The sustainability of wild cod

19 July 2007 by
The sustainability of wild cod

In today's environmentally conscious climate it's more important than ever for operators to understand the provenance of ingredients they source for their kitchens from around the world.Tom Vaughan joined Sodexho on an educational trip to learn more about one much-politicised ingredient - wild cod

Karen Carpenter may have eulogised about it, but in truth, the top of the world is an unforgiving place. In the Norwegian fishing port of Havøysund, 10 miles south of North Cape and 20 miles north of Hammerfest, the world's northernmost city, fishermen are braving the freezing rain to unload their catch on to the factory quay. Presumably it's only the tiredness that's stopping them carrying on longer, because at this time of year the light stays through midnight.

It's only hours since the cod stacked on the factory quay was swimming in the jet black waters of the Barents Sea, but in five days' time it will end up on a plate in England.

Caterer joined 11 members and affiliates of Sodexho UK on an educational trip to Norway and, through the seasickness, fishing wagers and endless filleting, came to grips with one much-discussed ingredient and the geographical, political and human journey that it goes through to reach our plate.

Havøysund isn't the most accessible of locations. We had reached the town via a couple of two-hour flights, from Heathrow to Oslo, then on to Tromsø, followed by a 45-minute journey over bright mountains in a plane that closely resembled a Volvo with wings, and a three-hour ferry trip through barren fjords. By the time we reached the small quay late on Tuesday morning we'd spent much of the previous two days travelling.

We boarded two miniature fishing boats, chefs on one, non-chefs on the other, and had a NKr100 (£8.50) bet on which vessel would catch more. On the outside, the boats looked like ramshackle dinghies, but on the inside had the sophisticated gadgetry of an Apollo shuttles. GPS, thermal ultrasound, satellite phones - if there was cod, codling or even a Nazi U-boat out there, we'd find it.

Our fisherman, Svein, knew the cod's movements like the back of his hand. This time of year they stay further out to sea, he said, up in more open waters. After two unsuccessful casting sessions, and a bout of seasickness from two of our party, the classic method of spotting seagulls proved the key to tracking down the shoals. Both seagulls and cod feed on codling so where there's one, there's bound to be the other.

From then on it was easy. We each had a single, long line with four hooks. Each cast seemed to come back with at least a brace of cod within half a minute. If we'd pitched there all day the little boat wouldn't have had enough space to take the catch. In 30 minutes the chefs reeled in more than 60 fish on three lines. The non-chefs, in a gracious nod to sustainability, caught half that number.

Each fish we hauled in, Svein cut through the artery below the gills, leaving it to bleed to death. It's not a pretty sight, especially when the larger fish gather energy for one last struggle before the end, or, in the case of one fish, it spends its last moments wearing a hook speared through its head like a jaunty hat as no one could rip it out.

But having seen the produce of trawlers on the factory floor the previous day, a lot of which, eyes bulging, had been crushed to death when the nets were dragged from the water, and also having experienced the sheer size of the shoals in the sea, you can appreciate the argument that catching the fish by line is not only a more sustainable means, but ensures far better produce.

And as to whether there's any discernible difference between farmed and wild cod, having seen the hundreds of farmed cod endlessly circling in their enclosures, with the odd dead fish floating below the water, it's hard not to get excited when reeling in an enormous, shiny wild specimen, codling still in mouth as its final meal is cut short.

Our small four-hook lines pale in comparison with Svein's huge lines, fixed on a motorised spool, with more than 2,000 hooks between them. A day's catch will produce hundreds of fish. Once the haul is on board, the little boat will set off on the same journey we enjoyed - or didn't enjoy in some cases - to the factory. Here the fishermen will deposit their catch, which is meticulously noted. A boat the size of Svein's has a total allowable catch of 18 tonnes each year (including by-catch) under Norwegian fisheries laws.

Sailing past derelict villages on the journey home, all abandoned when the cod temporarily dried up in these waters, you can see that sustainability isn't just about ensuring we've got fish to batter on a Friday night, but has huge social repercussions as well. With Svein receiving NKr30 (£2.50) from the factory for each 1kg of cod he catches, which could amount to as much as NKr540,000 (£45,000) if he maximised his quota, the regulations don't have too much effect on him.

But it's a different story for Roger Sørenson, regional director of Aker Seafoods' factory in Hammerfest. The restrictions on his two trawlers mean he's able to send only one out at a time, and he has a factory full of staff to pay.

Sustainability might be a very modern movement in some countries, but not in Norway, says Edmund Mikkelsen, senior market analyst of groundfish at Norge Seafood from Norway. "Even before anyone used the word sustainability, there was a focus among fisherman on preserving stocks and not overcatching," he says. "The fishermen are under strict regulations on not only how much they can catch but also on what they can throw away, but they're used to it. There are always people unhappy about a law but, for the majority of fishermen, it's in their interests to ensure they have quotas for the next year."

