A report from the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels last week - by Willie Mackenzie, Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner.
In the shadow of the improbably-shaped Atomium, thousands of people gather to buy and sell seafood. Five vast halls in an impossibly imposing building, crammed for three days with every sort of seafood you can imagine, as well as quite a few you hadn’t yet dreamt up. The scale of this takes your breath away. This is the world’s largest seafood fair, and quite literally it’s the place the big-money deals are done to trade away our ocean life.
Greenpeace has been here before, of course, and as a result of our visit in 2008, the last time I was here, there are some notable changes. The word ‘sustainable’, or a logo implying it, is on many more posters and hoardings for a start, and they are also a little more strict on security. But the big thing I notice is the general lack of bluefin tuna. In 2008 chunks of bluefin were happily on display in freezer cabinets, and a few stalls even had whole bluefin draped across their displays like some sort of hunter’s trophy. There are still stomach-churning displays of ocean life, everywhere you look – sea urchins, lobsters, octopus, tuna, eels, caviar, salmon, tuna… and even shark fins. Then there were the ubiquitous monkfish, invariably displayed with something else wedged between their fearsome jaws. But the bluefin has pretty much disappeared from the Exposition, and with it, the stalls of many of the key bluefin traders: No Azzopardi, no Ricardo Fuentes, and no Mitsubishi.
Those of us who’ve been campaigning on fishy issues can take a little pride in the fact that sustainability is something traders at least know they have to be able to spell, and that flagrantly flaunting endangered species is no longer the done thing. But the overwhelming feeling amidst this orgy of oceanic destruction, is that there is still so much to do.
In the course of a few meetings we’ve had here it’s become apparent that there are concerns from the guys who are trying to change the other end of the tuna industry, the tinned tuna, for the better. In the UK, and subsequently in Italy, and Australia, Greenpeace has taken retailers to task over their tinned tuna. High amongst the concerns are laughable labelling, and fishing methods that kill lots of unwanted species as bycatch. In Europe and in the UK in particular, responsible retailers have been quick to seek to improve their sourcing. Led by Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and Prêt a Manger have switched to 100% pole-and-line caught skipjack tuna. Other supermarkets have also increased the amount they source from this fishing method. So much so that the UK now consumes the majority of the world’s pole-and-line caught skipjack from the idyllic waters of the Maldives.
Slap-bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is next door to the Chagos Archipelago, now the world’s largest Marine Reserve. It’s also right in the midst of frenetic purse-seining for tuna throughout the Indian Ocean, a large part of which ends up on the European supermarket shelves. The Maldives have successfully excluded other fishing fleets from their waters, but they know that tuna don’t respect national boundaries, that purse-seining in adjacent waters is at excessive levels, and there’s rampant illegal fishing happening too. For an economy dependent on fishing, and facing the impacts of destructive climate change before everyone else, it’s a depressing outlook.
We need to support the Maldivian pole-and-line fishery. We need to develop similar operations elsewhere too. Many of the Pacific Island Countries are in prime position to limit foreign fishing operations and develop locally owned and operated sustainable pole and line fisheries instead. And we need to clean up purse-seining, and support those who are leading the charge on that, too. Illegal fishing needs to be totally stamped out, and bycatch needs to be eliminated. With the UK’s evident appetite for guilt-free fish, it’s clear that these are things we care about.
But do we care enough? And what exactly has all this got to do with the price of fish?
How much does your tin of tuna cost? And does what you pay for it reflect the value of what’s inside, or how it got there?
You need to pay more for your tuna. There, I’ve said it. It’s an unspoken truth in the developed world that we have cheapened food as a commodity, and seem to have no idea how much it should be worth. Fish is a prime example. Unlike millions of people in the developing world, most of us in Europe don’t depend on fish as a source of protein. And we also don’t pay a fair price for it. ‘Half-price’ cod fillets at your local supermarket? Buy one get one free on packets of fish fingers? 5 Euros for a ring of king prawns? A tin of tuna for 80 cents?
If we want responsibly-sourced fish we need to pay for it. As it stands, by not properly supporting the guys who are trying to make a difference, we let the others (from the cheaper, who-cares-what-we-do end of the spectrum) out-compete them, and steal their fish too. We distributed a leafelt in the Brussels Seafood Exposition to demonstrate that many well-known tinned tuna brands are providing cheap tuna, at a high environmental and social cost, and taking no action to change this. some of the companies and tinned tuna brands who by the use of intensive and destructive fishing method provide cheap tuna for high environmental and social cost - and are no action to to change this.
If the fish are to survive, and the fishing communities that depend on them, we need to show a bit of respect to the oceans, and expect to pay a fair price for the fish we eat. That probably means eating fish less frequently, but making sure what you eat is responsibly-sourced.
If we don’t want that, and just want cheap fish, to hell with the cost… then best get eating it up as quickly as you can. Because stocks won’t last.