For years, we've considered fish to be a healthier, more eco-minded alternative to red meat and chicken, but today this has been called into doubt. Anna Hart finds out how we can enjoy seafood without a side-helping of guilt ...
If there's one thing Kiwis consider a birthright, it's fresh seafood. Plenty of us see the sea on a daily basis, and this small country lays claim to the sixth largest fishing zone in the world, 14 times our land area.
Fish and chips is a national dish, our greenshell mussels are legendary, and our childhood memories revolve around diving for cray and making pipi fritters back at the bach. So it's hard to swallow the idea that the seafood platter could be an endangered species.
However, last year saw a powerful documentary - Rupert Murray and Charles Clover's The End Of The Line - question the sustainability of the global fishing industry. And thanks to TV chefs like Jamie Oliver publicising the issue of food miles, we're starting to wonder just how local, and therefore fresh, the fish on our plate really is.
This growing concern about the sustainability of fish isn't misplaced. In 2006, a group of scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, predicted that fish stocks would collapse below commercially viable levels by 2048 if the global fishing industry continued unchecked.
And though New Zealand comes in for some praise in The End Of The Line for establishing marine reserves, complacency about our fish stocks has its price. In the oft-cited case of orange roughy, years of overfishing (and ignorance of the fact that the fish doesn't breed until it reaches 23-31 years) means that today most populations are well below 20 per cent of their original size, with one reduced to 3 per cent.
Environmental groups such as Forest & Bird and Greenpeace fear that we're headed for a similar disaster with hoki and snapper. Forest & Bird's 2010 Best Fish Guide, which rates species on an annual basis according to a number of sustainability factors, makes sober reading. "It's not just a matter of fish stocks," explains Forest & Bird marine conservation advocate Kirstie Knowles.
"We take into account various criteria, including the fishing methods used (bottom-trawling is particularly destructive to the marine environment), by-catch of endangered species (including marine mammals and seabirds) and how effectively the fish stocks are managed."
The sustainability of a species is one concern, but there's another issue: how far has it travelled, and how fresh is it? Most of us assume that the battered fish eaten at a beachfront cafe is both fresh and local, but the truth is that most fish has had quite an adventure between the sea and the kitchen.
"Some of the hoki caught off the coast of New Zealand is sent to China to be processed, before being imported back into the country," says Knowles. "Sometimes it's been on ice in a trawler for weeks." Less dramatic, but surprising nontheless, is the fact that most restaurants in Waiheke have to source their fish from Auckland, as only one local fisherman has a quota entitling him to sell fish from an island renowned for abundant snapper, kingfish and trevally.
So can a seafood grill really be guilt-free? One man who knows his fish is veteran restauranteur Jimmy Gerard, co-owner of Auckland seafood institution The Harbourside. He agreed to take Viva to the Auckland Fish Market, to hear what the fishermen themselves have to say on the subject. At 5.30am every weekday morning, fishermen, fishmongers, agents and chefs in bobble hats and anoraks mull around an icy warehouse stacked with crates of the iced fish on offer that day.
At 6am everyone throngs into a comparatively cosy theatre, where the bidding for crates of kingfish begins in earnest. Jimmy's been coming here since the first auction day back in May 2004, to buy the pick of the day's catch for the restaurant. "We pride ourselves on serving the best seafood New Zealand has to offer, and that begins right here at the market," Jimmy says.
He's a goldmine of information, about the fishermen ("You get to know which boats bring in the quality fish, without leaving it sitting around for too long") the fish, ("From the colour of that snapper you can tell it's a shallow-water-dweller - I'd say 10m or so") and the coffee in the cafe ("I think they burn it").
As Jimmy's business partner, Tony Adcock, puts it, "Jimmy can tell you more than just how your fish is prepared. He can tell you where it was caught, by whom and most times how the fish were feeling that morning."
And Jimmy has good news for seafood lovers: in many ways, the advice of the gourmet matches the advice of the conservationist. "If you're looking for quality, as we are, you're ignoring the produce from huge bottom-trawlers, and buying from local, small-scale and responsibly minded fishermen." According to Jimmy, the best fish is generally line-caught or comes from Danish purse seiners, which are fuel-efficient as well as less disruptive to other marine life.
"Something else to bear in mind is that because boats tend to fish the shallower species on the way in, these species - such as sardines - will be much fresher," adds Jimmy. This is in keeping with Forest & Bird's advice to avoid deep-water species, which are particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
Though Jimmy would like to see more sustainability initiatives put into practice - like rotating moratoriums during the spawning season - he believes that in general the New Zealand system is better than elsewhere in the world. "The abundance of seafood is one of the great privileges of living in this country, and one we should safeguard as best we can," he says.
To Jimmy's mind, a growing awareness among diners can only be a good thing for the restaurant-owner. Today, The Harbourside won't put orange roughy on the menu. "And if we did, our customers would refuse to eat it," says Jimmy.
"There's been a dramatic increase in the number of customers asking serious questions about the fish on their plate, which we welcome. In the past people cared more about price, and they only wanted to see three fish - snapper, hapuka and john dory - on the menu. Now there's more emphasis on ethics and quality, which means we can be more adventurous with our menu."
So the message - from conservationists and restaurateurs alike - is that we don't need to sacrifice our national dish. We just might have to pay a little more, we might have to look a little harder, and we might need to broaden our tastes.
"We're not asking people not to eat fish,"' says Knowles. "We're asking them to buy from New Zealand fisheries, but also to demand good fishing practices. Ask the restaurant-owner what species it is, how it was caught, and where it was caught. If they can't answer these questions, just leave. You won't be missing a quality meal, that's for sure."
Six Of The Best
And Six Of The Worst
From Forest & Bird's Best Fish Guide 2010
* The 2010 Forest & Bird Best Fish Guide is available for download at forestandbird.org.nz
* The Harbourside Seafood Bar And Grill is at the Ferry Building, Quay Street, Auckland