Sustainable Seafood Message from Ocean Park Conservation Fund

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Fish No. 5: Conger (Pike) Eel – Muraenesox cinereus

Scientific Name: Muraenesox cinereus
Common Names: Conger Eel, dagger-tooth pike conger, conger pike, pike eel, 海鰻 or 海鳗 or 海鳗 in Mandarin Chinese, 海鰻 in Taiwanese, hamo in Japanese, Pindanga in Tagolog, .
Origin: China

As the last thing the world needs is another “food blog” I decided to concentrate these fish posts more on the fish themselves, their marine biology and sustainability and fisheries. That said lets turn to the Conger Eel Muraenesox cinereus.

Its a member of the Eel group (which has 600 species!) and lives on soft bottoms down to a depth of about 100 metres where it feeds on small bottom fish and crustaceans. Its also sometimes found in estuaries and can even enter freshwater environments. They commonly reach length of 150 cm, but may grow as long as 200 cm. It occurs in the Red Sea, on the coast of the northern Indian Ocean, and in the East Pacific from Indochina to Japan. It has also invaded the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. Conger eel is a major commercial species, with annual catches reaching about 350,000 tonnes in recent years. The countries reporting the largest landings were China and Taiwan. It is a traditional food in Japanese cuisine, where it is known as hamo and is wild caught but also cultured. Conger eel meat has been used as an ingredient in creating crab sticks.

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It is marketed mainly fresh and is also used as bait for shark fishing. In China dried conger eel is apparently popular with eels 1m in length being split down the middle, gutted, washed in saline solution and then air dried – though I have never seen one in Hong Kong (so far). According to the traditional chinese medicine Wiki (TCM Wiki) the spawn – or eggs – (Hai Man Luan) of the Conger Eel is used to strengthen the body by means of tonics which reduce weakness, anemia, cirrhosis, hepatic adipose infiltration, neurasthenia. This is done by baking it to yellow, and then pounding it into powder, then taking 6~12 g of the powder orally. Another source (The Encyclopedic Reference of Traditional Chinese Medicine edited by Yang Xinrong) says it is used to with a detoxifying effect to treat malignant skin boils, scabies, and hemorrhoids with anal fistula (if you’re anything as curious as me when you read “anal fistula” …let me save you the trouble, of searching for it: here is the link to Wikipedia explaining it – enjoy…yuk!). 
For the expats reading this : according to my 1962 book that is the inspiration for the fish posts, ‘Europeans’ (I think this is meant to include Americans) have only ever eaten 3-4 local fish species in Hong Kong. So should you bother expanding your food horizon with conger eel? Is this a good fish to eat? I can tell you it tastes just very nice with firm white flesh, but there are a lot of tiny bones that pretty much spoil the experience – for me anyway. From what I have read a lot of Chinese fish balls contain conger eel – probably along with other fish species – because ground down to paste and kneaded into fish balls the tiny bones are no longer a problem. So if you have ever eaten fish balls (perhaps in soup) , chances are you have had already tried conger eel without knowing it.
But the big question is – should you eat it? Is it sustainable? What does the WWF Seafood Guide say? It says – nothing, a big fat nothing. Conger eel is not mentioned at all. Zip. So now what? I have contacted Park’n’Shop again to get some more details on how they sourced their fish. But while we wait for an answer, I had a look around the internet to see what info is available on conger eel fisheries in China or Southeast Asia in general. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the catches of conger eel (and most other fish species) in China have skyrocketed in the last 20 years, going from 40,850 tonnes in 1990, to 372,704 in 2011! In Japan, the conger eel is caught by longlines and then transferred to fish farms to mature and they are making attempts to produce spawn so that they can farm this fish in future.  And that’s about all you can find on the internet!
So we will have to wait and see what Park’n’Shop says. If the fish is caught by trawling, its a definitive no-no so AVOID. And if it is farmed or caught by lines, that’s is a bit better, but no guarantee that it is sustainable, so “THINK TWICE”. In the absence of information my verdict for now is a cautionary “AVOID”.

