We Need to Rethink Our Approach to Seafood Altogether

I firmly believe that we need to change our mindset for a more ethical approach to how we farm, catch, kill, handle, and consume seafood. It's not just that we're overfishing species out of season, but we're letting them die in a way that benefits no...

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Oct 30 2014, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Lettuce.

People who are unsure about eating fish tend to complain about the scent—and rightly so, because fish shouldn't smell. In my mind, that's the stench of large-scale, unethical slaughter.

You'd be eating death.

Like many other people, I falsely grew up thinking that fish felt no pain and had no memory. But the way fish are stressed, killed, and handled directly impacts the quality, flavour, and smell of the flesh.

Mass scale fishing techniques—such as trawling, dredging, and long-line practices—are used because they are considered "efficient" in terms of the quantity of the catch. There isn't as much of an emphasis on quality seafood, nor the ocean floor devastation and wastage of marine life that it wreaks. (A significant percentage of the catch is discarded and thrown back in the ocean, dead.) The fish kept to be sold can undergo a damaging post-slaughter handling process. Fish get crushed in large nets or are left to slowly suffocate and rot for hours.

People have little awareness of how we are systematically mistreating the sea as a valued food source. To give you an example of the devastation, a fisherman recently came across a one-tonne ghost net drifting off Australia's Northern Territory coast. It took three boats to haul it out with all sorts of entangled fish and turtles. The fisherman commented on how they could "smell a bit of death in there".

Everyone gets upset about caged chickens, or whale and seal slaughter, but I think this is worse. It's not as emotional an issue—we have little understanding of what goes on underwater because we just don't see what happens. We need to change our mindset for a more ethical approach to how we farm, catch, kill, handle, and consume seafood.

Consumers should only eat certain fish species during the right seasons. Unfortunately, fish is made to be available all year round. Seafood commonly sold nowadays has become blandly and visually "sanitised"—it's pellet-fed and designed to maintain its fresh-looking colouring.

There are only a few people in the industry angling for a different approach that also equates to better quality seafood. My seafood supplier is Mark Eather, also from Tasmania, who cares about sustainability and humane killing methods for fish. His fish doesn't smell. The quality is the best. Mark uses the Japanese ike jime method (spiking the brain) to kill the fish as quickly and humanely as possible.

All fish struggle when caught, but it's the handling, the stress levels, and the amount of time they struggle that is crucial. When the fish is killed, it has ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in the muscles that deplete until rigor mortis sets in. The slower that the ATP depletes, the softer the flesh. The harder rigor mortis sets, the harder the texture of the flesh. We don't know exactly what happens to stressed and panicked fish but studies have shown that this can have an influence on the flavour, and this is where the ike jime technique comes in.

Mark grew up on a farm, and people would comment on how fresh his meat tasted (even though it had hung for weeks). That's where he picked up on something—it wasn't the freshness but the way the beast was killed. I get my wallaby meat (a smaller type of kangaroo) from an island where they make sure it's killed with one clear shot to reduce any stress. It's the most exquisite meat.

I hate seeing a beautiful fish wasted when there's so much of it we can use to cook with—the bones for a stock, the head, the wings, and tail. I especially favour the collar, grilled with a sprinkling of lemon myrtle salt. My favourite fish is wild barramundi (prepared by ike jime method, of course) or Tasmanian Trumpeter. There's a whole range of other fish we can eat, such as Jack Mackerel (often referred to as a "bait fish" species). When caught and treated ike jime, it is a staple for Japanese sashimi, and beautiful to eat. Unfortunately, we "efficiently" catch it on a mass scale for production into feed pellets for aquaculture, to a feeding ratio of four to one. All that great mackerel for one salmon! The irony is the Jack Mackerel, when handled in the ike jime method, is worth more than the salmon that it is used to feed.

My philosophical approach to seafood extends to my avoidance of the introduced Pacific oysters rather than natives. (Steve Feletti from Moonlight Flats Oysters cultivates some of our best native rock and flat oysters, such as the ostrea angasi, which is on par with the famous French Belon oyster, ostrea edulis). Pacific oysters grow faster and thus favoured by some farmers, but are classed as a pest (Class 2 Noxious Fish) and banned within some Australian states. I just won't touch them. Always check for stinky oysters, which can go off due to a range of variables, including climate conditions or poor human handling. I'm sure they can get stressed also.

As told to Harry Azidis