Skating around sustainable seafood

We have good fish in BC – as long as you limit your desires pretty much to salmon, halibut, salmon, oysters, salmon, spot prawns and clams. But Britain is, I think, a fish-lover’s paradise, for variety and freshness. Well, Suffolk certainly is. In London the price is such that many of the offerings are for special occasions only: the price of quality in an expensive city. And a fishmonger’s view of sustainability is, like that of any vested interest, fraught with contradiction and self-protection.

So it’s interesting to look at what’s on offer, and consider what ethical repercussions there are for fish consumption, here in the land of End of the Line, whose seafood widget is actually a link to information from the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch – so most relevant to American consumers. Though fish are poor respecters of national boundaries, you can cross-check your choices using the Greenpeace Red List, or the Marine Conservation Society‘s Fishonline Purchasing Guide. Canadians can consult the SeaChoice database.

Here’s an example of what kind of information you’ll get if you ask your fishmonger (which you should, anyway, so they know you’re interested in where your food comes from). I was at a farm shop in Suffolk last week, where a new sustainable seafood shop had opened earlier in the year, which promises to stock only fish supplied by skippers who catch in a sustainable way.
I noticed skate on sale and asked about it, because I had an idea it was endangered.

Yes, the woman told me, it is endangered, but this is not skate, it’s ray. We just label it as skate because people know it as such. The catch is controlled, she added. So I asked the fishmonger in London, on Turnham Green Terrace, who also had skate on sale. Rubbish, he told me: skates are from the ray family (Rajidae), so there’s no distinction. And not in the least endangered; plenty of them about, especially this time of year.

Consult the sustainable seafood guides, and you find a much more complicated story. Greenpeace has skate on its red list because its numbers are threatened (they breed and mature very slowly), they are caught by unsustainable fishing methods (most are bycatch in otter or bottom trawling), and are subject to pirate (illegal, unregulated and unreported) fishing. They do not appear at all on the FishOnline purchasing guide, and when you search for information on skate, you find that common skate (Dipturus batis) is considered critically endangered; the number of remaining stocks is unknown; and since January 2009 it has been illegal for fishermen to retain and land common skate caught in EU waters.

FishOnline does allow that other faster-growing varieties of ray are considered sustainable at the moment: but only if you deal with a reputable fishmonger, whom you can completely trust to know the source of the fish he’s selling. But look at the age of the fish considered as fast-growing (common skate takes 10 years to mature):

Avoid eating skates and rays unless you are certain they are one of the smaller, more sustainable species such as spotted, cuckoo, or starry rays from the North Sea and Celtic Seas. Avoid eating these species below the size at which they mature: spotted ray males mature at a length of about 54 cm and females at about 57 cm (both between 3 to 8 years old); cuckoo ray males and females mature at between 54 to 59 cm in length when approximately 4 years old; starry ray males and females mature at a length of about 40 cm (between 4 and 5 years old)
(Source: FishOnline)

SeaChoice puts seven species of Atlantic skate – including those very subspecies spotted and starry skate – on its Avoid list (a High concern rather than Critical at this point), adding other common names: raja fish, imitation scallop, briar skate, common skate, summer skate, hedgehog skate, tobacco-box skate, leopard skate, smooth-tailed skate, prickly skate, eyed skate, big skate (and in Latin: Dipturus laevis, Raja eglanteria, Leucoraja erinacea, Leucoraja garmanii, Malacoraja senta, Amblyraja radiata, Leucoraja ocellata).

Though it used to be routinely discarded, nowadays skate is used for food (skate wings or imitation scallops) as well as bait, mainly for the lobster industry. If obtained as bycatch from trawling (which accounts for 97%+ of skate on the market), you run the risk of buying a fish that is undersized and/or was harvested dead, and may be subject to ammonia taint.

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