Imports leave producers facing tough task to reel in customers
Three-quarters of the seafood we consume is imported, while the same amount of what we catch is exported. That fact alone should push us to think more about the fish we eat
IN AN era of declining popular fish stocks one thing everyone agrees on is that locally caught fish and shellfish are more sustainable than fish caught or farmed on another continent.
So when did eating fish become so complicated? Is it still frowned upon to eat cod? Where do we stand with tuna? And what fish should we be buying if we want to avoid making some of our most popular species extinct?
“It’s an absolute minefield,” says Sally McKenna, food publisher and Bridgestone Guide editor. “I try to read up about it and I still find it very confusing.”
Ms McKenna encourages people to question their fishmongers and restaurant staff about the origin of their fish. She stresses the need to buy local and says anyone buying prawns from the Pacific region is “guilty of an act of treason” when they have the finest Irish prawns on their doorstep.
“Pacific prawns are shipped half way around the world. They are bottom-feeders and we have the most fabulous prawns in Ireland.”
She is also critical of the imported Vietnamese white fish pangasius. She says it is selling for just $3 (€2.40) a kilo, skinned and filleted and so is very common in the food service industry. But she questions its sustainability, given the distance it travels.
Queries about responsible fishing practices from his international customers led fisherman Frank Fleming and colleagues to set up the Responsible Irish Fish label three years ago. It can be seen on produce in Irish supermarkets and is supported by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and Bord Bia.
Some 100 vessels have signed up to the code of practice that includes commitments to various conservation measures. Members use fishing gear that allows undersized fish to escape the net alive. They also work with scientists on stock assessment and sampling programmes.
Mr Fleming says a lot of generalisations are made about eating fish ethically. He cites the example of cod which has become plentiful again in certain areas.
The cod quota in the Celtic Sea was increased by 77 per cent in December. Irish fishermen are allowed to take only 10 per cent of the total cod catch “so our overall impact on the stock is low anyway”, says Mr Fleming.
“But the purists would still say it’s not sustainable. For many species all we can do is to fish responsibly and this contributes to sustainability.”
He says three-quarters of the seafood we eat is imported while three-quarters of what we catch is exported. “It’s a crazy situation.”
Last year, Europe’s top two fish imports were Alaskan pollock and Vietnamese pangasius, accounting for 1.5 million tonnes between them. In contrast, the Irish quota for white fish was just 32,000 tonnes.
“Imagine being an Irish producer, doing your best to operate responsibly and selling into a market alongside producers who are absolutely unrestricted in many cases?”
Amy Caviston and her husband Shane Willis run A Caviston’s restaurant and fish shop in Greystones.