Sustainability Confusion West Lake Style – It’s Fish No.4: the Black Pomfret

Scientific Name: Parastromateus niger

Common Names: Black Pomfret, Black Butterfish
Origin: China
Date: 1st September 2012
Where: Fusion in Discovery Bay
Weight: 1.210 catty (605 g)
Cost: $77.40 (64$ per catty)
Recipe: West Lake Style poached with rice and broccoli
WWF Sustainable Seafood Guide: “confused”

I try to make an informed decision when buying seafood. But the Black Pomfret stumped me! Here is what I found:

  • WWF Hong Kong’s sustainable seafood guide did not list this fish at all, what does that mean?
  • WWF China has no sustainable seafood guide I could find (I think they are working on it still)
  • WWF Singapore listed it as “AVOID” if wild caught in Indonesia (what about other places?)
  • WWF Indonesia lists it as “AVOID” in general and “THINK TWICE” if caught by gill net or lift net
  • WWF Malaysia lists it as “AVOID” if caught by trawling from Malaysia

If anyone from WWF is reading this: the sustainable seafood guides are great and useful, but need to be trans-national and regionally integrated. Fish do not know borders (neither do a lot of fishing boats) so don’t think so local. I realize the paper pocket guide would become unwieldy if all countries were involved in the same guide, but what about the website, apps etc.? Why not make them as global as the internet and as trans-national as the fish?

Now my Black Pomfret was sold as “Origin: China”. What do I do? There is no WWF China sustainable seafood guide I can find anywhere. Annoyed as I was about this, I decided to write the following email to Park’n Shop Customer Service:

Dear Customer Service,
 I recently bought a black pomfret fish (Parastromateus niger) from 
you’re the fresh fish counter at Fusion store in Discovery Bay. 
The fish is marked as origin “China”. As I try to only buy sustainable 
seafood, I am disappointed that I am unable to make an informed decision 
based on the labeling of your fish. When it comes to buying sustainable
seafood it is very important to know how the fish was caught (farmed, 
gill net, line caught, purse seine, trawl etc) and which exact region
it comes from. Simply stating “China” gives no real information as it 
covers a large area of several seas with entirely different ecologies, 
such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Gulf of Tonkin. 
Even in just the South China Sea, there are several biological regions, 
which can be very different biologically and in terms of fishery stocks.
Please supply to me more information on where and how your marine fresh 
fish in general and the black pomfret are sourced.
In future please update your fresh fish labels with more information, 
including the method of capture and the specific ocean region where is 
was caught or farmed, rather than simply stating “China”.

Here is the response I received:

Thank you for your email expressing your concern on the Black Pomfret that we sell in our Discovery Bay Store.

We have checked with our suppliers and they inform us that the Black Pomfret supplied to the Hong Kong market is caught by trawling in the South China Sea from Shantou to Hainan Island. We hope this information can help you for selecting and we have passed your valuable suggestion regarding the fish label to the related departments for reviewing. It is always our belief that continuous feedback from customers will not only improve our goods and service but also allow us to make shopping in our stores an enjoyable experience. Meanwhile, we look forward to your continued support.

None of the Sustainable Seafood Guides mention Black Pomfret from the South China Sea, but as Park’n’Shop tells me the fish is wild caught by trawling. Trawling is amongst the most indiscriminate and destructive fishing practices. It decimates the whole seabed and results in huge by catches of fish and invertebrates. It’s the marine equivalent of bulldozing a forest to hunt a stag. So my verdict is definitely AVOID the Black Pomfret in future.

On a recent trip to Macau’s Maritime Museum I saw some of the former fishing grounds for this species – mainly at the seaward end of the Pearl River Estuary around small islets and on the eastern side of Shangchuan Island (Guangdong). I doubt very much any of these grounds are still fished for this species, seeing as both Hong Kong’s and Macau’s fishing industries have collapsed from over-fishing.

Black Pomfret (Parastromateus niger) range
Computer Generated Native Distribution Map of Parastromateus niger (reviewed). http://www.aquamaps.org, version of Aug. 2010. Web. Accessed 4 Sep. 2012.

