Bad news: it's boom time for fish

'The funny thing is that ever since the worries about cod started growing, demand has too. It's a delicacy, so people want it'
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The Independent Online

Skate has now joined the growing list of endangered fish in our coastal waters. There's virtually none at all left in the North Sea, and to preserve the species we must enforce no-fishing zones that may, if we're lucky, allow "relic populations" to nurse themselves back to health. There has not, apparently, been one common skate caught in the Dutch sector of the North Sea since 1965.

So it's a fairly safe bet that the two big chunks of meaty, pinky skate nestling on crushed ice in my local fishmonger's yesterday didn't come from there. Colin, who has been running the business for 24 years, doesn't know where they did come from, though. He's not the man in charge.

The shop is owned by a Billingsgate wholesaler. They select the stock and deliver it to the outlet, their decisions focused entirely on what they know they'll sell. At the retail end of the industry, no pain is felt. Colin cannot recall ever having been affected by shortages. And he's been selling fish since he started out as a 13-year-old Saturday boy.

Plaice, scallops, sole, haddock, whiting, cod, mackerel – all these too, we are told, we should be deeply worried about. The biggest problem affecting these creatures is beam trawling, whereby weighted nets are dragged along the seabed, devastating species on the ocean floor.

That's the situation in the North Sea anyway. In North Lambeth, though, all these fish are plentiful, lying there on the slab awaiting searing, salad and, if they're lucky, a garnish of lime-and-pepper salsa. Scares about seafood come and go, explains Colin, but the seafood itself just keeps on coming.

In fact, says Colin, the funny thing is that ever since the worries about cod started growing, demand has too. It's a delicacy now, he reckons, so people want it. They often come to his shop, hand over their cash, and remark cheerily on how amazing it is that cod is now more expensive than salmon. Salmon, now that it is farmed and, therefore, common, is not nearly so popular. Except when luxurious, declining, wild salmon is in season.

Ah, customers. What a funny old lot we are. We're concerned, of course, about the tales of natural despoliation that we've been hearing all of our lives. We're actually rather sickened by the human habit of relentless, unsustainable plunder. But, hell, we love to shop. And what's shopping without choice? Just another boring routine .

At Colin's place, the choice is fantastic, encompassing 100 years of taste in fish. There's a commemorative stone in the shop that marks the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and the shop still stocks many of the wares it would have back then.

There are winkles, whelks and jellied eels, still selling nicely, though not as well as they did. And there are the new fish too, which have only turned up over the last few years. The stock, Colin explains, comes from everywhere now. He points out tilapia from Africa and strawberry groupers from the Gulf. He's got some nice doctor fish in too – they're totally tropical as well.

People are no longer intimidated by exotic items. There's steady demand for all of Colin's vast range. The cookery boom has made people bolder in their experiments and has also accelerated the passing of fashions in fish. Right now, the new black is sea bass, and monkfish is so, so over. I'm stupidly pleased about this because I'd bought seven sea bass from Colin only a few days before. I'm riding the crest of fish flesh fashion, and I don't even know it. Hurrah!

Fish in general, Colin reckons, is enjoying something of an upswing at the moment. People have turned more to fish in the wake of BSE and foot-and-mouth, and because of wider concerns with health, fitness and nutrition. Eat oily fish and you can live forever, your brain growing brainier by the second. Eat non-oily fish and you'll be as slender as a conger, with a colon that remains a stranger to irrigation.

For the fish themselves though, it is clear, this boom could not have come at a less auspicious time. Fish, unfortunately, know nothing of economic theory. No one has informed them that market forces will take care of everything. What use either, is the mantra that "the consumer is king" when all has been consumed?

Those who do speak for fish though – environmental groups, conservation councils and now, finally, a majority of European Union environment ministers – speak with one voice. They agree that nothing except immediate drastic action, followed by a change in attitudes to fishing, will preserve seafood for the future.

And the alternative? That has been supplied with impeccable timing, via the New Scientist, by a team at Touro College, New York. Dr Morris Benjaminson and his colleagues have managed to increase the size of lumps of goldfish muscle in a vat of foetal bovine serum. How this stuff goes with lime-and-pepper salsa no one has yet hazarded an opinion.

The research is connected to the space programme, to which humanity already owes a debt of gratitude for such things as velcro and teflon. (Somehow, though, disembodied fish meat doesn't have quite the same neat-and-tidy techno appeal.) The idea is that such a technique could supply fresh meat during space travel, even during colonisation of other planets.

But the juxtaposition of declining fish flesh with expanding fish muscle leads one to an unpleasant but ineluctable conclusion. If we're not already living on another planet, we may soon have to start behaving as if we are. Maybe that planet will suit us better. Certainly our understanding seems to stretch no further than envisioning it as a great big magic stockroom that replenishes itself forever.

This goes for the oceans even more than it does the land. Overfishing is not the only problem. We are poisoning the water, too, by using artificial fertilisers on our crops that make toxic algae bloom and by introducing foreign parasites via the ships of global trade, that disrupt the local ecology.

Unbelievably, in the midst of all our concern about sustainability in our coastal waters, there is a plan being touted to turn a vast chunk of the English Channel into a quarry. This could provide us with 550 tonnes of sand and gravel. These are much needed aggregates for the construction industry. Which might as well rename itself the destruction industry.

And the most dispiriting thing of all is that cavalier as we are with the rest of the ecosystem, we are still no less cavalier with each other. As the 'drastic action' kicks in, thousands of jobs will be lost, among ordinary people who did nothing except hard work. For their sakes the interests that run the fishing industry could have switched to sustainable fishing methods decades ago. Instead they decided to use up the fishermen just like the fish.

Now, no doubt, they'll be looking to invest in new waters, new fishermen and new marketing campaigns to sell us doctor fish. Globalisation marches on, and we'll buy it if it's fashionable. Maybe we'll buy goldfish mass grown in chemical soup if it gets fashionable.

Or maybe we'll have no choices left. How then will we express our individuality? How then will we buy, prepare, cook, present and consume the meaning of our lives? We won't have to. The meaning of our lives will have become all too starkly obvious.