Ask Peter: Sustainable fish choices
Could you help with a dilemma? We’ve been buying lemon fish lately and love its meaty texture and really cheap prices, it has made some great meals. But my greenie niece says lemonfish is actually shark, and we shouldn’t be depleting the world’s shark fish stocks. Is this so? Do you use it, or, if not, what would you suggest as a sustainable substitute? If you do, what sort of dishes do you use it in?
Well done to your greenie niece, she is correct. Lemonfish, which I have eaten myself in days gone by, is known by Maori as mako, and also as rig shark or gummy shark. It’s on the “very red” part of the chart that is the Best Fish Guide 2013-2014 put out by the Forest & Bird people. And just in case you think being red means it will make a fabulous meal it actually means it should be avoided at all cost. Lemonfish sits towards the bottom of the list, although the reddest of red places is shared by orange roughy, oreo and porbeagle shark.
Alarmingly, snapper is also in that part of the chart. Sharks appear frequently in the red with none appearing in the best choice area, so it would be prudent to avoid shark. Although looking at the list it is hard to know what kai moana we should be putting on our tables at our next supper, wherever we are in the world.
What is tricky about what to avoid and what to eat is that nature itself can change through a climatic change or natural disaster — and suddenly what you thought was the right thing to eat this week may not be the case next week. Devastating floods can destroy river-mouths and the fish that live there, a cyclone can wipe out an eco-system around an atoll, an oil spill can wipe out shellfish, and when hungry consumers switch en masse from one species to another it can be truly disastrous.
A few years back in the UK, TV celebrity chef and environmental do-gooder (in the best sense — I admire him greatly) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was on a campaign to get us to stop eating cod (and several other fish) unless it was line caught and from sustainable waters. By-catch was being tossed into the sea and it looked like we were about to become overfished.
When asked what we should eat it was suggested mackerel was a good alternative: there were plenty of them, they were fast-breeding and they appeared in enormous numbers, so they’d be safe as chips! I’d always liked eating them grilled and brushed with a little sweet soy sauce. But once we were told they were good to buy they shot up in price to a fairly ridiculous level. Well, by the time the show was aired it turned out our over-indulgence in these healthy oily fish had almost wiped them out. What was more frustrating was the still unanswered question “What should we be eating?”
Fish farming has had bad press in the UK due to the over intensive methods that were first used. Stories said the farms needed to process 10kg of by-catch into pellets to feed to the farmed fish in order to put 1kg weight on a farmed salmon.
I have no idea if that is true. Pollution from the farms was at terrible levels (especially in the lochs of Scotland) and the demand for a healthy oily fish (which our health departments said we should all begin to eat more of) kept growing, till supply simply couldn’t meet demand. Fortunately in New Zealand, modern aquaculture is far more efficient and sustainable than what I’ve witnessed. We need to consider what is ultimately more harmful—a managed farming system or the dredging of the ocean floors to keep our fish and chips coming off the production line on a regular basis. One of the issues with catching lemonfish is the dredging itself.
In Turkey and Greece, aquaculture is pretty much the only way these fish-loving nations can keep ahead of supply. Not all farms will be five-star of course, but they learned many years ago that they needed to make sure that water run-off was pristine and the fewer chemicals used the better.
They also knew that, if handled properly, there might just be a sustainable and constant supply of fish for the market. In the UK we buy Greek farmed sea bass more easily than English cod. Although a line-caught cod will be infinitely more superior to a farmed fish, it’s just becoming more and more clear that soon we won’t have a choice. In New Zealand I see that fish farming is also controversial for various reasons, but a time will come when wild fish is only for the wealthy and if we want a good protein that doesn’t come from mammals then we’ll need to start improving the way we grow and harvest the supply.
What’s good to eat now?
Seafood New Zealand’s fish of the month is hoki — a vital part of the New Zealand seafood industry, generating close to $200 million in export returns in 2012. Yet, the whip-tailed fish are somewhat under-rated locally despite their numerous attributes. Hoki is also an extremely economical choice and it’s available from the fresh fish counter at all supermarkets at good prices right now.
Our feature, Sustainable fish, has more information on the kinds of fish and seafood we should be eating.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.