November 13th, 2012

I haven’t seen a recipe for Maui’s dolphin in a while. Nor one for toheroa, for that matter, but there are plenty for tuna. Which raises a very important challenge, one posed in the British newspaper The Guardian last week by George Monbiot, that is as pertinent here as it is on the other side of the world – it is time food writers took the threat to our marine environment seriously and stopped producing instructions on how to prepare endangered species.

To be fair, New Zealand’s food writers are still struggling with the concept of species specific recipes, so the degree of abuse of threatened species in our food magazines, newspapers and cook books is rather limited when compared with the British offerings. There is, however, an influence from Europe in writing here, to the point where copycat food writers ferret through their limited knowledge of local species in an effort to reproduce the fashionable and fabulous from Europe’s stars of the media kitchen.

This is why a search through New Zealand’s largest recipe repertoires, at the new Food Hub and Cuisine Magazine, reveals no less than 14 recipes specifying stargazer, or monkfish as the reurophiles prefer to call it. Ugly little bugger, the stargazer, but it could easily be the emblem of our food writing fraternity in its fixed upward gaze to the ethereal realm of exotic culinary fame.

Trouble is this yearning for sophistication takes little note of the fact that monkfish, here and in Europe, is on the endangered list, along with most species of tuna and swordfish, for which there is also a fair number of recipes. In the case of the two I explored for this commentary, there were at least 60 recipes specifying species on the official endangered list.

Can you imagine the outcry if Cuisine, or the New Zealand Herald‘s Bite section ran a recipe for keruru, blue duck, or kiwi? Yet tuna seems to be fair ground for eating while stocks last, as does stargazer, striped marlin and sole.

And these are only the officially endangered species. There are also the numerous fish listed in Forest and Bird’s Fish Guide in the red sector of those best avoided. Just taking the bottom two on the list, those we are most strongly advised to avoid, snapper and orange roughy, there are no fewer than 113 recipes promoting precisely the activities that those best informed encourage us to reject as consumers.

There may be good reasons why food writers, in the flush of the most successful period in their short history, seem keen to avoid the huge issues confronting our natural environment and the very resources on which our survival depends. If so they should give those reasons the benefit of their public words – tell us why we should continue to harvest snapper as if there is no threat to our oceans from persistent abuse. Tell us why it is more important to eat prime tuna loin, as if the population of this magnificent creature were in rude health, than it is to treat its future with care and respect.

In spite of the publishing phenomenon that is the cook book, and the burgeoning of food culture, this great food producing nation still makes little effort to take food seriously. That is not a surprise when those benefitting most from the current fashion for cuisine seem to treat food so lightly themselves.

Talk about stargazers, peeping out from under their massive boulders of mediocrity in the hope of a glimpse of a (foreign) culinary tzar passing by.

The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

4 Responses

  • gregor says:

    right on Keith..the world needs more Keith Stewarts

  • Jo says:

    To suggest that Forest and Bird are the ‘best informed’ is grossly inaccurate. I agree with Keith’s sentiments here about not promoting consumption of endangered species – but the Forest and Bird guide has been widely discredited for ignoring the latest information coming form NZ science providers, Government and Industry and instead persists with peddling outdated stereo types.

    Consumers be warned – Forrest and Bird are not the authority on sustainability of fish stocks.

  • S La Touche says:

    I’m with you Keith. That’s the problem when food becomes a fashion item and the mighty dollar reigns as ever. Less ego more thought would be a fine thing for breakfast every morning!

  • Keith Stewart says:

    Seafood New Zealand’s marketing department are obviously anxious about the public perception of their management of our marine resource, as they should be. The recent decision of New Zealand to continue fishing for toothfish in the Ross Sea is ample evidence that the “precautionary principle” Ms Kos cites in her letter is not high amongst Seafood New Zealand’s priorities.

    My editorial was aimed at food writers, intended as an encouragement to them to use their considerable power with readers and their intelligence to be serious commentators on food, and not just recipe writers who are amenable to the public relations agendas of food companies.

    To use the 3-year-old Nature article as evidence of New Zealand’s credible marine management hints at desperation when some of the world’s largest seafood retailers refuse to stock New Zealand hoki and orange roughy and our green reputation has been badly damaged by the Ross Sea decision.

    As to what is and what is not ‘safe’ for us to consider for our dinner tables, I would like to leave that up to well informed food writers who are prepared to considered the balance of environmental science and concerned NGOs like Forest and Bird when writing their material.

    On this matter I make the point that the Department of Conservation has a different idea about what is and is not “threatened” in our marine environment to that of Ms Kos.

    Their list of threatened marine species numbers 444, hardly a glowing recommendation of the management of our marine environment. Amongst those species listed are sole and stargazer. Tuna, marlin and other swordfish, as migrants, are not listed by DoC, but according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, not only is Southern Bluefin tuna critically endangered, bigeye and yellowfin are both listed as being of concern.

    More to the point, last year all bluefin species were reported by the IUCN in “the prestigious journal Science” as being …susceptible to collapse because of pressure from fishing for the high-value fish. While Bigeye tuna are vulnerable to extinction …yellowfin and albacore tuna are close to being under threat, or will be threatened with extinction if conservation measures are not put in place to turn their fortunes around.”

    The report goes on to say …blue and white marlin were both …vulnerable to extinction, putting them in the third of the three most serious categories for threatened species and at risk of dying out globally.

    Against this must be considered the New Zealand seafood industry’s lobby to increase the quota for harvest of Bluefin tuna by 1000 tonnes over the coming seasons. New Zealand increased its quota for Southern Bluefin in 2010, hardly the actions of a cautionary management team.

    There is also the matter of the other non-commercial species in our marine environment that are threatened by our fishing procedures, not least of which is the critically endangered Maui dolphin. Yet the word from Seafood New Zealand is that they are perfect and in no need of change to better manage this environment.

    As Ms Kos has clearly demonstrated, we are in desperate need of a culture of well informed, independent food writing if we are to get it right.

    Keith Stewart

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