Sustainable fish in Dubai

We look at fish stocks ahead of the city's annual seafood expo

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Fish is big business in Dubai: judging by the number of fish and seafood-themed evenings held at restaurants across town (We’ve listed 22 in our events pages this week alone), diners just can’t get enough of the stuff. But as the populations of several local species continue to dwindle, would we be better off revising this city’s love of a fishy feast with more consideration for sustainability?

Last year we reported on Dubai’s progress on this issue so far, and this year we found Dubai’s restaurant scene has improved: it now boasts venues that proudly serve fish that is all local and sustainable, as well as those serving only sustainable species (regardless of origin). There, is however, still some way to go in terms of what restaurants are including on their menus, how quickly they’re making changes, and in our own attitudes to the issue as customers.

Emirates Wildlife Society recently added two more local fish – the giant catfish and yellow-tail scad – to its safe list of sustainable species as part of the Choose Wisely campaign, giving residents more options than ever when it comes to sensible fish selection. And with the sixth annual Seafood Expo kicking off on Tuesday September 25 at the Radisson Blu Deira Creek, now is a good time to revise your choices.

While sustainability is an issue worldwide, the emirates have seen a particularly dramatic drop in native resources over the past 30 years: commercial stocks have fallen by 80 percent since 1978. Not only do we consume an exceedingly high quantity of fish as a country (66 percent of residents are estimated to eat fish at least once a week), but the population has also risen by many millions in this period. Compounding this issue, we still tuck into endangered species such as hammour, with nearly 50 percent of us continuing to order hammour in restaurants. The demand is such that hammour is regularly fished to more than seven times the quantity that is sustainable.

Other local species, such as kingfish and shaari, are regularly taken out of the water at a young age, making it harder for the population to regenerate its numbers, let alone at the levels required to satisfy the current demand. In fact, 60 percent of the total fish caught in the UAE for commercial sale is comprised of fish that has been taken out of the sea at unsustainable levels, and future stocks are at risk of becoming endangered.

In an effort to address the issue of dwindling fish stocks, in 2010 the Emirates Wildlife Society teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to introduce the Choose Wisely campaign, enlisting eight local hotels and two supermarkets aiming to educate consumers about sustainable choices. The EWS launched a traffic-light system (green, orange, red) so that consumers can easily identify high- and low-risk fish choices.

Emirates Wildlife Society programme director Lisa Perry explains that this information is sourced through the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, which carries out assessment studies on the fish stock for each species. ‘In order to know if a fish stock is healthy or not, the following need to be considered: fishing effort, total catch, and the age and size of fish being caught compared to previous years,’ she explains. The studies also take into account the proportion of the fish stock that is mature. If fish are regularly being removed from the water before they have reached full maturity, there is a decrease in the adult numbers, which means a drop in the number of fish able to reproduce and continue a healthy renewal of the population.

We still have a long way to go in Dubai: many restaurants proudly serve signature dishes of suspicious nondescript ‘white fish’. What’s more, it’s concerning that some of the restaurants we spoke to expressed
a commitment to sustainability, but explained that while they had a definite schedule for doing so, they were still in the process of phasing out hammour from their menus.

Considering the way sustainability is discussed, it would be easy to assume that sourcing sustainable fish is tricky. But according to industry insiders, this isn’t the case. Baker & Spice founder Yael Mejia asserts that it’s ‘easy’ to source from the local fish markets, while executive chef Hassan Massood at the Radisson Blu in Media City explains that the greater the awareness surrounding sustainability, the easier it has become to find suppliers to satisfy the demand.

At Baker & Spice, not only is all fish served from sustainable stocks, but they are also all local varieties. Chef Hassan explains that restaurants at the Radisson Blu in Media City try to use local fish from the UAE and Oman as much as possible.

By concentrating on local fish, both venues are also required to work within the bounds of seasonality, which also provides a benefit to the environment. Hassan explains that in the UAE, the summer months are the most difficult, when stocks of most fish dwindle. ‘Migratory fish such as kingfish, tuna and Indian mackerel begin arriving from November until the end of May. The bottom-feeding fish season starts when the water becomes cooler in October and continues until the end of June, and sea bream are available in large numbers in January.’

Okku executive chef Hugh Sato Gardiner reveals that the quality requirements for Japanese fish dishes, such as sushi and sashimi, make it difficult to use only local fish. Yet he says he is ‘very careful about traceability’, and only uses sustainable varieties of the local and international species he serves. Okku, Hugh tells us, is the first Japanese restaurant in the Middle East to take blue-fin tuna off the menu, which Hugh equates to eating panda or white tiger meat in terms of how ‘catastrophic to the environment’ it is. The venue also sources its black cod and salmon from RSPCA-approved fisheries in Scotland and Canada.

Whichever sea the fish comes from, it seems everyone agrees that the main responsibility lies with consumers. ‘Choice is a major factor in the depletion of fish stocks,’ says Lisa from EWS. ‘If we can help reduce consumer demand for a product, it will encourage retailers to look at alternative sources, as well as empowering individuals to be part of the solution.’

Chef Michael Uwe from Boulvar, which serves as many as seven varieties of local sustainable fish, points out the power of the consumer. ‘Lots of people in Dubai are aware of the issues, but are still ignoring them,’ he laments. ‘When I explain to customers why we took hammour off the menu, they still don’t seem to appreciate the answer. I tell customers that I want their children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy hammour or kingfish. If consumers stop buying hammour, it will come off the shelves and menus, but if they keep buying for even higher prices, it will be a much harder battle.’

So how does the issue of sustainability sit with Dubai’s culture of all-you-can-eat seafood deals? Interestingly, some of the chefs we spoke to were reluctant to address this issue, but for chef Hugh at Okku, this Dubai-wide phenomenon scares him: he says it encourages ‘unhealthy overeating’, as well as a focus on quantity rather than the quality of fish that’s being eaten. Either way, it’s in our hands – there aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.
For the full list of fish to eat and to avoid, see EWS’s Choose Wisely campaign’s colour-coded consumer guide at www.choosewisely.ae.

View Choose your fish wisely

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