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A Fight for the Fish

On a grey London day, a small fleet of fishing boats chugs up the River Thames toward Westminster, the seat of Britain’s parliament. Sounding horns and waving banners encourage people to JOIN THE FISH FIGHT. On the lead ship is celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who is well known to British TV audiences for his “real food” campaigns and for the River Cottage series, in which he shows how to live off the land. He’s holding up a huge dead cod as he shakes his head. “Around 50 percent of all fresh fish being caught in the North Sea are being thrown back into the water, dead, and that’s an unsustainable, shocking waste,” the likable 46-year-old explains.

To illustrate his frustration about British and other European fishing practices, Fearnley-Whittingstall has made three TV programs called “Hugh’s Fish Fight.” They’re part of British Channel 4’s Big Fish Fight series, made with a clutch of other high-profile U.K. chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. (You can watch them online for the next few weeks).

In his shows, Fearnley-Whittingstall questions the moral, environmental and economic price of current fishing policy. Each episode covers a different aspect of the dilemma, from the plight of tuna, to whether fish farming really is sustainable (it takes three kilos of wild fish to produce one kilo of farmed salmon), to “discards” or “by-catch” from trawling. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s high visibility brings these arguments into the prime-time living rooms of a large, non-specialized audience of more than 2.3 million viewers and is a valuable contribution to the fight that’s long been waged by Greenpeace, Slow Fish and other environmental organizations.

Discards are a particularly distressing issue. They refer to the waste of over 1 million tonnes (about 1.1 million U.S. tons) per year of perfectly good fish that fishermen are forced to dump back into the sea in order to abide by European fishing laws.
chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall fight for fish

Here’s how it works: Every fishing boat, depending on its size and location, is allotted an annual quota, limiting the amount of each species it is permitted to catch. The idea behind this is, in part, to prevent over-fishing of certain species. So far, so good. Out at sea, however, this bureaucratic solution can cause problems. If a ship reaches its full annual quota of, say, cod in eight months, for the last four months of the year it will be obliged to throw back any cod it catches. The trawlers’ nets are not able to be selective as they scoop up large quantities of mixed fish. Each haul is sorted on board, and fish that exceed the quotas must be thrown back. They are, by this time, dead. So, thousands of metric tons of edible fish end up on the bottom of the sea to be eaten by crabs.

Fearnley-Whittingstall is no stranger to this sort of activism: His 2008 “Chicken Out!” series, also on Channel 4, helped raise awareness about the devastating conditions of battery hens, and persuaded some supermarkets to use more free-range chickens and eggs.

Reactions to the shows have been positive. To date, more than 540,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to the discards (add your name to it on the Fish Fight site). Tesco, one of Britain’s largest retailers, announced a switch to selective, pole-and-line caught tuna for its private label canned tuna. The company previously used tuna caught in vast purse seine nets which can also trap porpoise, turtles and shark.

Another practical idea has been supported by chefs Oliver and Blumenthal. Britons are crazy for cod. But if they can be encouraged to broaden their tastes to include mackerel for their fish and chips, or easy-to-prepare coley or mussels for their dinners, then some of that demand for cod will be spread to other, more abundantly available fish. Oliver’s super-easy recipes can and should inspire everyone to cook a greater range of seafood.

Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.

Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
Naples book
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.

Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website:

Photos from top:

Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with by-catch.
Fearnley-Whittingstall with discarded fish he took from the sea on ice.
Credits: Channel 4


Zester Daily contributor Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer who has been based in Italy for more than 20 years. Her book "Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy's North-East" recently won the André Simon prize for best wine book, and her website is