Imagine never again being able to tuck into a seared tuna steak, braai your own freshly caught geelbek or crayfish, or order a round of salmon sushi?
That’s the bleak picture that Bay chefs Allan Bezuidenhout of Muse and Savages’ Vanessa Marx are trying to avoid by encouraging Eastern Cape chefs, retailers and consumers to buy and serve more sustainable, green-listed fish.
Globally, fisheries are significant providers of food and employment, but fish stocks are under threat from over-exploitation, destructive fishing practices and ecosystem damage.
The situation is no different in South Africa, where some of our favourite fish like geelbek (Cape salmon) and crayfish (West Coast rock lobster) are under severe threat.
Flagging fish as green, orange or red-listed, much like a traffic light signal, is the easily understandable and simple to use system devised by the World Wildlife Fund’s South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) to guide consumers towards asking questions and making the best and most sustainable fish choices when shopping or eating out.
Green-listed fish is sourced from healthy, well-managed fish populations that can withstand current levels of fishing or are farmed in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
Orange signals “think twice” – these vulnerable species are cause for concern, either due to depleted stocks as a result of over-fishing, or environmentally damaging fishing or farming practices.
Red-listing sends a clear “don’t buy” message. These are endangered or protected species that are illegal to buy or sell. Even if not illegal, they may be from unsustainable or poorly managed populations, or there are extreme environmental issues around their fishing or farming.
The SASSI initiative has had great success, through a combination of raising awareness among consumers, retailers, restaurants and hotel chains, and working hand in hand with the entire seafood supply chain – from fishing boat to plate – to help them improve their sustainability.
As a result, said SASSI programme manager Pavitray Pillay, three species have recently been moved from the orange to the green list – carpenter, slinger and one of South Africa’s favourites, kingklip caught by the longline demersal (bottom) fishery. (Offshore demersal trawled kingklip remains on the orange list.)
Marx, who was named one of SASSI’s first “Trailblazer Chefs” while running Cape Town restaurant Dear Me in 2013, said since returning to Port Elizabeth, she had found far lower awareness and promotion of SASSI locally, and had teamed up with Bezuidenhout to change that.
“There is so little awareness here. We’re a coastal city where lots of restaurants serve fish, but they are either not clued up enough to ask questions and make good choices, or they just refuse to participate,” Marx said.
The chefs want to bring SASSI training for chefs, front-of-house staff and fishmongers to the Eastern Cape, and “get people to promote, serve and eat what’s available, what there is lots of”, they said.
Both emphasised that they weren’t out to criticise.
“It’s about supporting each other and making it work for everybody,” said Marx, while Bezuidenhout offered “an open door for help and advice”.
“We also need to promote proudly local products. South African calamari is sought-after for its quality the world over, but most of what we eat here is imported.
“It’s a big industry for the Eastern Cape – why aren’t we buying, serving and highlighting it proudly on our menus as ‘calamari from St Francis Bay’?” Marx asked.
Bezuidenhout keeps SASSI pocket cards in his Stanley Street restaurant for guests, and simply changes his menu if he can’t get fresh, sustainably caught or farmed fish with a traceable source.
“SASSI has changed the whole seafood value chain and the way that seafood is bought and consumed. The retailers have bought into it and set themselves targets and for consumers, asking for green-listed fish has become the norm.
“The market is driving sustainability and it’s a huge win for conservation,” said Professor Peter Britz of Rhodes University’s Ichthyology and Fisheries Science department.
“This is about being sure we can still buy and enjoy fish in the future. It’s not like rhino that you can see, but it’s just as important – think of it as a game farm under the sea, and it supports the livelihoods of millions,” Bezuidenhout said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
SASSI supplies retailers with in-store materials like posters, while consumers can carry a small pocket guide that fits in a wallet, download the free WWF-SASSI app for Apple and Android phones, or simply SMS the name of the fish to the FishMS hotline 079-499-8795 to receive information on the status of the species.
Support SASSI Partner retailers and suppliers, and hold them to their commitments.
They include I&J, Breco Seafoods, Food Lovers Market, Woolworths, Pick n Pay, SPAR, Ocean Basket, John Dory’s, and Sun International.
See the SASSI website for more info: www.wwfsassi.co.za