Small is beautiful

[First published on Fish on Friday]

Chefs from 20 of the world’s best restaurants gathered in San Sebastián to pledge to serve the “perfect protein” to “save the oceans and feed the world”. Rachel Walker was there too.

A truly stellar gastronomic gathering

A truly stellar gastronomic gathering

“The UN predicts that the world population will grow by 28%, from 7 billion today to over 9 billion in 2050.” That lone sentence flashes up on a screen in a full but silent auditorium in San Sebastián, the gastronomic capital of the Basque region at the northern end of Spain’s Atlantic coast. A second sentence follows. “It also estimates that the world must produce over 70% more food to meet expected greater demand.” A sobering thought.

I’m in the Basque Culinary Centre, in the presence of some of the world’s greatest chefs, including Ferran Adrià from the el Bulli Foundation, Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana, Ashley Palmer-Watts from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and many more. They’re all here to promote a solution to this troubling problem: one that doesn’t require monocultures or GM crops or in vitro meats. It’s a simple solution – and it’s in our oceans.

If tended properly, the world’s oceans could provide a healthy seafood meal each day for 1 billion people. As the world wrestles with the growing problems of a booming population, wild fish offers superb quality, healthy animal protein that needs no fresh water, produces little carbon dioxide, doesn’t require arable land, and can be delivered at cost per pound lower than beef, chicken, lamb or pork, making it accessible to the world’s poor.

Unfortunately, poor management has reduced many wild fish populations to historically low levels right at the moment when the world needs its oceans more than ever.

Fixing such an immense, truly global problem might seem like an overwhelming task – but not to Oceana, the international ocean conservation organisation that’s behind this event. “You might think that we’re going to have to go to a United Nations meeting or something to get the job done,” says Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless. “But it turns out that 90% of the world’s catch come from the national waters of just 30 countries. So let’s focus on getting those 30 countries to do the basic things that everyone already knows how to do, such as maintaining scientific quotas, protecting nursery habitats, reducing by-catch and so on. Then we will have an abundant ocean that will feed all those people.’

His point is that we already have the knowledge to address the problem – and in his book The Perfect Protein, he lists example after example to show that simple management policies can reverse the effects of over-fishing, however hopeless they might appear.

“Thankfully nature is so wonderful, it can rebuild and recover,” says Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park in New York. “Even the damage that we have done can be undone.” He cites a prime example right on his doorstep.

Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, New York

Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, New York

“One of the greatest places for seafood in the world is the island of New York. But over the years the water got polluted, and the fish went away or died. But 10 years ago, a few really amazing people – fishermen, oyster farmers, lobster farmers – started rebuilding and slowly it’s coming back. The bay water is getting cleaner and there’s a significant change. Now all the oysters we use come from Long Island, just a 90-minute drive from our restaurant in Manhattan.”

Clearly, government policies are vital to initiate change. But Andy points out that it’s the habits of consumers that are often the game-changer. Just look to the success of the “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign in the US, he says, or the public demand for dolphin-safe tuna, or Hugh’s Fish Fight, which promoted less well known, but sustainable fish, leading to sales rocketing 50% in some retailers.

“We vote with our fork three times a day,” says Susan Rockefeller, film-maker and chair of the Ocean Council, a select group of academic, business, policy and philanthropic leaders who represent and support Oceana’s efforts on the global stage. “There is tremendous power in the choices that we make – and chefs can start that ripple effect.”

Which brings us back to the people right here in this room. On stage is a line-up of the biggest, most influential chefs in the world. Not only does their presence back the campaign, but so do their words – which will be repeated in interviews, in cookbooks, and to sous chefs in their kitchens, who will one day repeat them to sous chefs in their kitchens.

“Here at the restaurant in the Basque Culinary Centre today, we’re using fish that you might never have heard of – smaller species like black fish and trigger fish, says Daniel Humm. “In fact, 10 years ago, I’d never heard of those fish.”

That’s the key message that comes out of this event. To make a big difference, you need to think small. Look beyond the traditional favourites like tuna and salmon, which are top of the food chain predators, and eat smaller fish instead: species such as anchovies, sardines, mackerel and herrings, which are known as “forage” fish because they play a crucial role in food webs in some of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world.

Anchovies are abundant and delicious, yet 90% of the total catch is “reduced” to make fish meal and fish oil

Anchovies are abundant and delicious, yet 90% of the total catch is “reduced” to make fish meal and fish oil

Forage fish form massive shoals that are targeted by some of the largest fisheries on earth, but are only rarely seen on restaurant menus. That’s because forage fish are mainly used to make fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish such as salmon, as well as chickens, pigs and other livestock. These “reduction” fisheries account for an enormous 37% of all the marine fish caught worldwide according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Small fish like anchovies are generally the best fish for you,” says Patricia Majluf, Oceana’s Vice President for Peru and a leading expert on anchovies and other similar fisheries. Peruvian anchovies alone account for almost 8-10% of all fish – by weight – caught in the oceans. Yet over 90% of all of these anchovies are “reduced” into fishmeal and fish oil. Again, the consumer has a big part to play in this: a big reason that these fish are reduced is that there has historically been no market for them.

All of the chefs at the event signed up to a commitment to serve anchovies and other small fish at their restaurants, starting on World Oceans Day on 8 June. And where they go, others will follow. “My son is a chef,” says Lasse Gustavsson, Oceana’s senior vice-president for Europe. “He was cross that I was here today, not him, because these guys are his heroes. These are the guys that the whole industry looks up to. If they start cooking herring dishes, then other chefs will follow, and then home cooks, and that’s how you initiate change.”

Ferran Adrià’s coconut soup with sardines

Ferran Adrià’s coconut soup with sardines

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