ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Behind the Most Traded Animal Commodity - Fish

Fish from all over the world are on display at Brixton Market in London.
Image source and caption: New York Times

"There are no fish in the sea here anymore," says one Senegalese fisherman. Without a livelihood, he tried to immigrate to Europe, following a route that has claimed 6,000 lives, including his cousin's. He failed but will try again.

This is just one of the revelations that appear in a New York Times story on the disappearance of African fish, due to foreign fleets plying the waters without oversight. Europe, facing its own fisheries collapse, is importing its supply globally, aided by such companies such as "China National Fisheries Corporation, one of the largest suppliers of West African fish to Europe." In the second story in the series, the Times points out:

Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world's largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe's appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region.

None of this is particularly new -- you can read Charles Clover's book The End of the Line, which documented the practices that led to the collapse of cod stocks in the North Sea and which also spent many pages on the free-for-all underway in Africa.  (I interviewed Clover, Environmental Editor of the London Telegraph, on Salon). But it is news on this side of the pond, where we see very little about the depletion of distant fisheries, such as those in Africa.

The impact of that decline is measured in attempts by idle African fisherman to immigrate to Europe, the  disappearance of subsistence fish protein for Africans, and the rising price of fish in London.

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.

It's doubtful that Europe will be able to control or manage this global fish trade responsibly, given its consistent inability in the Mediterranean of staving off the collapse of blue fin tuna. (That link, by the way is to Carl Safina's blog -- the MacArthur fellow who wrote an amazing narrative on the blue fin's plight in his book, Song for the Blue Ocean).

As for sustainable alternatives, a Times sidebar pointed to a fish and chips joint in London where the chef is sourcing all his stocks sustainably -- at a price. A portion costs 10 pounds (about $20).

What the series so far has not examined are the use (or misuse?) of sustainable fisheries. Clover, in his book, for example, revealed that McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich is sourced from sustainable fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Alaskan cod and pollack. (You wouldn't know it, since McDonald's does not pay the licensing fee to use the MSC certification seal on its meals).

Is this practice still underway and does it extend to Europe as well?  I'd like to know...

- Samuel Fromartz