Saturday, December 23, 2006

Fishy tales from Billingsgate

This morning I had an adventure. John and Simon had invited me to join them on their annual pilgrimage to collect oysters and the like for their christmas celebrations. And so, into the depths of the pea soup gloom before most sane people had risen, off I headed to Billingsgate fish market. As this was clearly going to be a fishy affair, I persuaded the mad russian to come too, as he knows a thing or two about fishing quotas and the state of the fishing market today.

After being driven through the empty streets of east London, we arrived to a teeming world of shadowy people carrying black sacks slung over their shoulders, like swags of loot, sashaying to and fro from the market. Inside we stepped into a hive of activity. Not only was the fish on sale widely diverse, but so too were the buyers and wholesalers, who were busy shouting and bargaining in a variety of languages - it was a medley of pan-asian and african, seasoned with a sprinkling of chinatown, jostling on a bed of east-end likely lads.

John said the guys selling the eels were the best - they had a sky-rise housing unit that was worth seeing. He was right. Stacked like an old fashioned filing system, with water dripping through, a drawer was pulled open and within I was shown the writhing eels.

Euch! Did I want to hold one? No way...

Eels apart, what was remarkable was the actual lack of locally caught fresh fish. And of what was available, much was frozen - at least 80%. Fishing on industrial trawlers facilitates processing and freezing of each catch (which can be many hundreds of tonnes of fish, I was reliably told) onboard the ship, then trans-shipped to ports around the world. What was not frozen had been airfreighted in from the other ends of the earth - huge crevettes from Nigeria, Abalone from Australia, and many more that I couldn't even begin to identify.

But no sign of cod, which was maybe inevitable given the announcement just this week by DEFRA that fishing quotas have been revised again: cod catch has been reduced a further 14%, overall a reduction of 75% since 2000. Fishing vessel days are now down to 12 days a month (from 28 days in 2001), and the fishing industry struggles to survive. With pressure mounting for a 'zero catch' for cod, tough decisions must sit at the top of the list of Ben Bradshaw's New Year resolutions. Problem is: it's that ongoing struggle between short-term economic needs and long-term environmental implications. Politics by it's very nature favours the short-term solution, but it becomes clearer by the day that we now need to put in place the foundations for future long-term sustainable practices.

This got me wondering whilst I greedily enjoyed my smoked haddock breakfast surrounded by the burly auctioneers dressed in whites like their Beaumaree counterparts at Smithfield - just how sustainable is this industry? Where will it all be in a further 10 years? Should I even be eating fish? Such is the strain and burden on our supplies - the overfishing, our environmental impact and the implications of climate change and global warming on sea temperatures, the threat of the delicate ph balance of our waters and the ancillary loss of coral reefs and our vital stocks. Ach, the more I discover, the more problematical my everyday decisions become. I shall chew on this (over a plate of wild alaskan smoked salmon) and come to a decision at New Year.

PS An update on the emptying of the freezer. Still have: half a bag of peas, a trout, the last of the ice cream, some blinis, 6 sausages, a duck, a breast of chicken and a lobe of foie gras. The foie gras is now giving cause for concern - I love the flavour (ohh, some memorable meals at Club Gascon), but am now haunted by an image I came across of geese being force fed which successfully spoils all past decadent pleasure. To eat or not to eat. This is getting unbearable. I think I'm just going to have to get drunk and take up smoking again (organic vodka and organic ciggies, of course).

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