Kitchen Conscience Fish Stocks Decline

"Fish," said Alasdair, he who bolts this web site together. I had asked if he had anything on his mind for an article, even though I had a large and cheery agenda of topics for food with a dash of the Internet. "And not cooking or eating them, something about depleted stocks, tight quotas, the EU and beleaguered fishermen." Or something like that.

I spend a good portion of my working week on a news desk, so I am exposed to such stories regularly, though not always in great detail. While I usually associate things foodie with pleasure and leisure, the discipline of editorial conscience does, I have to admit, build character. Extra research made fascinating, if rather grim, reading. Now overflowing with ideas with their roots in current affairs, the trick is finding a palatable way to pass them on.

A spoonful of sugar

Useful if unpleasant knowledge has a lot in common with medicine, and it isn't just on a food site that I think a sugared pill helps. Closer to the topic, the daily ritual of cod's liver oil makes a good comparison. Here in Norway, children get their dose as early in life as possible, and they don't mind as much now that it is available masked by citrus flavours. And those who swoon at the essential oiliness of the experience can do their duty with capsules. The importantthing is to take it, and here fishiness and duty are closely linked - maybe something similar would work in print?

The end of January marks the start of one of the most cherished culinary seasons of the region. Norwegian newspapers bulge with formal announcements from establishments that have received the first skrei, or winter cod. The word skrei is derived from the old Norse for wanderer and the cod are on their way to spawn. For a short time, until the end of March, they are a prime delicacy and the freshfish with its delicate, sweet flesh is served alongside its liver and roe, a favourite feast for countless generations. The liver and roe are gently steeped in hot salted water until cooked, the liver sometimes with the addition of a bay leaf and a dash of vinegar. Fish tends to be prepared with restraint and simplicity here, a sensible habit.

A dose of reality

Even though attention has been focused on cheerier things since the run up to the Christmas season, the worrying state of the fishing industry has still managed to poke its way into the news, if not necessarily into the public consciousness. In early December a great deal of noise was made on the eve of key European Union negotiations, where commissioner Franz Fischler went so far as to say that Europe's fish stocks were on the brink of total collapse and warn of massive quota restrictions.

British fishermen envy the greater jurisdiction Norway enjoys over her waters as a non-member of the EU, and are campaigning ferociously to regain this fundamental influence. One can't help wondering about how realistic either side of this issue is, as Norway's economic ties to Europe bind it nearly as firmly as membership. There are a few central topics noting as the real flashpointsof the fishing debate, and they all risk being hopelessly tangled in the snarl of Euro-bureacracy; jurisdiction over home waters, quotas out of sync with scientific research, and misguided legislation, notably pollution and waste caused by dumping edible catch because of quota restrictions.

Whether the bleak picture painted by Fischler was partly a bargaining ploy or not, the eventual outcome of talks pleased the mariners. Norway was quietly content with a lack of stricter quotas while the British government trumpeted the news that Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley had "netted" a pro-fish, pro-fishermen EU deal. The glee over the current respite from austerity doesn't mean the danger of dwindling supplies is over by any means, merely that the latest statistics didn't convince commissioners to keep tightening limits.

Despite the friction between the EU commissions and Europe's fishing fleets, there is no disagreement over the real fear that greedy practices threaten the existence of formerly bountiful stocks. It is worth quoting Jane Grigson's tart commentary (Fish Cookery, 1973) on the near extinction of the once ubiquitous oyster: "It is pathetic to read now of legislation that tried to conserve the oyster beds; each new regulation seems like an admission of failure." A read of the article Dying Seas, accessible in the table above right, shows that even the battle against overfishing may not be enough.

Back to the kitchen

Later I hope to cover other aspects of this problem. One ray of hope is the emerging trend that restores an emphasis on fresh, natural, home-grown seasonal ingredients. Because, even though they don't seem to fit the bill at first, fish also have their season. And people are reawakening to the gulf of difference between fresh and frozen. And because trends fuel profits, and that is the only sure way to mobilize the giants that can effect change. In the meantime, I'll also try to rouse your taste for the stuff.

One vital ingredient for a better harvest of the sea is learning to appreciate its riches. Most of us fail to take advantage of the range of seafood on offer - which in turn will limit our choice in the long run - and to make the most of the fish we do try. One simple example: I would never have understood the Nordic tradition of reserving the head of the cod for the head of the family without being gently introduced to some of the reasons.

I must confess that one of my very favourite meals is cod tongues - tossed in spiced flour and fried in butter, easy as that. Luckily I welcome a surprise, otherwise I would have missed this unbelievably succulent treat. I am not sure if you can get them outside of the region, but if so - do it. If not, make a note and a trip. And Icelanders swear by cod cheeks...

Jonathan Tisdall is a Japanese-Irish-American freelance journalist who emigrated to London before settling in Norway. This has resulted in a wide range of influences, and he still occasionally forgets where he is.

© Jonathan Tisdall