Herklots & Lin – my 1962 guide to this project – called this fish an excellent food fish – marketed fresh, or dried or salted. It inhabits coastal areas with muddy bottom where it spends the daytime near the bottom and comes to the surface at night to feed on zooplankton. Near the water surface it often swims on its side. It can enter estuaries and normally forms large schools. It occurs in the Indo-West Pacific from East Africa to southern Japan and Australia with a depth range of 15 – 105 m and can grow to a maximum size of about 75 cm.

The Meal:

I knew this fish would taste similar to Pompano so I tried a different recipe Hangzhou/ West Lake Style fish. Its probably meant to be cooked with a nice freshwater fish (carp or similar) but I am not picky. The result was good, but I misjudged how much corn starch was needed to thickened the sauce properly, so it ended up more watery than it should have been. Still 7/10 for the recipe, and in terms of the fish itself, it was very similar to Pompano with nice firm flesh and big bones that make it easy to filet or at least easy to avoid choking yourself or spending hours picking away at your meal.

black pomfret cooking
The Black Pomfret Stewing in a Nice Shiaoxing Rice Wine mix
black pomfret west lake style
Ready! Black Pomfret West Lake Style

I give it a 8/10, although I will not buy it again on account of the AVOID status from WWF

My wife said it was the best fish yet and gives it 8/10 (I think).

Next week’s fish…I have no idea, lets see what I can find from my list.

Size Matters – Fish No.2: the Yellow Croaker

Scientific Name: Larimichtys crocea or rather polyactis!

Common Names: Yellow Croaker
Origin: China
Date: 2nd August 2012
Where: Fusion in Discovery Bay
Weight: 0.762 catty (460g) – 2 fish
Cost: $54.90 (72$ per catty)
Recipe: steamed in lemongrass, sesame seed oil, kaffir lime leaves, coriander and ginger
WWF Sustainable Seafood Guide: Think twice

Ah what a schoolboy marine biologist error! I thought I bought a Large Yellow Croaker Larimichthys crocea when really I bought a Small Yellow CroakerLarimichthys polyactis! You see the former occurs in Hong Kong waters and is on my list, but the latter is the occurs further north in the East China Sea, not in Hong Kong and is not even on my list! When it comes to Yellow Croakers size matters.
But I am not going to be academically pedantic about it and disqualify this meal. I can not imagine that the Large and Small Yellow Croaker taste very different, so this blog stands. Also I don’t want fish stocks to suffer an additional hit from my idiotic mistake…
I learned some valuable lessons from this: 1) read the label properly, 2) WWF’s Sustainable Seafood Guide is very inadequate as L. polyactis is not on there at all, and 3) ethically eating fish is very difficult!

This fish (Large Yellow Croaker) was on my list again marked ‘Think Twice’ – well, I thought twice, perhaps I should also have read the label twice!

What I was supposed to eat:
Larimichthys crocea, called the Croceine croaker, Large yellow croaker or just the Yellow croaker, is a species of croaker native to the western Pacific, generally in temperate waters such as the Taiwan Strait. Males can reach 80 cm. Once an abundant commercial fish off China, Korea and Japan, its population collapsed in the 1970s due to overfishing.Fishing boats landed 56,088 t of Larimichthys crocea in 2008. The species is aquafarmed in China, and farms have experienced outbreaks of infections. L. crocea is an important enough commercial species to have its genome mapped.
WWF says: Yellow croaker sold in HK is from fish farms (mariculture). Fish farms can only be set up in designated places in Hong Kong and China. The industry is beneficial to local communities. However, the management measures in place to address the environmental impact of yellow croaker farms are weak, and enforcement is poor. The high density of fish promotes disease spread, land-based pond systems discharge the untreated pond effluent (excess feed, faeces) into the sea directly, and the feed consists of smaller often overfished and trawled species.

