Thursday, 18 June 2009

The End of the Line?

Pay attention because these may be the three most important words you could learn this year.

They are in the form of a question, are easy to remember and will no doubt facilitate further conversation.


Is. It. Sustainable?

Every time you buy fish be sure to say these words out loud.

I already knew the situation regarding dwindling fish stocks was perilous but the true extent to which so many species are in danger was brought into terrifying immediacy last week when I went to see The End of the Line, a new documentary based on the book written by journalist Charles Glover.

The conclusion of the film, full of serious looking scientists and graphs with a ubiquitous downward trend, is that stocks of many of the fish we know and love will have crashed sometime shortly before 2050.

When fish stocks crash, I learnt, it means their number has re-treated to below a level from which it can recover. Population sizes get too small and, ultimately, species die out. By 2048, Ted Danson surmises gravely over various swooping shots of the Deep Blue, the oceans may be full of little more than algae and jellyfish.

I don’t fancy jellyfish fingers. Crab sticks are bad enough.

Cod, marlin, skate and others receive their moment in the spotlight but the poster boy for the campaign is without doubt the bluefin tuna, now seemingly endangered to the same extent as the orang-utan or giant panda.

Fished predominantly in the warm waters of the Med, the bluefin is a beautiful creature – no doubt supremely tasty – but one that none of us should be eating. Indeed, many restaurateurs have taken the fish off their menus with barely a few notable exceptions (Nobu being the most famous, and currently stubborn).

Coming under the jurisdiction of the EU fisheries committee, quotas (if properly enforced) could help halt the rapid decline in the fish’s population. Scientists advise a maximum catch of 10,000 tons of blue fin, a figure that would just allow the stocks to start recovering. In a frustrating piece of footage, the quota is set at six times this amount with many boats simply ignoring it entirely and shipping illegally caught blue fin to the Far East.

Despite its grim predictions the film ends on an up-beat. It suggests that in this case, change must come from below. We haven’t yet reached tipping point but the revolution must be consumer led. The individual can, it says, make a difference.

Perhaps they can. Roberto Mielgo, one of the film’s heroes, is merely a lone gun. A former fisherman himself, he travels the world amidst a dense fug of Marlboro smoke compiling evidence against the worst offenders and putting together dossiers packed with information. A latter day Sam Spade for the oceans.

But for every David there is a Goliath and there are few bigger giants than the Mitsubishi Corporation who appear to be stockpiling bluefin in enormous frozen warehouses hoping, Glover argues, to cash in when the stocks begin to disappear.

It’s here I find the conclusion, that the consumer can make the difference, incongruous with the body of evidence as just presented. The shady worlds of international politics and global big business dominate the oceans and have a monopoly on its contents. The bottom line is the bottom line and whilst that is the case, I fear that there is little we can do.

That’s not to say we should give up and chow down plates of oturo seven nights a week – we do need to find other sources of piscine protein.

After the screening a Q&A was held with two representatives from the British Antarctic Survey, to field questions regarding the scientific aspects of what we had seen, and two from supermarket chain Waitrose to offer advice about fishy alternatives that are sustainable.

Top of that list is a tropical freshwater fish called tilapia. It has a meaty white flesh with a taste not dissimilar to cod. Having never tried it I was offered a piece to cook, free of charge, from my local Waitrose (another of the good guys - they don't stock any fish unless it is MSC certified)

Tilapia is something of a blank canvas. Like many white fishes it can hold its own with a variety of flavours. Many recipes call for fragrant Thai additions such as chilli and lemongrass.

But I wanted to know if it was possible to use it in the all time test: re-creating the British classic of fish and chips.

NB – I was too hungry to bother taking pictures.

Tilapia in ginger beer batter

This is good. Really, really good. The fish is moist and yielding and remains tender inside its little house of batter made from ginger beer. It might sound strange but please, run with me on this one. I guarantee you won’t regret it. It was the best battered fish I have had in a long time. Serves two.

Two tilapia fillets, each cut into four pieces
75g plain flour, plus a little extra
100ml ginger beer
a pinch of cayenne pepper
a pinch of baking powder
salt and pepper
oil for deep frying (I used a mixture of sunflower and rendered lamb suet)

Dry the fish well and sprinkle a little flour into a shallow plate. Season it with salt and pepper.
Mix the flour in a small bowl and pour in the ginger beer. Whisk well until it is lump free and smooth. Add the baking powder and season with the cayenne, salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over a moderately high heat (it should be about 175 degrees. Test it by dropping in a small cube of bread – if it is hot enough the bread will brown within sixty seconds).

Cover the tilapia with flour and shake off any excess. Drop into the batter then deep fry them for about two minutes until the batter has turned golden brown.

Serve with a mound of well salted chips and a little too much mayonnaise.

Is there a downside to this wunder-fisch? Naturally. It’s from Zimbabwe a country a long, long way away with a more than dubious human rights record. This is a decision you’re going to have to make alone but before you do, go and see the film. Immediately.


matt said...

100% agree. I cook a fair amount of seafood, and it has to be sustainable. A big concern for me is just how sustainable these sustainable fish are actually going to be..

Great post mate.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about interesting batter today, ginger beer is a great idea.

We've cooked tallapia a couple of times now and I quite like it, there is a slight bitterness to it I find which I think would work well with Thai flavourings, as you mentioned.

Alicia Foodycat said...

I can't believe we haven't learned from the collapse of the northern cod fisheries. 20+ years have passed and now dwindling fish stocks are news?

Good to know about tilapia. It's a fish I have read about in American recipes but I have never tried it myself.

Just Cook It said...

Matt - Thanks indeed. Yes, this is an issue that the film does raise, and was certainly talked about in the Q&A afterwards. Farmed salmon? It's fed on ground smaller fish, 5kg of which is needed for a salmon to put on 1kg of weight.

Tilapia is vegetarian which works in its favour.

Ginger - Do try it, it's fantastic. I didn't notice the bitterness but it was probably tempered by the sweetness in the batter

Foodycat - I know, it really is quite unbelievable.It seems nothing has changed