Something Fishy

By Malu Lambert

The photograph is beautiful. The body of a female diver arches as she dives down into a still, blue ocean. The caption, though, indicates there’s something wrong with the picture. She’s diving into an empty sea.

The diver’s name is Hanli Prinsloo, a freediver and ocean conservationist. Photographer Jean-Marie Ghislain captured the image while the two of them were on an expedition to study and photograph white tip sharks in a Red Sea ‘hotspot’. The pair spent two weeks diving—for up to eight hours a day—but, in what was meant to be a prime area for the species, they did not spot even a single shark.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 80 per cent of the world’s wild fish stocks are either fully or over-exploited. Great predatory fish such as tuna and grouper are fast disappearing. Ultimately the remaining few might very likely be relegated to museums—for a spot next to the dodo.

Empty oceans lead to empty nets—and to far-reaching consequences for the human race. The collapse of the commercial fishing industry won’t mean simply the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, but the demise of an important protein source—a scary thought when we expect the world’s population to reach 9,6 billion by 2050.

Then, of course, there’s the stewardship aspect. How do we explain to our children and grandchildren the careless pillaging of what was once a most bountiful and diverse resource?

Before writing this article, I thought I knew the extent of the issue—much like you hear about violence in a war-torn country while sitting comfortably at home. You know terrible atrocities are being committed; yet emotionally you are removed from it because it doesn’t directly affect you. But the ocean—covering 70 per cent of the planet—is everyone’s problem.

No one is saying ditch the sushi habit, but rather the ignorance. Right now our relationship with seafood is toxic, but we can turn it around. The solution is to only eat what’s sustainable. That way we can allow fish stocks to replenish.

 ‘Fish have to be line-caught, and not with a net. Even with farmed fish, you have to ask what the fish are fed on, as sometimes the feed itself is unsustainable’ 

But where should this education begin? A good start would be at the outlets and restaurants selling or serving our food.

This is just the thinking behind the menu at CAMISSA BRASSERIE at The Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. Part of the Sun International hotel group, the restaurant serves only green-listed SASSI (SA Sustainable Seafood Initiative) approved fish. All 26 restaurants in the group serve only sustainable seafood, an unusual initiative for such a large hospitality group—as not only is becoming sustainable an expensive exercise, but in an industry that has the mantra of ‘the customer is always right’, it means people will often be faced with fish they’re not accustomed to, and might not want to eat.

Looking out over the bay of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Camissa certainly feels like a place to enjoy seafood. “We need to create a culture of sustainability,” says group general manager, Michael Farr. “We’re hoping our commitment helps to set an example for others to follow.

“Look at what happened with smoking, how it became more and more socially unacceptable to smoke in restaurants.” Michael is hoping the same will happen with eating unsustainable fish.

A problem facing establishments wanting to go green is the massive volume of fish needed across the board, particularly in the case of chain restaurants. You can’t quite get the same amounts of SASSI approved fish as you can fish from more exploited populations. Which is quite ironic.

Go to any Cape Town restaurant today, and you’re likely to find the so-called line-fish is kingklip—a fish that jumps between SASSI’s red and orange lists, and is far away from green.

“The only way to change public sentiment is to educate. People do care.

Growing up in Simon’s Town, I remember it was a widely accepted fact that you couldn’t eat galjoen, for example,” says Michael.

“Kingklip is changing colour so fast,” adds Stelios Barnard, executive sous chef of The Table Bay Hotel. “And we can no longer just pick up the phone and order 40 kilos of hake. You have to question your supplier.”

He knows just the things to ask too, as he’s undergone a SASSI training course, something every restaurant chef should do.

“It’s all about traceability. The fish have to be line-caught, and not with a net. Even with farmed fish, you have to ask what the fish are fed on, as sometimes the feed itself is unsustainable.”

“It’s then the chefs’ responsibility to train the servers, who have direct contact with the guests. They need to be able to answer questions about the fish they’re serving.”

The challenge for restaurants is to adapt to the types of fish that have been given the green light. “The list can be very limiting,” says Stelios.

“But the education starts when you open up your menu.”

Camissa’s menu items list their SASSI rating. The menu, though, doesn’t seem limited. In fact, it’s quite interesting. Phrases such as ‘Mouille Point Seaweed’ and ‘Dune Spinach and Confetti Bush Salad’ are in the descriptions. Stelios smiles when I point this out and tells me how he and his team of chefs are often out foraging for local ingredients such as num nums, wood sorrel, nasturtiums, seaweed and so on. This is in an effort to make the offering here not only responsible, but local too.

I certainly won’t be ordering kingklip again any time soon. I’m imagining a photo of the ocean in 50 years' time. I don’t want it to be simply blue but rather rippling with fish.

Go to wwfsassi.co.za  for more information or download the WWF SASSI App, which allows you to check the sustainability of your seafood choice in real time—free on Android, Blackberry 10 and iOS.

*image credit of diver: Jean-Marie Ghislain