Sunday, 25 May 2014

The little fish of shame

I've been musing that maybe one of the reasons I haven't written much here this year is because nothing ridiculous like this or this has happened to me lately. The incidence rate of the bizarre seems to have declined appreciably since I left the tropics—or maybe I just don't get out enough anymore. But a recent, seemingly innocent trip to our local cheap and cheerful Portuguese BBQ managed to restore the normal abnormality for an evening and I haven't been able to shake off the experience.

We generally have a great time when we go to this little restaurant so I shan't reveal its name, but we seem to have settled into a default order whenever we go there, which is piri piri chicken for Charles and char-grilled squid for me. This particular evening I decided to mix it up a bit and ordered the char-grilled sardines, figuring they would be a bit of a house speciality. When they arrived they were enormous—so much bigger than I was expecting—and I was really impressed. Our waiter did a dump-and-run with our order, as they were typically busy. But when another stalwart, older-generation, career waiter whizzed by, I couldn't help but gleefully comment on my dish in my mangled Franglais. He screeched to a halt, turned on his heel and proceeded to launch into a bitter tirade about the decline of the once-mighty Portuguese sardine fishing industry, made all the harder to keep up with by a passionate peppering of Portuguese in amongst his Franglais. Ah, Montréal!

His argument bordered on the outright racist and factually questionable at times, but the basic gist of it was true and this: the sardines run up the west coast of Africa before entering traditional Portuguese fishing territory. Overfishing of sardines off the African coast has resulted in a burgeoning plankton population since there are not enough of the predatorial small fish to keep the plankton numbers in check. In turn, the plankton have died in great number, basically of old age, and a toxic combination of hydrogen sulphide and methane is released from the rotting remains when they fall to the ocean floor. This noxious mix then literally explodes to the surface, poisoning all the other sea life, including any remnant sardines, resulting in a catastrophic, multi-species mass die-off. The delicate balance of the ecosystem has been damaged by humanity's greediness. Again.

Now, while the waiter blamed starving African hordes dredging the coastline with hand-held nets for this situation, the reality is it seems to have been overfishing by international commercial fleets from the 1970s onwards that has tipped the balance. But since the sardine is such an iconic part of Portuguese food culture, the absence of it is being felt quite personally. The rant lasted close to 10 minutes in all—in fact, the waiter came back for a round two on his explanation after attending to other patrons. And the whole time he was talking at me my handsome, gigantic, piping hot and beautifully cooked sardines were sitting on my plate in front of me going cold. By the time he had finished part of me didn't even want to eat them anymore, I felt so guilty for my contribution to the problem. Another part of me wanted to jump up and screech, "Well, why are they still on the bloody menu then if this is such an issue?" But in the end, my pragmatic (and polite) side won out and I resolved to enjoy every last mouthful of my delicious, already-dead-and-nothing-could-be-done-about-that sardines, since they were going to be the last ones I would ever eat in my life.

PS On a related topic, there's one seemingly insignificant news story that I have come across recently that has absolutely enormous ramifications. I am not quite sure why this story is languishing here in ABC Australia's rural news section instead of being plastered all over the front page of every news site on the planet. In a nutshell, CSIRO scientists have developed a commercial prawn food that does not require the use of any wild-caught fish. Currently, wild-caught fish make up 25 percent of commercial prawn feeds and 40–50 percent of commercial fin fish feeds. It can even take 2.5 kg of wild-caught fish to produce one kg of farmed salmon. Where is the sense in that, I ask you? Now that the CSIRO has cracked the formula for prawn feed (entering production as I write), they are starting work on developing a similar product for fin fish. Go you good things!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Beverley,

    My name is Elizabeth and I'm a graduate student at Stanford University. I came across your article in ( and was really moved by it. I'm doing research for a project related to this, and would love to speak with you more about it, and perhaps get your advice. If you're available for chat over email ( or phone (+1-917-291-0538), that would be great. I couldn't find your email online, so am posting here. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Elizabeth Lo

    Stanford University MFA in Documentary Film
    917 291 0538