Herklots & Lin about the Yellow Croaker
Herklots & Lin about the Yellow Croaker

What I actually ate:
Larimichthys polyactis, called the redlip croaker, small yellow croaker, little yellow croaker or yellow corvina, is a species of croaker native to the western Pacific, generally in temperate waters such as the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. They stay in shallow waters above 120 m but avoid brackish conditions. Individual males can reach 42 cm.
Once an abundant commercial fish off China, Korea and Japan, its population collapsed in the 1970s due to overfishing. Global catch has since rebounded, with 388,018 t landed in 2008. Salted and dried, they are a food product known as gulbi (굴비) in Korean. Yeonggwang gulbi is a prized delicacy, selling for over $100 a bunch.

My little beauties
My little beauties

And here are my two beauties before I took them home.

Anyway…What a beautiful fish! Look at that yellow underside! I needed two as it’s quite a small fish ~ 10 inches long.

The meal: steamed Thai-style (ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, sesame seed oil) with stir-fry vegetables in garlic and soy sauce

Steamed (Wrong) Yellow Croaker
Steamed (Wrong) Yellow Croaker

My verdict: 6/10 – a decent fish. But it looks better than it tastes.
Fish was good, but had some more small bones in it and was quite small, so not as good as Pompano. A bit too soggy as it fell apart, but that’s more because I used a deeper steaming dish than last time so it cooked in its own juice more. Recipe was ok. Perhaps I should have had the salted or sun-dried version as it is very important as a salted or dried fish in China, and the Chinese must know best how to prepare their native fish.

The wife’s verdict: 6/10 (we agreed?)
Not as fleshy as the Pompano, more like other white fish. Recipe was better than last week.

And now the aftermath…

Thank you for feeding me wrong yellow croaker
Thank you for feeding me wrong yellow croaker

Stay tuned for an eventual sequel…

“Yellow Croaker – this time its the Big One”

Next week’s likely target: Gold-Thread (Nemipterus spp.) or Japanese Sea-bream (Lateolabrax japonicus)

Fish No. 1: the Pompano

Scientific Name: Trachinotus blochii
Common Names: Pompano, Snubnose Pompano
Origin: China, Mariculture
Date: 28th July 2012
Where: Fusion in Discovery Bay
Weight: 0.678 catty (410 g)
Cost: $58.90
Recipe: Steamed with ginger and soy sauce
WWF Sustainable Seafood Guide: Think Twice … oh-oh

Supermarket wrapped pompano

As this is the first fish, I went the easy route and got it from the supermarket. Interestingly, only two fishes from my list are for sale there: Pompano and Yellow Croaker. Not sure whether that’s HK overfishing, seasonal availability or Discovery Bay residents taste buds…
Follow this link for more info on the Pompano from the WWF HK’s website. I think as I am only eating this variety this one time, its ok.
But back to the fish: it looks a really a beautiful fish to look at. Its a strong, super-streamlined predator with small but nasty teeth. Here is what Herklots and Lin said:

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I don’t have much to add to that, except the fact that its a predator and easy to keep is the reason its on the WWF’s questionable list. Its taken from hatcheries in Taiwan and China and then raised up on fish farms until big enough to sell, where it is fed smaller fish as feed…and that’s the bit thats bad as its quite wasteful and smaller fish are often juveniles which shouldn’t be caught at all.

So here is a quick rundown of the meal:

    Steamed Pompano stuffed with chopped ginger and garlic (20 min), then covered in soy sauce
    Organic baby Shanghai greens lightly fried then cooked in sauce of soy, veg stock, sugar, sesame seed oil and cornstarch
    Plain steamed white rice

And now, the meal:

Cooked Pompano

My verdict on the fish:
Fantastic fish, but the recipe not that great. The fish was child’s play to take apart with big nice fleshy white chunks coming off clean with one stroke. Not very strong flavoured though and not very oily either. What a shame its on the WWF questionable list, because otherwise I would buy it more often. Score: 8/10

The wife’s verdict: fleshy, meaty fish, very subtle flavour. Thumbs up. 7/10

Eaten up remainders of a Pompano

Next week’s planned fish: Yellow croaker.