One of the real pleasures of living in the Top End is the endless availability of fresh seafood, and by and large the NT fishing industry is both well managed and sustainable. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, both in Australia and abroad, but it’s not that easy to know which fish are ethically sound. Here are some species that you really should avoid, no matter how tasty or exotic.
If the name makes you think of cute little Nemo with his dodgy fin and cheery disposition, you’re way off. Orange roughy are a large, spectacularly unattractive deep sea fish, sometimes referred to as ‘slime-head’ and are the antithesis of sustainable fishing practices. After being discovered in huge numbers off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand in the mid twentieth century, it became apparent that the species possessed the lethal combination of being both incredibly slow to mature but also irresistibly delicious. As a result, Australian and New Zealand stocks were practically fished out of existence by the 1970s. Stocks are only now replenished to what is considered a sustainable level with a strict conservation program.
These guys weigh over half a ton, grow up to 4.6m and can travel at speeds of 60km per hour. Unfortunately for them, they’re also seriously tasty, worth $1500 per kilo and demand from the sushi and sashimi industries have resulted in extreme overfishing. Despite an international effort to regulate its sale, bluefin numbers are nudging extinction levels. The tricky bit is getting international co-operation where restrictions are concerned. While fishing may be banned in one country, once they swim in to a different jurisdiction they’re fair game, which given their size and speed is something they’re perfectly capable of doing.
Wild caviar (sturgeon eggs)
Sturgeon are a prehistoric fish with a lineage going back 250 million years, and until relatively recently the caviar they produced was strictly reserved for royalty. European settlers discovered the species existing in vast numbers in the river systems of the United States, vast enough that caviar was commonly served free in saloons and it was said you could cross a river walking on their backs. With the growth in commercial fishing American caviar really went off, and by the early 1900s the sturgeon had nearly vanished. This pushed prices back up in to the stratosphere where they pretty much remain to this day. Incidentally, Almas caviar, an Iranian delicacy and the most expensive variety in the world, comes from the eggs of a rare species of 100 year old albino sturgeon. Known as Black Gold, it costs up to $45,000 per kilo.
It’s the elephant in the room but only bigger. We’re all familiar with the sight of huge dead wales bleeding on to the decks of whaling ships, usually with Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in hot pursuit, but whale meat is still sold openly in Japan, even appearing on school lunch menus. Norway and Iceland are also a big players in the industry, despite the International Whaling Commission placing a global moratorium on commercial whaling. Fortunately, the stigma surrounding whale meat are increasingly turning people off it, and global consumption is falling.
In 1992 Canada declared a complete ban on cod fishing, commercial or otherwise. The Canadian East Coast cod fishery had collapsed, devastating the industry and the fortunes of the towns dependent on commercial fishing for survival. It was a far cry from when European explorers first arrived on the chilly shores. It was written that the oceans were so chock full of cod that they could be caught by leaning over the side of your boat and scooping them up in a bucket. It remains on the extinction list, and is known as one of the most extravagantly overfished species in the world.
For all my banging on about ethical eating, it’s actually time to come clean and admit that I simply adore Patagonian tooth-fish. The name may sound ghoulish, but the flesh is light and delicate and devastatingly delicious when served up in teensy portions, lightly fried with a whisper of sweet soy glazing the plate. Strictly speaking, it’s not yet endangered and still legal to fish and sell commercially, but like the orange roughy its late sexual maturity makes it very vulnerable to overfishing. It’s not ethical, and don’t expect it to stay legal for very long.