South coast stocks smelling fishy

2008-02-16 00:00

While the south coast’s fish stocks plummet, customers continue demanding products in shops and restaurants.

Fish stocks along the South African coast have been plundered and many well-known varieties are almost completely fished out — yet they remain on local restaurant menus and are readily sold by supermarkets and fishmongers.

According to the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi), six out of the top 10 most popular fish on local restaurant menus are over exploited — kob or kabeljou, Cape Salmon or geelbek, Red Stumpnose, Red Roman, carpenter and silverfish.

These fish need a break, said Sassi spokeswoman Timony Siebert, who warned that while it is not illegal to sell them, sales would be banned once they became endangered. It comes down to supply and demand and, as long as consumers continue to order them, restaurants will serve them. “Our oceans and [resources] have never been under as much pressure. In order to prevent a wholesale collapse of these resources, we need to act now,” she said.

In November 2006, Sassi, backed by the World Wildlife Fund, released a consumer pocket guide aimed at raising public awareness about South African seafood.

The list has green, orange and red categories. “Green” species can cope with current fishing pressure better. The orange category includes fish that are already overfished, have lifestyles that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, or are caught by fisheries that cause severe environmental damage. It is illegal to sell most fish in the red section and those that aren’t protected are reserved for recreational fishing only.

A Weekend Witness visit to some of Durban’s most exclusive restaurants revealed that more than half were selling “orange” category fish such as rockcod, Cape Salmon, kingklip and musselcracker. Major supermarkets in Durban North, La Lucia, the Pavilion, Gateway and on the Berea also offered “orange” fish such as kingklip, rockcod, sole, Red Romans and Cape Salmon. Fishmongers displayed many “orange” species and even offered to find “red” species.

“Sadly, the selling of illegal [red] species is still common amongst restaurants, retailers and fish mongers … The initial Sassi pilot study conducted in KZN in 2002 found that 92% of seafood outlets were contravening at least one aspect of the Marine Living Resources Act. Sixty-two percent admitted to purchasing fish from recreational fishermen, which is illegal in South Africa.”

During the Sassi study, 15 “no sale” species were identified including specially protected, endangered species such as seventy-four and potato bass. The 12 most popular fish in KZN included four over-exploited species — Black Musselcracker/poenskop, Red Steenbras, Daga Salmon, and yellowbelly/rockcod — and one prohibited species, the Natal Stumpnose.

Nothing has changed. “It is difficult to quantify as there are no formal traceability mechanisms in place for seafood trade in South Africa. It is up to the retailers and commercial fishermen to keep accurate records of the seafood in which they trade and this is very open to abuse.

“Generally the supply of fish is controlled by wholesalers who buy fish from commercial sources or import themselves. The fish then follow a complicated chain of custody to smaller retailers, wholesalers and fishmongers,” said Siebert.

She added that there was not sufficient enforcement. “There have only been a few prosecutions of restaurants due to the lack of an adequate reporting system and limited capacity of compliance officials. The majority of prosecutions have been for illegal fishing and poaching. A KZN fisherman was recently fined R200 000 for catching a brindle bass, which is specially protected.”

According to one of Durban’s top chefs, one of the best selling items on menus at exclusive restaurants is fresh fish precisely because it is so rare. “I have no idea what is protected and what is not,” he admitted.

However, he said very few restaurants now buy fish from recreational fishermen because of safety concerns and because they were often unable to provide the quantities needed.

An 80-seater restaurant probably needs about 60 kg of fish a week, he said.

The chef said many restaurants are cutting back on serving line fish because of price rather than environmental concerns. Most “line fish” are now between R90 and R110 a kilogram. When bones and skin are removed, a single portion cost R40. Most restaurants’ mark-ups were 300%, making this unviable. As a result, 95% of restaurants are using frozen fish — but most still didn’t know where it came from.

He said that the main area where restaurants did push their luck is crayfish. He said very few buy “legal crayfish”, although most had a legal invoice on hand in case they were inspected. Illegal crayfish sell at between R55 and R60 per kilogram, while the fresh alternative from Cape Town is around R300 per kilogram. He said that crayfish are probably the only thing that can be sold at over R200 and, with the average “illegal” portion costing just R40, this was where greed takes over.

“It is the only thing that I’ve ever felt guilty about,” he admitted.

Stamatis Kapsimalis, chief executive of the John Dory’s restaurant franchise, which was the first to join the recently introduced Sassi restaurant participation scheme, decided to take the green route. “I don’t want my business to be part of that. I pay more for my fish because of the supply chains I use. I’m strict about what comes in and how it comes in.” Other fast food chains are yet to follow.

Member restaurants have pledged to always buy from legal sources. Never buy red species and always have green species available. They also never promote orange linefish and are able to tell customers the correct names, places of origin and fishing methods used. So far, no other KZN restaurants have joined up.

In general, according to Jone Porter, director of Seaworld, the words line fish “cover a multitude of sins”. This covers both which fish are caught and how. She said many large commercial fisheries were responsible for massive by catches. These comprise endangered fish, other sea life and even birds that are caught along with acceptable “green” species or species for which they have permits.

By the time they can be removed from the nets, they are dead. Kingklip, an orange list fish, is a valuable by-catch of hake trawl and longline fisheries while longline caught tuna is associated with a bycatch of seabirds, turtles and sharks.

Porter said that policing in KZN is far better than elsewhere in country.

However, it is still difficult. She said that in many instances, fish are mislabelled or lumped into misleading categories. For example, butterfish covered at least six different species. “Ocean fillets” usually include a lot of shark (on the orange list) and Kingklip (again on the orange list) could actually be Ling — its relative from New Zealand or Argentina.

“It is not illegal to mislabel as long as what you are actually selling is not on the red list. It is also not illegal to advertise fish that are on the orange list. It is really frightening. How does a member of the public know what is going on?” Porter asked.

Not many do, according to Siebert who pointed out that restaurants and supermarkets were selling little known and often “green” fish as more popular “no sale species” because that is what is more likely to appeal to consumers, further complicating the issue.

Gareth van den Berg of fish supplier Ocean Fresh agreed. He said raising public awareness via campaigns such as the Sassi initiative is laudable but could easily scupper attempts to bring in alternatives from countries where these fish are not in short supply.

For example, his company is sourcing sole, an “orange” fish along our East Coast, from Senegal where resources are sustainable, bringing in rockcod from sustainable stocks in Mozambique and adding Baramundi from Australia to menus at popular fish outlets such as John Dory’s.

He has also been given carte blanche to source environmentally acceptable supplies for large

supermarket groups such as Spar and Shoprite Checkers.

He said there are currently moves to form a Responsible Fishing Alliance, that will allow local suppliers to police the industry, ensuring sustainable resources that would keep them in business.

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