The notion of ‘sustainable seafood’ is arguably the most misunderstood, misguided, poorly managed and hypocritical debate in food. John Susman weighs in with some harsh realities that some may find hard to swallow.
The man behind the desk has a bandaged ear. Perhaps a previous guest let him keep the rest of his head as a tip. He holds my passport and Master Fish Merchants Association accreditation as if they are fortune cookies containing death threats.
He licks his fingers, then his lips, then the ballpoint and begins very slowly copying out the letters and numbers in triplicate on three ancient, moth-winged ledgers.
He has no idea what he is writing.
It’s all English to him, awkward for his Malay script-conditioned fingers.
Finally, he writes $40 on a scrap of paper and rubs his thumb and forefinger together. Forty dollars. That’s more than a month’s wages for a middle-class fisherman here – if they had anything as modern as a middle class.
He hands me a receipt on a square of brown lavatory paper, which is useful because it’s the only lavatory paper in the place. This is only a hotel because they charge you $40 to stay.
There’s no furniture and no soap. The water comes in a pathetic, rusty dribble. The shower has been used to interrogate goats. The towel is a bar mat. There’s a blanket, a chipped tin teapot and a carpet that looks like tar applied with a comb.
All night, lost fishermen bang on my door and stare as if they’ve seen the ghost of pirates past. Welcome to Sarawak: rhymes with crack, twinned with nowhere. Sarawak, no mates.
But right here is the big one – the Holy Grail for sustainable seafood doomsayers.
The Sarawkans can boast the Biggest Seafood Ecological Disaster in the Whole World, Ever. Nothing else – no Peruvian anchovy collapse, no solitary Mediterranean bluefin tuna, no Fukushima – comes close to the majesty of this disaster.
Not just the biggest, but the fastest. Organised and executed with the precipitate callousness, greed and sheer eye-bulging stupidity that only hands-on exploitation and uncontrolled fisheries lawlessness can muster.
They’ve managed to drain the South China Sea, the fourth biggest lump of deep trench reef water on the globe, of fish, and they’ve done it in 20 years.
The South China Sea was created tens of thousands of years ago during a period when grand tectonic plates fractured and split from the main Southern block that Australia belongs to, from the Indonesian Archipelago and Asia Minor.
The South China Sea's Sarawak trench was one of the great productive waterways – the ancient Portuguese who first explored this region thought it the greatest body of fisheries water on earth – and this coming from the nation that discovered cod on the Grand Banks off North America.
I’m here to witness first-hand the tragedy that has been the death of the Sarawak reef fishery.
Heading to the wharf after a sleepless, Jack Sparrow kind of night, I nervously clutch a mug of eyeball-tearing java, dodging between the dogs, the monkeys and the urchins (street not sea).
A man in a traditional skullcap pulls a reluctant goat on a rope. The goat bleats piteously – it knows this is not a good day for sustainability.
A day of diving on what were the inshore reefs of the South China Sea tells the story: the seascape is nude, no bustling crabs hiding between the rocks, no inedible puffer fish annoying the pelagic species and absolutely no reef fish.
Apparently, this was once amongst the most unique, pristine and thriving marine cultures on the planet. Then in 1991, down through the Pacific, something apparently utterly unconnected with the beauty of the region called the marauding Japanese and Chinese fish traders to turn their attention to the eastern Malaysian waters and the bounty of brightly coloured, tasty fish.
By 1992, encouraged by the insatiable appetite of buyers to the north, the local fishermen started the use of cyanide and gelignite in the harvesting of fish, a murderous, wasteful achievement borne of necessity.
Unsustainable fishing, like many other aspects of life, has a history of hitching a ride on the back of extreme poverty.
It was only the beginning. Soon, the apparently inexhaustible South China Sea was poisoned and bombed with thousands of arbitrary sticks of explosive and canisters of CH3CN.
They did the unthinkable, the unimaginable: they bled the sea dry. Oh, but that’s not the half of it.
Tropical fish rely on an incredibly complex ecosystem which starts with the phytoplankton and zooplankton that are borne from the corals of the tropical waters. If the fragile ecosystem is broken, they are prone to disease and take ages to regenerate, especially if the majority of the life-generating corals are damaged or removed.
Warm-water fish naturally thrive in water which is particularly coral-infested or weedy. Clearly, poison and bombs do a ripping job in denuding both coral and weed.
The industrial and indiscriminate clearing of the waters of all living things saw the waterways of the South China Sea left barren in less than half a generation. There is a chance the marine environment here may never recover, ever.
It is not so much that this place of hateful, cheap but magically effective fishing fills the soul with gloom: it’s that it sucks everything remotely beautiful or sensitive from the soul, leaving a vacuum of low-grade depression and the tinnitus of despair.
Years of limited or non-existent fisheries management has led to hardship, terror and death, which has led to the East Malay fishermen becoming the underpaid heavy lifters of the people-smuggling business. Their marine skills and knowledge of the waters have become currency with unscrupulous operators dealing in people's lives.
In the void of any available fish to catch, the struggling East Malay skipper is left with little choice if he is to feed his family. Extreme poverty is the breeding ground for ethical avoidance.
