you whether it's line caught and comes from Lakes Entrance, and whether it's flathead or whatever. So it can't be too hard if some people are already doing it. And the good restaurants are proud to say: 'We know where our seafood comes from and we will tell you, our customers. We value you, highly enough to tell you, our customers, where our stuff comes from'. And all we're asking is truth in labelling.
What advice would you give to consumers in terms of buying both cooked and fresh seafood?
There are a couple of things. One is: don't be afraid to ask questions of your fishmonger, because just about that's everything sold in Australia has on the box all the information, such as the species and where it's from and how it's caught. So they should know that information. Also, ask your restaurant and ask your takeaway. The information is usually provided to them and in many cases they choose not to give it to us. The other thing is: in the absence of information, eat towards the bottom of the food chain. Try to eat things that are not the really large carnivorous fish, like tuna and salmon. Go for smaller fish, things that grow fast, like sardines, whiting, garfish or gurnard. They eat better if not as well than flathead, they're just not as famous, and you can get them for a bargain price. Eat filter feeders like oysters and mussels and scallops. They actually clean the water in which they're grown. Environmentally, there's no wild fish going in and there you have amazing tasting products that actually help to clean the waterways in which they're farmed. It's win-win.
[We agree that you can't beat a good oyster].
When they say 'We can't tell you where the seafood is from', well every restaurant can tell you where their oysters have come from. If they can do it for that, they can do it for everything else.
What are your thoughts on the Good Fish Bad Fish web site?
I love it, It's great. There's range of really good resources consumers can use. Go to labelmyfish.com You can get the Australian Marine Conservation Society's app for your phone, and you can go to the Good Fish Bad Fish web site. Those kinds of resources are really useful. Good Fish Bad Fish is great, because they look at whole bunch of environmental organisations. They try to filter that and get roundtable decisions made by committee on the species and they give you options and recommendations from chefs on other fish you can try and how to cook them. If you want to cook something in a certain way, here's another fish you can try to cook in the same manner. So, if we're only going to pan fry fish, then we're limited to the range of species, but if you're going to try other species, then there are other ways you can cook them to make them taste fantastic. You only have to go to Spain or Italy and see what they can do with the humble sardine or anchovy. You can do amazing things with oily fish. You can amazing things with white fish. The possibilities are great.
And it goes back to the first question: What's the Catch? Where's it from?
Yes, that's all we need to know. Buying close to home is generally a good thing. If the fisheries at your doorstep collapsed, you'd know about it. Buying close to home just by definition means you're more aware of the issues. I went to China and was talking to a fisherman there who was telling me about how far he travels to catch fish. I asked him if he goes to Australia and he told me that he doesn't because the rules are too strict. We're the world's citizen. The decisions that we make about the seafood that we import and eat have an impact on the countries from whose waters they come from.
There is good news. We can still all eat seafood. We don't have to stop. But we can make better choices about the types of seafood we eat and we can eat more variety. There's 500 species at the fish market that we should be eating. And we can try not to support environmental destruction by buying seafood from countries that can't afford to police things the way we can.
We finish our conversation with Matthew explaining that there is positive news in the third and final episode of What's the Catch? He says we need to find more ways of providing sustainable seafood to a growing population in Australia, and sustainable farming is the answer.
This is a good news story after all and I, for one, look forward to hearing more.
Learn more about the Label My Fish Campaign*...
* The Label My Fish campaign is independent of SBS.
Tell me dear readers, do you ask questions of your fishmonger, butcher and greengrocer? Is seafood labelling mandatory in your part of the world? Aussie friends, are you interested in supporting the Label My Fish campaign and do you seek to eat Australian fish and seafood?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.