“Fish: It’s a slippery issue. Hidden underwater, our marine resources are not easy to study or understand. What state are our seas in? What fish species are on the verge of extinction? Can we influence the market? Should we stop eating fish? Is there a future for small-scale fishers?” Slow Fish, 2013

New Dawn Traders, a partnership of chefs, scientists, artists and storytellers, went on a mission to explore these questions. Venturing on a ‘slow travel’ journey by train across Europe to the ancient port of Genoa in Italy for the biennial Slow Fish festival, an event staged as part of the ‘Slow Food’ family of events.

Slow Food is an ecologically based gastronomy movement, which seeks to promote the greater enjoyment of food by sharing an understanding of taste, quality and production. Slow Fish promotes eating in a ‘slow style’, savouring taste while choosing good, clean and fair fish, pushing the market through consumer choice towards responsible management of the sea’s resources. Small, low-impact and artisan businesses are the fastest declining part of the fishing industry. This is why Slow Fish is such an important movement now. The Slow Fish biennial festival promotes projects supporting sustainable artisan skilled fishing, and responsible maritime communities along with showcasing a range of delicious seafood in the food market.

Slow fish2The theme of this year’s event was ‘the fish belong to the people.’ The event spanned four days and featured a range of activities. The festival is free to attend and open to the public. A series of talks on pertinent issues for coastal and fishing communities including debates on the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which is currently under negotiation by member states of the EU, to issues such as the ecosystem destruction of mangroves and consumer awareness of the diverse array of edible fish.

Worldwide, the number of fish species consumed is surprisingly low. In Europe salmon, cod, haddock, mackerel are predominantly consumed. Eco-chef and campaigner Sanjay Kumar from Cornwall noted in his presentation that there are 52 different species of fish harvested in Cornwall, but most of these are not landed for UK markets or consumption. Chefs are ignoring smaller fish, like abundant sardines that are caught off the Cornish coast. Kumar founded the ‘School of Sardines’ campaign to raise awareness of the nutritious and delicious nature of smaller fish and encourage wider consumption of these faster growing small fish, that are lower down the food web. Along similar lines is the initiative from Caroline Bennett, owner of Moshi Moshi sushi restaurants and a UK based Slow Food ambassador, and the ‘Pisces-responsible fish’ initiative by Malcolm MacGarvin, a marine ecologist who helps chefs find better and more local fish by setting up a direct relationships between restaurants and selected fishers.

The challenge of influencing the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the EU’s Brussels-based governance structure was also discussed. Many large-scale industrial fishing fleets have bases in Brussels. It is very difficult for small-scale artisan fishermen to influence supranational policymaking. This problem is not unique to fishing. Galician campaigners told of the struggles of the artisan small-scale fishing fleet. The CFP appears to be effectively privatising the oceans by restricting access to fishermen without the upfront capital to invest. Another key issue is the tax quotas system of the Atlantic area off the coast of Spain. Historically the ‘under 10m’ vessels didn’t have to register to land catch and consequently no official records were kept of their fishing rights. Under the system about to be voted on, and implemented if passed, they haven’t been allocated a quota as they are deemed to have had no historical fishing rights, even if they have been fishing on a small-scale for generations. Finally, the issue of quota trading between vessels and regions was highlighted, as it has resulted in fishing rights being taken away from coastal communities.

The prevailing rationale of NGOs and policy makers is that there are “Too many ships chasing too little fish.” But which boats do you remove? So far, it is the small and artisan boats that have lost out. This has actually led to an increase in catching capacity of much bigger boats who are able to land much higher volumes of fish. The end result is rising unemployment and an increase in overfishing. Small boats are not the cause of the sea’s ecological problems. This ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is happening the world over – accumulation by the industrial fishing fleets with dispossession of small-scale fleets unable to access quotas. An example of this was presented in a case study of mackerel where artisan fishermen have less than a 1kg quota per fishermen with the majority of quota going to industrial trawlers. Additionally, 80% of mackerel quota goes into animal feed chain!

AnchovetasThe issue of animal feed and overfishing of smaller species of fish was presented by the Slow Food Youth Network who have mounted a campaign in collaboration with the University of Gastronomic Sciences, located in Bra, Italy, called ‘Anchovetas!’ The aim is to highlight the fact that the majority of landed anchovies end up in fishmeal, feeding salmon rather than feeding people. It takes five tonnes of fishmeal to create one tonne of salmon! The team behind the campaign would like to see more anchovies eaten directly, and less caught overall, reducing overfishing and feeding more people, particularly in the developing world where protein is much needed. In Peru, most of the anchovy catch gets exported for fishmeal that goes into feed for livestock based agribusiness and fish farms.

Community activism to protect fisheries and livelihoods is springing up around the world. In places like Colombia and India, upwards of 60% of critical mangrove habitat is being destroyed by industrial shrimp farming. Local fishermen are mobilizing to make government aware of the issues. In Chile 90% of the fisheries quota is controlled by only seven companies. In Ecuador, fishermen are taking direct action to restore valuable habitats like the mangroves, which are essential breeding grounds for many different marine species and provide a protective barrier from coastal erosion, storm surges and tsunamis. These fishermen are collaborating  with universities to document the changes and working to promote eco-tourism to raise awareness and create value for these ecologically important ecosystems.

The Slow Fish Festival seeks to promote diversity of produce and taste through the ‘presidio market,’ the farmers market curated by Slow Food, in Genoa. A range of sustainable produce from the sea is available, sourced from all around the world. Highlights included smoked oysters from Ireland and a smoked mullet roe from a women’s cooperative in Mauritania.

Slow Food, and networks like it, have a track record of helping to reverse these trends by raising public awareness, helping people “vote with their fork,” and encouraging community activism. These strategies are having an impact when it comes to food grown from the land. The rise of farmers markets, CSAs and organic food over the last decade indicate an increasing awareness of food choice and its environmental footprint.

Hopefully we can start to put the concept of Slow Fish on the map and reverse the ecological damage to our oceans by bringing communities together, sharing an appreciation of diverse tastes and recognizing the essential value of the abundance available to us.

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