New guide changes what fish we put on the table

THE CODFATHER: Martin Bosely rebranded the bottom-feeding red cod as Southern Bastard Cod and saw it fly off his menu.
THE CODFATHER: Martin Bosely rebranded the bottom-feeding red cod as Southern Bastard Cod and saw it fly off his menu.

The best pilchard? The one on a hook that's just been swallowed by a snapper.

But according to a new environmental guide, that common angling scenario demonstrates the very best and worst of our $1.49 billion seafood industry.

This week, Forest and Bird will release a new Best Fish Guide, a wallet-sized chart ranking 78 of New Zealand's 130 commercially fished species according to their ecological sustainability.

Top of the list are anchovies and pilchards. At the bottom are snapper and orange roughy.

It's the fifth time the environmental lobby has released the guide, aimed at changing people's fish-buying habits.

This year's version, which goes public on Wednesday, comes with a mobile phone application and recipes from our newest celebrity incarnation: the television chef.

Tea-smoked kahawai, trevally ceviche, bacon-wrapped cod with little necked clams, and not a snapper fillet in sight.

Forest and Bird says it's the fishery where Hauraki Gulf long liners are allegedly responsible for a bycatch of globally threatened black petrels and, where, on the South Island West Coast, stock is down to 10 per cent of biomass.

Tell Graeme Sinclair, television's Gone Fishin' host, that snapper fishing is ecologically unsound and he says, "I really find that quite bizarre".

"I'm driving my boat at the moment out in the Gulf over mile after mile of snapper schools. I'm not sure how you fit another 90 per cent into that. The bloody things would have to have their heads out of the surface of the ocean. There are miles and miles of them out there, and not just juvenile fish. It covers the whole spectrum."

He sighs. "Forest and Bird. You love them dearly. You know they're trying to come from the right place, but to try to shut New Zealand up and turn it into a glass house that everyone looks at from outside as some obstacle just makes no sense.

"We interact with this environment. The environment is forever modified and we have to be sensible about its management and the commercial fisherman are managing the fishery to the best effect, and if there's a problem, we tweak the quota."

That's the Quota Management System (QMS). Introduced in 1986, it is lauded as world-leading and criticised for being out of date. Either way, it's the mechanism that controls the total catch limit, by weight, for the main species in our 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

According to Peter Bodeker, Seafood Industry Council chief executive, this means there is no need for green buying guides.

If a species comes under the QMS, says Bodeker, then by default, "it's a best fish".

"If they are commercially available in New Zealand, they are sustainable and people should not feel guilty about eating them."

One of the aims of the guide is to get the public to expand its fish-eating repertoire. Swap snapper for kingfish, tarakihi or trevally, because they have similar taste, textural or oil qualities, and, it says, they're more sustainable.

"We would like people to try all sorts of different fish," Bodeker says, "but we don't want to exclude a fish on some spurious environmental reason from being made available to the public.

"Try another species, but not at the exclusion of other species we believe are perfectly sustainable."

Pilchards and anchovies are the new guide's best fish, but last week, the only pilchards the Sunday Star-Times could find were in a bait freezer. It was disappointing, as we wanted to cook them with a parmesan crust to serve on toast with tomatoes and a parsley salad. Followers of Wellington chef Martin Bosley may recognise the recipe.

"The first time my seafood supplier said, `I've got chefs looking for pilchards', they said, `Look, they're just catfood'," Bosley says, but when he put them on the menu, prepared by "running a knife down its gut, opening up the cavity, flattening it out, pinching the head and pulling it down towards the backbone," they flew out the door.

"I'm a supporter of sustainable fishing," he says. "And I know it's contentious. It's healthy to have a debate because it needs to be held. The best custodians of our oceans are the guys who go out on the boats, because they've got an eye on the future too." There's a qualifier. To make his menus, it must be wild-caught fish from day boats using sustainable methods.

"All the fish we've got here is less than 30 hours old. International visitors come here who have never seen a wild fish, because they're used to eating farmed fish. They're used to asking what the age is at harvest."

On offer the day we called was deep-sea racing ling. Never heard of it? Not surprising, because what Bosley really means is plain old much-maligned ling.

Its body has the mottled appearance of a picked scab. Its skin is covered in a slick of slimy mucous. Its head is out of proportion to its tail. It is a bottom dweller with a bad reputation, but when Bosley rebranded it deep-sea racing ling, it sold out.

"It's an ugly-looking fish. It's the devil's spawn of the ocean. It's not attractive at all and I'm sure that's why people don't like it.

"But you cook it and it just bleeds juice, it caramelises up on the outside, and you get this lovely golden crust. It's white fleshed and it's slightly sweet."

Anyone for Southern Bastard Cod? It's a menu-friendly moniker for the more common and also maligned red cod, another bottom dweller which eaters love to hate, but lapped up with a rebrand.

"Trevally," continues Bosley. "So many people go, `That's bait fish, mate'. Not if you're in Japan. One of the amazing things I had there was a fillet. All they did was score the top of it and pour boiling water over the skin side. It was just enough to tighten the skin and barely cook the flesh. It's glorious."

