How seafood is traded, what’s caught and what’s not, is largely determined by our buying patterns. Picture: 123RF / BELCHONOCK
How seafood is traded, what’s caught and what’s not, is largely determined by our buying patterns. Picture: 123RF / BELCHONOCK

The majority of shoppers walking into my least favourite fishmonger, in a posher suburb of Joburg (I’m there on a spying, not a buying, mission) are sussed enough, I’d imagine, to know that protecting marine biodiversity is A Big Thing. And If you asked any of them whether they care about the oceans, they’d surely say yes without hesitation.

But somehow, translating this sentiment into every day purchasing patterns just isn’t happening.

When you want the best fish for the braai, right now, marine health seems like a very faraway theoretical issue. Most of us do this, with different things. I don’t think it’s because we don’t care. I think it’s simply that the actual details of how saving the oceans, earth, ice-caps, or the Amazon might translate into tonight’s meal, are still so nebulous that they’re easy to push away. In fact, the vagueness makes purchasing with the issues in mind, very hard work.

Ignoring the issue is almost a survival technique. In the posh (yet always smelly) fishmonger, I watch seafood from super-sustainable mussels and hake to less happy orange-listed gurnard and very questionable crayfish being bought with equal, unhesitant zeal. 

The ignorance-is-bliss syndrome even goes for those doing the selling. The Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi) estimates that about 80% of the fish on local restaurant menus are being sold under an incorrect name (and actually it isn’t always a matter of ignorance).

My visit to the posh fishmonger made it clear how this can happen: nobody behind the counter could identify some of the fish in the fridge for me. Two large fish — squatting in a crate fresh from Mozambique — were definitely not what I was told (just because a fish has a yellowish tail doesn’t mean it’s Yellowtail), and one which I identified later on from my favourite fish book, was a threatened species and shouldn’t have been there at all.

Nobody could tell me which kind of tuna they were selling, and those buying were none the wiser. Of course we expect sellers — whether restaurant or retailer — to be more accountable, but that’s not always realistic.

Whether it’s a supermarket or a mom and pop scale food business, money matters will always be pitted against “doing the right thing”. If prawn curry is the top seller on a menu, it’s going to take an awful lot for a restaurateur to remove it. What it will take, in fact, is for the eater, the buyer, to actively support the better moves and make noises about the worse ones. How seafood is traded, what’s caught and what’s not, is largely determined by our buying patterns. 

So I’m afraid that what “save the ocean” means is “get educated”. This isn’t hard if you go to the WWF's Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, download the Sassi app to see different species at a glance and also get the SMS service, FishMS, which immediately answers your question on green, orange or red species status.

And ask retailers and restaurants questions: where is this from, how was it caught, what’s the story? It’s either that or we won’t be buying any seafood for long.