By IKANAWTIKET Joshua McNeely
The first question my wife asks when we sit down at a restaurant or stop by the fish counter at the grocery store is, “What about this fish, can I eat that”? So there we are, holding up the line, while I dig through my wallet to find my trusty SeaChoice Pocket Guide to the fish we like to eat. Is Rock Salmon on their list of endangered fish?
I scan the list for the thousandth time and I’m still amazed at all the names in the red (avoid) category. Various stocks of Shark, Cod, Tuna, Halibut, Flounder, and even Clams. Many of the fish we ate while growing up are increasingly at risk around the world due to over-fishing and habitat destruction. There are some positive steps happening though. News stories here and there of groups of fishermen trying to conserve a particular commercial stock or using a less harmful gear type. I’ve come to learn that there is a huge difference between a dragged oyster, a farmed oyster, and an oyster fished by individual divers. Through SeaChoice in Canada, and others like Seafood Watch in the USA, information is much more available to consumers, at the point-of-sale, about which fish stocks are threatened and which are sustainably harvested. Information is readily available through pocket guides, websites, and even up-todate regional electronic guides sent directly to your mobile phone.
For example, I buy salmon often, but I am conscious that there are concerns with depleted wild Atlantic Salmon stocks. Also, farmed Atlantic Salmon can have significant environmental impacts, especially on wild Pacific Salmon stocks when they are farmed in B.C. My pocket guide says that I should avoid farmed Atlantic Salmon and that bottom long-lined halibut is a better choice. Better still, according to the guide, is harpooned swordfish. With that kind of basic information at my fingertips, I can make a more informed choice about which fish I pick off the menu and which fishing practices I support.
I’m not familiar with Rock Salmon though and it is not in my pocket guide. I tell myself that in today’s world market it must be some exotic form of Salmon. I’ve never seen it on an endangered species list, so I tell myself that it must be okay to eat?
But there is a marketing game at play also. To wet our appetites for some less savoury fish, marketers can, and often do, change a fish’s name. Until recently, fishermen would never have dreamed that someone would want to eat ‘trash fish’ with traditional names like Slimehead or Toothfish. Not a name easily sold on the menu of a fancy restaurant.
Look at the Headfish on the right. It’s all head! The only edible part is the small tail. But with the demise of other fish stocks, some fishermen are now targeting Headfish.
Now, that little tail may be tasty, but I’m definitely not going to waste 80% of a fish, just to eat a small chunk of its tail. And with a name like Headfish, I’d probably pass anyway and choose the farmed Arctic Char instead. But when it’s all filleted up on my plate, you could say it was anything exotic; who am I to know. You could even call it a Monkfish – a solemn, good-for-you sounding fish – and I would probably try it.
And that is exactly what some fish marketers have done – they have renamed the Headfish. In the market, it is now called the Monkfish. Being the eco-conscious person I am, I know that local Headfish are threatened…. but, I don’t know anything about the ‘exotic’ sounding Monkfish. But Monkfish is Headfish, just with a more palatable name.
Chilean Sea Bass, Orange Roughy, Northern Red Snapper, Rock Salmon; they all sound good… and more importantly, I don’t recall any one of them being on a threatened species list anywhere. But look up Toothfish, Slimehead, Rockfish, and Dogfish shark and red lights go up all over the place.
Rankings based on 1 Marine Conservation Society or 2 International Union for the Conservation of Nature
With these tasty sounding names, demand for these lesser known fish jumped exponentially over the last few decades and those fish stocks were quickly depleted. Many people would gladly switch to more sustainable fish stocks, but these new tasty names often don’t appear on threatened species lists, only their traditional or scientific names.
And with Rock Salmon popping up on menus all over the place, it gives a false impression that salmon stocks are doing better. But Rock Salmon isn’t a salmon at all. It’s not even a true fish; it’s a shark. They would never be able to sell ‘shark’ to today’s eco-conscious consumer. And the common name ‘Dogfish’ doesn’t look good on a menu either. So to market the remainder of this depleted resource, some have renamed the Dogfish Shark as the ‘exotic’ Rock Salmon.
SeaChoice (www.seachoice.org) tries to stay on top of things, but the names are changing frequently and that doesn’t even include local names or made-up restaurant menu names. My pocket guide was probably out of date before it was printed.
Being an eco-conscious consumer is hard enough. I call “FOUL” when fish marketers are allowed to change the name of a fish; which further complicates my ability to make an informed choice.
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for regulating the acceptable names for any commercially sold fish in Canada. Regulations state that market names must be based on scientific reasons and not be “misleading, deceptive, or false” and that all fish must be accurately labelled.
However, there are several recent examples that the CFIA has not been enforcing the fish naming and labelling regulations well. A recent investigative report at the University of Guelph Biodiversity Institute of Ontario found hundreds of examples across Canada where marketed fish were mislabelled at fish markets, supermarkets, restaurant menus, and even boxed frozen foods. Though not a scientific study, the sheer number of instances across Canada points to the intent of marketers to rename fish in order to increase sales; leading some to raise concerns about consumer fraud, food safety, and the contribution of Canadian consumers to unwittingly promote unsustainable fisheries. The CFIA has even publicly recognized that many imported fish are not sold under accepted names from the CFIA list of acceptable common names for fish and seafood.
Thank you SeaChoice and others for helping us be aware of sustainable seafood choices. To the Government of Canada – Canadian consumers could use some help to sort out the market fish naming mess, so that we can make a choice for sustainable seafood.