Red cod and trevally are high on the best choice list.

Ling, which earned $42 million in export in 2010, sits about halfway between best and worst.

According to Forest and Bird, all three are more ecologically sustainable than snapper, but even Bosley admits he serves the premium fish.

"It's probably our most expensive fish. What people want more than anything is the right to say yes or no. With seafood, people are wound up about whether it's sustainable or not. Forest and Bird keeps the discussion alive by putting out things like the good fish guide."

Back in Auckland, in view of the Sky Tower, between the old Chelsea Sugar Factory and the Devonport Wharf, Graeme Sinclair says, "You can drift through there and very quickly get a feed of snapper".

Bodeker said there were so many snapper around Auckland now, they were pushing out other species like gurnard and tarakihi.

But Katrina Subedar, Forest and Bird's marine conservation advocate says the guide "looks at the big picture. We take all the snapper as one fishery. In the future, I'd like to see us look at this regionally. Does snapper on the East Coast have a different rating than snapper on the West Coast, which are completely different stocks?

"Snapper is such an important iconic fish for New Zealanders. We all love it, but it does have one of the worst rankings and that is based on the ecological assessment of the commercial fishery."

Stock assessment, fishing methods, bycatch and the effects of the fishery on other marine species are all considered by Forest and Bird, which claims 42 per cent of the species it lists are overfished or showing "substantial decline" in stocks.

It claims that every year more than 1300 commercial fishing vessels operate in New Zealand waters, killing an average of 1060 fur seals, between 110 and 150 Maui and Hector's dolphins, 131 New Zealand sea lions, 14,090 albatrosses and 10,000 petrels. It says the scampi fishery catches more than five times the amount of non-target fish species than it does scampi and the squid fishery in the sub-Antarctic islands has contributed to a 50 per cent decline in New Zealand sea-lion numbers in the past 12 years.

(The Seafood Industry Council cites the use of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices as evidence of its commitment to working with environmental groups to improve conservation outcomes).

Subedar says Forest and Bird is not saying no to seafood, and its guide does not aim to change recreational angling habits.

There is some good news. Two types of tuna for example – skipjack and albacore – have moved up the list since it was last published. Cockles are a good choice. So is kina. Who eats kina?

Consult David Burton's New Zealand Food and Cookery and he notes that explorer Charles Heaphy reckoned it "tastes like spider crab and though very palatable, would be much improved by vinegar and condiments".

Pane E Vino Italian restaurant in Ponsonby, Auckland, serves Spaghetti Ai Ricci Di Mare – kina with chilli, olive oil and parsley. It is a traditional dish, says Tito Cucciniello, but he imports his urchins from Italy. Opening the spiky sea eggs here, he says, would be too messy.

Bosley recommended wrapping kina in nori seaweed, dipping it in light tempura batter and deep frying it. But at $15-plus a pottle, will consumers take a risk on something they might not like?

"It would be nice to say this guide targets every New Zealander," says Subedar. "But, to be honest, we're targeting the ones that are making conscious decisions. We've given out over half a million guides since 2004 and now that it's going digital, we're going to get in the pockets of more New Zealanders.

"You can be sitting in a restaurant and see what the problem might be with eating some squid today – `Should I have the calamari as an entree or not?'

"Twenty years ago, we were world leaders in terms of our Quota Management System and since then we've lagged off."

The Seafood Industry Council concedes there could be improvements. Bodeker says it presented a "spring clean" of the system to government officials in December.

"It needs a refresh," he says. "We don't think the system is broken, but we think there is time to examine and implement more advanced systems which are now available due to technology and mathematical modelling."

In the meantime, he says "be careful what the numbers say".

There is "no doubt" fishing creates bycatch. Environmental groups will always be able to produce photographs such as the ones that accompany this story.

"We are operating in a wild environment. There is a catch of birds. There will be some mammal hooked in there, but a lot less than there used to be.

"There has been some overfishing. Orange roughy is a good example, and it happened probably because we didn't understand the fishery well enough and we stopped fishing in certain areas."

Some people, says Bodeker, argue we are going to fish out the last fish in the ocean.

"There is a hungry world that needs feeding and the sea does have a sustainable resource and as long as you manage it like we are here, it won't be fished out."

Fleur Sullivan, of Fleur's Place in Moeraki, has provided a blue-cod and little neck-clam recipe for the launch of the Best Fish Guide.

"When I first opened the restaurant nine years ago, every single person wanted only blue cod. That is incredibly tedious in a kitchen where you've got access to beautiful fish off our boats.

"Now I can get people to have moki or monkfish, with anchovy butter and smoked mussels. Trevally makes wonderful raw fish salads. Last night, we had tarakihi fillet, baked with almond and brown butter sauce and capers."

Sustainable, ecologically sound eating is a philosophy, she agrees.

"But with me, it's normal because my mum and my grandmother didn't have a fridge." She laughs. "You got what you could and you ate it. I have no idea when that became strange."

Sunday Star Times