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A Fight for the Fish

United Kingdom - 19 Jan 11 - Carla Capalbo

On a grey London day, a small fleet of fishing boats chugs up the River Thames toward Westminster, the seat of Britain's parliament. Sounding horns and waving banners encourage people to JOIN THE FISH FIGHT. On the lead ship is celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who is well known to British TV audiences for his "real food" campaigns and for the River Cottage series, in which he shows how to live off the land. He's holding up a huge dead cod as he shakes his head. "Around 50 percent of all fresh fish being caught in the North Sea are being thrown back into the water, dead, and that's an unsustainable, shocking waste," the likable 46-year-old explains.

To illustrate his frustration about British and other European fishing practices, Fearnley-Whittingstall has made three TV programs called "Hugh's Fish Fight." They're part of British Channel 4's Big Fish Fight series, made with a clutch of other high-profile U.K. chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. (You can watch them online for the next few weeks).

In his shows, Fearnley-Whittingstall questions the moral, environmental and economic price of current fishing policy. Each episode covers a different aspect of the dilemma, from the plight of tuna, to whether fish farming really is sustainable (it takes three kilos of wild fish to produce one kilo of farmed salmon), to "discards" or "by-catch" from trawling. Fearnley-Whittingstall's high visibility brings these arguments into the prime-time living rooms of a large, non-specialized audience of more than 2.3 million viewers and is a valuable contribution to the fight that's long been waged by Greenpeace, Slow Fish and other environmental organizations.

Discards are a particularly distressing issue. They refer to the waste of over 1 million tonnes (about 1.1 million U.S. tons) per year of perfectly good fish that fishermen are forced to dump back into the sea in order to abide by European fishing laws.

Here's how it works: Every fishing boat, depending on its size and location, is allotted an annual quota, limiting the amount of each species it is permitted to catch. The idea behind this is, in part, to prevent over-fishing of certain species. So far, so good. Out at sea, however, this bureaucratic solution can cause problems. If a ship reaches its full annual quota of, say, cod in eight months, for the last four months of the year it will be obliged to throw back any cod it catches. The trawlers' nets are not able to be selective as they scoop up large quantities of mixed fish. Each haul is sorted on board, and fish that exceed the quotas must be thrown back. They are, by this time, dead. So, thousands of metric tons of edible fish end up on the bottom of the sea to be eaten by crabs.

Fearnley-Whittingstall is no stranger to this sort of activism: His 2008 "Chicken Out!" series, also on Channel 4, helped raise awareness about the devastating conditions of battery hens, and persuaded some supermarkets to use more free-range chickens and eggs.

Reactions to the shows have been positive. To date, more than 540,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to the discards (add your name to it on the Fish Fight site). Tesco, one of Britain's largest retailers, announced a switch to selective, pole-and-line caught tuna for its private label canned tuna. The company previously used tuna caught in vast purse seine nets which can also trap porpoise, turtles and shark.

Another practical idea has been supported by chefs Oliver and Blumenthal. Britons are crazy for cod. But if they can be encouraged to broaden their tastes to include mackerel for their fish and chips, or easy-to-prepare coley or mussels for their dinners, then some of that demand for cod will be spread to other, more abundantly available fish. Oliver's super-easy recipes can and should inspire everyone to cook a greater range of seafood.

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