Charles Clover

Fins ain’t what they used to be

Charles Clover says that there’s only one way to beat the celebrity chefs who are wiping out every endangered fish in the sea: take a trip to McDonald’s

Text settings

Charles Clover says that there’s only one way to beat the celebrity chefs who are wiping out every endangered fish in the sea: take a trip to McDonald’s

In a single human lifetime we have inflicted a crisis on the oceans, comparable to what Stone Age man did to the mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger, what 19th-century Americans did to the bison and the passenger pigeon, what 20th-century British and Norwegians did to the great whales, and what people in this century are doing to rainforests and bushmeat. This crisis is caused by overfishing. Given that the destruction of once renewable sources of food is a serious problem for the human race, you would imagine it might have troubled the opinion-formers in the culinary establishment. But some of them still aren’t making the connections. In the world’s celebrity restaurants, the marine equivalent of the panda, the rhino and the dodo are on the menu.

Gordon Ramsay is Britain’s top chef, his website tells us. Whether or not you accept him at his own assessment, which is engagingly devoid of false modesty, you have to accept him as something very like it. For Ramsay is very good indeed. And an area of territory he has marked out for himself is the cooking of fish, not least by posing naked on the front of the Sunday Times Style section with only a halibut — listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as an endangered species — to preserve his modesty.

Trained in France, Ramsay cooks with the very best ingredients, creating dishes that make reviewers go weak at the knees. He is the only British chef with three Michelin stars, for his Chelsea restaurant, and his protégés cook at Claridge’s, the Savoy Grill and the Connaught. Ramsay has written one of the seminal works of the Omega-3 generation — as our vain era, with its health-, diet- and fashion-fuelled obsession with fish and its beneficial oils may yet come to be known — in his book Passion for Seafood, co-written with Roz Denny. This mouthwatering read by a chef of formidable imagination and skill involves some notable contradictions.

The passion is real, indeed infectious. Ramsay learned his love of the sea in the west of Scotland. He tells us how he ate winkles with a pin in his native Glasgow and fished for salmon with a squeegee bottle as a float on Loch Lomond and with a fly on the Tay. He expanded his knowledge working on a millionaire’s yacht in the Caribbean, where he learnt to dive and was in awe of the giants below the waves. ‘The manta rays,’ he writes, ‘were the most magnificent as they wafted past with their billowing fins.’ I recently saw two manta rays gasping their last on deck in a photograph taken on a purse-seiner in the Indian Ocean. They were the ‘by-catch’.

Ramsay is not an insensitive man, and quite high up the learning curve when it comes to celebrity chefs. He writes: ‘All these experiences have left me with a lasting impression of the need to protect the wealth of the sea, from the powerful North Atlantic with its dwindling stocks of cod and white fish to the fragile dreamlike beauty of the coral reefs.’ Then the contradictions begin. For while Ramsay’s cookbook does more to help the consumer make informed choices than some, it still recommends fish that all the best scientific and conservation advice would be to avoid — because it is seriously endangered.

His advice on tuna, for instance, is this: ‘I buy line-caught bluefin (the best) or sometimes yellowfin.’ Now no one would criticise him for recommending yellowfin, still one of the most plentiful tunas. Bluefin is a different matter. The west Atlantic stock has been hammered to a tenth of its level in 1970. The eastern stock, which runs in and out of the Mediterranean, which was fed to Roman legions before battle and murdered bloodily but sustainably in the Sicilian mattanza, is now being fished out at awesome speed by giant purse-seine vessels for tuna ‘farms’ in the Mediterranean. Tuna ‘farms’ are really fattening factories which raise the tuna to a size where they can be shot in the head and sent to Japan, where people pay more to eat bluefin than anyone else on earth. For the past decade or so the ‘managers’ of that fishery — who of course include the EU — have stood by and allowed a catch of vastly more than stocks justified. A gold rush is on. Even before this, the bluefin tuna was included in the official Red List of endangered creatures, along with the black rhino, the elephant and the great apes.

No one in a position of influence ought to be endorsing the purchase on a regular basis of bluefin tuna, let alone someone who tells us, as does Gordon Ramsay, that he is passionately convinced of ‘the need to protect the wealth of the sea’. The fact that he says his is ‘line caught’ means nothing. What sort of line was it caught on? The line of a sports fisherman off Cape Cod with a cardboard sarcophagus at the ready to air-freight his catch to Japan? Or the line of a Japanese vessel in the Atlantic with a long-line half an inch thick that stretches for dozens of miles and ensnares endangered seabirds and turtles? The fact is, the bluefin is overfished.