A story like this, a story of such unremitting misery, ought to end with a candle of hope.
There should be something to be done about the ethics of food supply.
Many other Malaysian fisheries are in the best of health and are productively providing safe, sustainable and tasty seafood for those of us who enjoy a $10 fish dinner in Chinatown on a Tuesday night.
More importantly, this story should be a reason to celebrate the seafood caught or grown in Australia and New Zealand.
On the back of my trip to Sarawak and the recent, seemingly unrelenting hyperbole on the subject, I’m sick up to my back teeth of the fruitless, ill-informed and uniformed debate about sustainable seafood in this country.
In the turgid tsunami that is the current state of the sustainable seafood discussion, I’m all at sea.
If there is a more misunderstood, misguided, poorly managed, hypocritical debate in food right now than that of sustainable seafood, I’d give a pulled pork slider to know what it is.
Quite frankly, sustainable seafood is an ethic. It is NOT a tick a box, 'quick let’s get that done to comply' concept for the time-poor and weak-willed.
If it is a matter of being dinkum about sustainability, then stop serving glass bottles of imported Italian mineral water, stop cooking wagyu beef or using CO2 to create that ever-important foam.
The problem with sustainable seafood is that it has become a market trend, a movement, an ideal, and is mostly an overused, abused, hackneyed cliché which is being exploited by those wanting to get on – or perhaps make sure they are seen to be on – the green bus.
So, in fear of being stoned to death with activated almonds by a platoon of Birkenstock-wearing eco warriors, here’s a working definition from Pete Horvat, head spruiker of the seafood industries’ peak research body, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
“Sustainability is the ability to continue a given fishing activity indefinitely into the future.”
Here in Australia, the commercial catching and growing of seafood is overseen by a range of laws, management systems and practices that are underpinned by a deep level of science about the state of our fish stocks and the impact of their harvesting.
Supported by FRDC, Australia is constantly improving practices in its fisheries by applying the latest scientific findings.
This has gained our nation a place amongst the top four countries for management of wild fisheries – seriously, this is a fact.
Australia’s commercial fishing industry has been operating for well over one hundred years and indigenous fishers were active for thousands of years prior to that.
It is a simple truth that there can be no seafood industry if there is no seafood. Just ask the fishermen of Sarawak.
This is a great incentive to ensure Australia’s seafood industry is sustainable and it can continue to be profitable and productive indefinitely.
Australia has progressively adopted a more ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management that looks at the effect of fishing practices not just on the target species, but also on the environment and other related species.
The problem in Australia, like much of the Western world, is the lack of a rigid guide to the ethics and principles of sustainability.
In the void of a simple, convenient and direct touchpoint in Australia for information and detail in regards to the issues about sustainability, I strongly recommend that extreme care is taken before making any ambit claims regarding sustainability and I warn strongly against climbing up on a green baize-covered soapbox without making sure your skin is thicker than an airline custard.
The imperative behind this warning is that in many respects, environmental sustainability is really only one part of the bigger ethics discussion.
What about the cultural sustainability of the towns, communities and people who are involved in the catching and growing of seafood? And what about the commercial sustainability of a fishery, without which we would be restricted exclusively to eating imported seafood and terrestrial proteins?
The ethics questions should also be considered when reviewing how the seafood was caught or grown. These questions, in my opinion, are equally important as merely a question of the environmental impact of the activity.
Was the seafood produced to first world food safety standards? Does it come from a fishery, region or country that observes UN labour standards? And most importantly for me – is it delicious and does it sustain me!
In my opinion, provenance and history of harvest is at least as important as sustainability. Who caught the fish, where they caught it and how they handled it is of more relevance to me than anything relating to the perception of a desk-based researcher looking at life through green-coloured glasses.
I think most punters agree with me.
You can sell something that was caught in a beautiful regional coastal waters, by a one-armed, one-eyed cross-dressing fishermen called Bruce, but tell your customers that it’s got an eco-label and wait for the blank expression.
And what of the eco-labels and the state of the current civil war that exists between the agencies that manage them?
Are we to become a nation of cooks and diners who fear to use a seafood unless it comes with a third-party certification?
Does third-party certification answer the questions or raise bigger ones?
Whilst I’m an avid supporter of the work of the MSC, Friend of the Sea, GAP and other reputable third-party marques, is this what we really need? Are our customers genuinely seeking this level of endorsement?
Worldwide right now, there are over 400 green certification systems vying for the attention of ocean-conscious consumers, so if you have trouble remembering what each little pictogram stands for, you are not alone.
These eco-labels are meant to distinguish green products and brands, but you practically have to carry a pocket dictionary in order to decipher it all, and the task of identifying bright green products is only getting more daunting as large retailers like Woolworths and Coles create their own systems of labelling.
It is indeed as confusing as trying to order a fish dinner in Sarawak.
For me, sustainable seafood is about celebrating what we catch and grow in Australia. Produced to first world environmental, labour and culinary standards; owned, operated and managed by locals who live and support the sustainability of regional Australian towns; Australian seafood is special, sustainable and bloody delicious.
Stop the greenwash, respect and love our local seafood and set to helping the fishermen of Sarawak get back to their craft of fishing rather than people smuggling – surely this makes sense. •