The salmon market is in turmoil. We've just seen prices hit an all-time high and the only fish that seem to be available in the market place are small. What’s fuelling the demand? Well it seems that one of the world’s largest producers, Chile, is having problems producing fish, and its principle market in the United States has decided it now prefers to deal with Scotland and Norway. The worrying thing is that with demand in Asia on the increase as well, pressure on prices looks set to continue. Supermarkets that rely on salmon as a promotional item have all had to take drastic action, with many reducing the special offer pack weights rather than reduce the special offer price. Tesco’s for example has reduced its 2 fillet 280gm pack down to 220gm but kept the price at £4. I've plenty more to say about salmon in the next newsletter, so more then.
This is that time of year when there is bound to be a festival or foodie event on near you. I prefer the smaller events myself and last month I noticed that Lyme Regis had a mackerel festival on, and in the quaint local theatre celebrated local chef and food writer Mark Hix had organised a discussion panel to debate the subject of sustainable fishing to be followed by a 4 course mackerel feast. With Elizabeth away and me travelling in the south west I made a detour and headed down to Lyme for the evening.
With Mark organising affairs I knew he was bound to have a few big hitters on the discussion panel. Representing the restaurant industry, that force of nature Trevor Gulliver, CEO of the St John restaurant group, Mitch Tonks, chef owner of The Seahorse and Rockfish restaurants, Mark Hix, restaurateur and columnist of the Independent, in the middle representing fishmongers and fishermen was local monger Simon Bennett (shame didn’t have a few fishermen) and representing the industry’s decision makers and men of influence Jim Masters head of MCS (Marine Conservation Society), Andrew Pillar from Interfish and lastly Charles Clover, a journalist and CEO of The Marine Foundation, founder of Fish2Fork a website that rates restaurants on the choice of sustainable fish they choose to use on their menus, and probably most famous for his book and film The End of the Line.
After everyone had briefly introduced themselves, Trevor Gulliver took no time at all in getting stuck in and declaring that buying fish because it had the MCS or correct colour code accreditation was not for him. His restaurants would decide what was ethically correct and sustainable by dealing directly with day boat fishermen with whom he had a far greater confidence in the sustainability of their supply. Andrew Pillar and Jim Masters were keen to stress the value of the MCS accreditation for supermarkets and being the benchmark for shoppers that wish to buy sustainably and a mark they could trust. Several supermarkets are already committed to only stocking MCS approved species of fresh fish in the future. Simon Bennett was keen to know why MCS had withdrawn its recommendation for mackerel as a fish to eat in January, and then performed a U-turn in May by endorsing it again. In the meantime south coast mackerel fishermen’s jobs and livelihoods had been jeopardised. There was plenty of lively banter and what was obviously apparent, being in a fishing town, was we were in a room not only with a knowledgeable platform but a knowledgeable audience. My feelings at the end of the discussion were that we need a better system of understanding at point of sale of where our fish is fished, how it was fished and some sort of information about the perceived sustainability of the species. It’s also no good listing a fish as sustainable when there is no scientific data to back that claim. Of course all this information should be readily available at good fishmongers! The debate ended without incident and we then all sat down to enjoy a marvellous seafood dinner, and with Julian Temperley at our table small quantities of cider were also taken.
My reflections are that the MCS is too rigid an accreditation system; it’s more about complying with rules and ticking boxes of approval. It’s amazing that this charity, by its own admission underfunded, is the recognised arbiter of all things sustainable. It may well work as a handy rough guide for large organisations such as supermarkets, but for restaurants who are quite often buying line-caught fish from day boats, with no by catch, sustainability should not in theory be an issue.
When it comes to fish we are a fish eating nation of 4 species - salmon, cod, haddock and prawns. Oh, nearly forgot one other, fish fingers. The population’s fish knowledge starts at a pretty low base and admirable as Hugh’s Fish Fight is and the promotion of lesser known species such as pollack (never liked it) and gurnard is, we have the ridiculous situation because of fashion and fads where cod last month was cheaper than pollack and coley. The even sadder news is that last week a survey conducted in the Midlands highlighted the dreadful fact that 64% of children didn't know tuna was a fish. All of us that have some sort of connection to this fish industry, take heed our work is not done.
The overriding theme of all this is buy your fish from someone you can trust ,who knows where and how it was caught, can perhaps steer you in the direction of something different to try, and give you a few simple tips on how easy fish is to cook - that’s probably not going to be a supermarket.
Special congratulations to local Environmental Health Officer Keith Lesley who was part of a team that several weeks ago completed a swim across the Channel. All those weekends training in wild water through the winter paid dividends and next time I see him in white coat walking around with his clipboard I’ll be thinking RESPECT.