The fish will often come to the factory floor late in the afternoon, and having been put on ice, will hit the production line early the next morning. In many cases they'll even arrive the same morning. A machine fillets each cod and delivers the meat to the lines of factory workers, each armed with a filleting knife, who in five seconds have the fish trimmed and back on the conveyor belt. Any unwanted meat is pushed on to a separate belt for use in fish cakes. It's not the most romantic of jobs, standing by a conveyor belt slicing cod ad infinitum. But in a town as small and remote as this, it's a vital source of employment for the inhabitants, without which it might not survive.

Late that same afternoon the trucks appear and the cod fillets, boxed and packed in ice, are loaded to start a two-day road journey to Copenhagen. They will go on the market on the morning of day four in their journey from sea to plate. Suppliers in England will buy the quantity required and they'll be back on the open seas again, this time on a ship towards Grimsby, where, again, they'll be on the market on the morning of day five. Bought one last time by direct suppliers to restaurants, the fillets will be in a chef's fridge that same morning, and on a customer's plate by dinner time, five days and more than 1,500 miles later.

SpeciesTAC (tonnes)Norway TACCoastal fleet vessels (less than 90ft)High sea vessels (+ 90ft)
North-east Atlantic cod44,5000199,500123,15876,342
North-east haddock150,00074,05037,64736,403
Mackerel (North Sea & Atlantic)500,000128,21525,000103,215
Atlanto Scandic herring890,000542,900186,200356,700
North Sea herring341,06396,7327,36089,372
*All figures in tonnes* *TAC = Total allowable catch (annual)* *Norway and Russia share the North-east Atlantic cod 50:50. Other countries such as the EU countries, Iceland and Greenland are given a quota up to 55,000 tonnes for 2007. The coastal fleet's share of cod is much higher thatn for other species becuase cod is the major source of livelihood for the coastal fleet.* Sustainability The ideas surrounding sustainability aren't as contemporary as many might think. The dedication by fish management bodies to preserving fish stocks has been around for decades - centuries, even - although scientific advice has often been ignored in the past. The issue has become politicised only relatively recently. Bryce Beukers-Stewart, fisheries policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society, says modern sustainability now incorporates two main themes. First, the impact of fishing on target species and removing no more fish from the population than are being replaced naturally. Fisheries have set precautionary limits on the lowest number of fish a population can have in order to carry on repopulating. In the North Sea this is 150,000, while estimations of the actual population are about 20% of this. By contrast, the population figures of the Barents Sea are considered very healthy, especially now that illegal fishing has been clamped down on by the Norwegian and Russian navies. The other main practice of sustainability is attempting to lessen the impact of modern fishing techniques on the environment - for example, the damage done by trawlers to the seabed, or the impact on sea birds and other marine creatures such as dolphins. Bodies are currently working to produce fishing gear that will help achieve this. The politicisation of sustainability has, according to Beukers-Stewart, arisen mainly from countries fighting over a larger portion of the stock and the answer to ensuring fish stocks for the future is simple, he says: "Everyone needs to follow the scientific advice to a much more rigorous degree." What did the team learn? As well as learning about the voyage behind the ingredient, the trip also had a wider context for Sodexho. With the skills base of many young chefs declining, a better knowledge of ingredients means better ability as a chef. Through educational trips such as this, it's possible to improve the knowledge base of key chefs, which can then be passed down to younger members of their kitchens. As part of this, learning about the temperamental environment and conditions of wild fish, as opposed to the artificial conditions of farmed cod, was high on the agenda "No matter how much you read a textbook, it doesn't come to life until you see it," says Rebecca Grover, national accounts manager at M&J Seafood. "It gives you not only a better understanding of cod, but of other fish, of natural produce and what it goes through." "It's about learning an appreciation of the ingredient," says Dominic Barham, executive chef at Directors Table. "If the cod comes in a bit soft or a bit fatty then beforehand I'd blame my fishmonger. Now I can turn round to my whole team and explain why it was in that condition in the wild." If a chef is better acquainted with an ingredient, then it's possible to combat a lack of knowledge from younger chefs. "In my experience, a lot of students coming out of the NVQ courses wouldn't know what to do with a whole fish," says Peter O'Connor, head chef at Directors Table. "They wouldn't know what a whole cod looks like. So if you can capture their attention and talk them through what the creature is like and how it lives and where it lives, then you'll stir their interest in food." As well as improving chefs' knowledge, educational trips have huge benefits for the employer, says Sodexho craft and food development director David Mulcahy. "It helps with loyalty and retention and people feeling that a company is behind them and their development. It doesn't stop here, with this one ingredient. It's to ensure our chefs have a future."
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