Gordon Ramsay might point out the compelling argument that some catches are better than none, because legal catchers help to police poaching. But he would have to agree that this would work only if bluefin were listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which either bans trade or regulates it strictly. The Beluga sturgeon (caviar from which is on Ramsay’s menu) already is. Bluefin would be listed too but for disgraceful politicking by the United States and Japan when Sweden first proposed this in 1992. Without such a listing, the bluefin tuna will join the great whales in the anteroom to extinction. Somebody really should tell Gordon Ramsay this, for the bluefin needs a high-profile champion like him.

I actually tried to make that suggestion. I tried to contact Mr Ramsay three times on the telephone to ask him about his fish-sourcing policy in general and his use of bluefin in particular — without success. After the third call, somebody from Gordon Ramsay Holdings left a message on my voicemail saying, ‘On this occasion Gordon Ramsay will not be able to participate.... With every good wish and thank you for calling.’ Or as Ramsay himself might put it, ‘**** off.’

Come off it, Gordon, as one fly fisherman to another, that’s not really good enough. Let’s get Cites to list the bluefin.

It would be unfair to Ramsay, who has some knowledge of the new realities, not to mention some of those chefs who display very little knowledge of them at all. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa stands out as the world’s most famously inventive exponent of Japanese and fusion cooking and an ambassador of Japanese culinary tastes — mostly in fish — to the world. Nobu’s beautiful dishes, fusing the pure tastes of sushi with the South American tastes of garlic, chilli and coriander, were a great lunchtime favourite of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. His 13 restaurants are the courting ground of film stars, supermodels, tennis stars and politicians on three continents — helped by his business partnership with Robert De Niro. Nobu is fond of Patagonian toothfish, or, as the Americans call it, Chilean sea bass. This fish is the subject of a gold rush by illegal vessels in the Southern Ocean, which kill albatrosses as well as catching too many fish. Undeterred by the ‘Take a pass on Chilean sea bass’ campaign in the United States, Nobu included toothfish recipes in his cookbook, which says something about him.

Nobu could argue that the boycott of toothfish advocated by the US green groups is simple-minded, and that it would send a better signal to the market to buy the legally and sustainably ca ught Australian toothfish and South Georgia toothfish, which will soon be labelled as such. I called Nobu’s people to ask about his purchasing policy. A holding email came, then nothing. I was left having to assume that Nobu doesn’t know where his toothfish came from any more than the rest of us. His Chilean sea bass and truffles with yuzu soy butter sauce may, in other words, just be plain old poached toothfish.

Why does it matter what celebrity chefs do? Because they are leaders in their field and we, even the highest in the land, are the led. Jamie Oliver, for instance, made bass a kind of national dish when he served it to Tony Blair at a bilateral with the Italian prime minister in 1999 — a recipe he published as ‘Roasted slashed sea bass — à la Tony Blair’. Once the British would have served beef, but amid a Europe-wide beef ban brought about by BSE you can imagine what No. 10’s protocol people said about that. The wild sea bass — it was wild, I checked with Jamie Oliver, who is refreshingly open about what he serves — was British-caught, satisfyingly expensive, low in fat, healthy and chic. What neither Mr Oliver nor Mr Blair knew then, but we know now, was that most of the wild bass on sale at the time came from the pair-trawl fishery in the English Channel. The pair trawlers are thought to be responsible for the succession of dolphin corpses washing up on the beaches around Plymouth — and a steep decline in the bass.

Convention means that there is very little in cookery books — even by the new wave of chefs from Nigella Lawson to Jamie Oliver — to tell you about the provenance of the fish you are eating. But who is to say that convention will last? Why should the directors of chemical businesses end up personally liable for damaging the marine environment with a few nanograms of effluent, when the celebrity chefs and their followers are busily helping to wipe out every endangered fish in the sea without enduring a syllable of criticism?

There are those who are already trying to source their fish more carefully, such as Rick Stein, who tries to use fish from the smaller inshore boats and to cook little-used fish like gurnard to give the cod and haddock a break; or Richard Whittington, the author and one-time consultant to Conran, who took cod off the menu in protest at the scale of criminal fishing in the North Sea. The fact is that it is devilishly difficult to assemble a restaurant menu just now from the tiny number of fish on sale certified as being from sustainably managed stocks. But that will come, as more and more people worry about the provenance of the lobster as well as the steak in their surf’n’turf.

It took a while, on land, before we all became obsessed with locally sourced rare breeds and organic food. The era of Diana-style innocence and ignorance about the Blue Planet are over. Now we all have to add up the price of fish that isn’t written on the menu.

At present, one of the most sustainably managed things you can eat is a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish — made in the US from pollock or hoki, or in the EU from Barents Sea cod. I would advise the stick-thin patrons of establishments selling endangered species to get out and haul their skinny asses round to McDonald’s.

The End of the Line by Charles Clover is published by Ebury, price £14.99.