TIDE turns

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am

About 2.9 billion people around the world rely on seafood for their daily protein intake, and their consumption of it is increasing. Hongkongers now consume more than three times the global average per capita - more than Japan. While response by the government is slow, and knowledge among diners generally low, a growing number of restaurants are taking a step towards more sustainable seafood.

Richard Ekkebus, culinary director at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, says he was inspired to be cautious with his use of ingredients on a visit to Tasmania, where the food industry is tightly controlled. But this proved difficult to put into practice.

'Hong Kong was a reality check,' he says. 'The pressure of the market is very strong, and you can't always do what you, as a chef, want to do.' Ekkebus uses line-caught fish that are usually more expensive, but do not result in wasted by-catch. He also refuses to serve wild caviar and bluefin tuna.

'As a contemporary European restaurant, guests expect fish popular in Europe such as turbot, cod and sea bass, but these are heavily fished,' he says. 'I tried using gurnard and pollock, which are more unusual and more interesting but, as diners were not familiar with them, they didn't go for these dishes.'

Chefs also face difficulties with being sure the seafood they are being supplied with is actually sustainable. Cesare Romani, executive chef at the InterContinental Grand Stanford, last month ran a menu which focused on being low-carbon, but included some sustainable seafood. He says the sourcing process was a challenge.

'Every supplier was eager to supply us with products from far away, exotic countries, but most of the products were very difficult to trace,' he says.

'Labelling in the fishing industry remains controversial; farmed fish are sometimes sold as wild, and certain cheaper species are sold as more expensive varieties.'

'The problem of global overfishing is extremely serious right now,' says Andy Cornish, director of conservation at non-profit environmental foundation WWF-Hong Kong. 'Global overfishing is devastating ecosystems, driving species towards extinction, threatening food security and the livelihood of millions.'

Seafarers have watched fishing catches diminish over generations.

'My grandfather and father were both sailors. Over the years, they have watched the sea get emptier and emptier,' says Stanley Shea, the Hong Kong-based project co-ordinator at Bloom Association, a non-profit organisation set up to help protect the oceans through education. 'There are no big fish left any more.'

Local scientific studies confirm the Sheas' observations. In 1995, Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department conducted a study that found that the local catch had declined by 50 per cent over a decade

The WWF is active in promoting sustainable seafood, including from those fisheries certified by the Marine Steward Council (MSC) - a global organisation working with fisheries. Jaakko Sorsa, executive chef at FINDS, turned to the group to approve a menu featuring entirely sustainably sourced seafood. Sorsa says that creating this menu was not too difficult because, as a Scandinavian restaurant, he already sourced most of his seafood from northern waters, where there are a number of certified farms.

Rudy Muller, executive chef at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, says that when they refused to serve shark's fin dishes they had many cancellations. 'The beginning was tough. We lost the traditional wedding business,' he says.

When clients knew what to expect and the park had developed suitably extravagant dishes to replace shark's fin, bookings picked up.

The tide is turning, with other restaurants offering sustainable options, including DotCod Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Central, Ocean Park's underwater restaurant Neptune's, the 14 branches of Super Star Seafood Restaurant, and Jumbo Kingdom in Aberdeen.

'I'm waiting until there are sustainable sources of certain species before I eat them,' Shea says. 'I still eat seafood - I just choose where and what I eat with care. Our demand for sustainable options can drive fisheries to produce sustainable seafood.'

Eating sustainably

Stanley Shea, of Bloom Association, recommends diners refer to the WWF's Seafood Guide on its Hong Kong website (wwf.panda.org/), which lists species under 'recommended', 'think twice' and 'avoid', and to ask restaurants about the sources of their seafood.

Species to avoid

Sharks (no sustainable fisheries exist)

Humphead wrasse (endangered)

Seahorses (endangered)

South China Sea shrimps/prawns (trawling damages seabed and overfishing)

Mantis shrimp (threatened by overfishing and aquarium trade)

Patagonian toothfish/Chilean sea bass (unless MSC certified)

Blue fin tuna (number of fish plummeting; CITES ban possible)

Sturgeon (endangered)

Horseshoe crab (numbers plummeting from coral habitat destruction)

Hong Kong grouper (almost extinct)

Deep sea species - orange roughy, anglerfish/monkfish (lack of knowledge on reproduction and numbers)

Species that are not certified by the MSC, but are sustainably farmed are recommended, including South China Sea scallops and clams, abalone and oysters farmed on the mainland.