While conversations around seasonal ingredients, eating fresh and local, leading a sustainable eating lifestyle and preserving the greenery around us are gaining momentum, the oceans do not get enough attention unless there’s an oil spill or a ship gets stuck in a canal. While a grilled salmon, butter garlic prawns or fried Bombay duck sound tempting, we don’t put in enough effort in finding out how that plate of seafood is sourced and whether it’s a product of sustainable fishing?
For many of us, our introduction to the vibrant marine life has been through the movies, Finding Nemo mostly. Our oceans are inhabited by numerous species of marine life, a majority of them are now consumed for food and some are harvested for economic purposes. Fishing has been a practice for thousands of years and has given many local communities a livelihood. With an increase in demand for seafood, overfishing has become a common problem that is hampering the overall ocean health. Overfishing is the process of fishing more than is required.
One of the hospitality groups Relais & Châteaux–a network of 580 properties of which nearly 20% are situated directly next to a body of water, freshwater or marine–has been raising awareness on sustainable seafood for over a decade and been partnering with Ethic Ocean for the last six years to celebrate World Ocean Day (not only on the day but all year round) to focus on #SEAsonality.
“Sourcing seafood sustainably impacts the overall health of the ocean because it respects the delicate balance in which those ecosystems operate. If overfished, then we risk damaging that balance beyond repair and ultimately causing loss of livelihoods that depend on the ocean (±33 million people are employed in the fishery sector) as well as loss of joy for future generations to taste the flavours of the sea. We are all dependent on a healthy ocean,” shares Joerg Drechsel, the owner of Malabar House Hotel in Fort Kochi. “According to the FAO (2019), 35% of stocks are overfished (i.e., biologically unsustainable levels), meaning that we are taking more than the ocean can regenerate because populations are not able to reproduce quickly enough to keep up with demand and with unsustainable fishing practices,” he adds. So unless we can get the marine life to urgently reproduce, we run the risk of having many species going extinct.
In tandem with this year’s theme of ‘Revitalization: Collective Action for the Ocean’ for World Oceans Day set by the United Nations, Relais & Châteaux is celebrating through various culinary mediums under its wing by bringing seasonal ingredients on the menus of many restaurants across the globe. The very recent event was held at Mumbai’s Masque (enjoying the recognition of being one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2023) where Chef Varun Totlani presented a dinner with SEAsonal ingredients. What did the menu feature? “Plenty of seasonal seafood and local ingredients contributed by our fellow R&C members,” shares Aditi Dugar, CEO and Owner of Masque. And these ingredients are harvested using sustainable practices.
One of the dishes featured locally harvested seaweed from the seaweed conservation farm in Goa that has tied up with the property Ahilya By The Sea. The seaweed is procured during harvest season, and the property also encourages guests to visit the farm when the harvest is not ready to ensure that the conservation farm has some revenue incoming from the experience.
Another dish that was a highlight was Pokkali rice from Malabar House used in black garlic pulao with mud crab. “Pokkali rice is cultivated in the highly saline wetlands of Kerala, which are interlinked to the Arabian Sea. Its name translates as ‘one above all’, growing up to 6 feet in height. Being saline resistant, it is the oldest variety of rice in Kerala. Pokkali is not just organic, its rice-prawn rotational culture is symbiotic climate smart farming, enabling resilience and preventing erosion. With its particular crunchy taste it has medical values and is extremely high in antioxidants,” explains Drechsel.
“Pokkali is an ancient farming practice where one season of rice farming is alternated with another season of prawn culture. The prawn seedlings, which swim in from the sea and the backwaters after the rice harvest, feed on the leftovers of the harvested crop. The rice crop, which gets no other fertiliser or manure, draws nutrients from the prawns’ excrement and other remnants. Rice farming and prawn farming are mutually complementary,” he adds.
Sustainable Seafood In India
Digging into the conversation of sustainable seafood in India, chef Varun shares how sustainability in the seafood community has been a way of life and is a practice that has been followed by sheer need, way before sustainability became “cool.”
“In the case of India, there are a lot of ways we have sustainable seafood. The fishermen and the Koli families consume food seasonally, and what is close by as they do not possess big boats to commute that far off. A lot depends on the season. Sometimes they get prawns, sometimes mackerel. During the breeding seasons they find it difficult to get what they want in the fear that they won’t get it the next breeding season. Here, it’s more about livelihood than sustainability but by following the rules of sustainability,” Totlani explains while adding that fishing also depends on the weather in India. “In India, getting seasonal ingredients in the monsoon is very challenging. It gets harder to stay in water as boats get wobbly, the waves are harder due to which the fishermen can’t go deep and the boats can get damaged. Sometimes, the dirt reaches on the shore, making it difficult for the fishermen and their families to consume the seafood then. So they’ll mostly rely on dried fish.”
Sustainable seafood is all about stock levels in a specific body of water. Chef Varun explains this further, “Just because a fish is ‘in season’ does not necessarily mean that it is sustainable. Instead, the stock is the most important criterion to determine seafood sustainability. By debunking this myth that seasonality is a factor to determine seafood sustainability, we as a global association are changing the tides.”
Dugar and Totlani along with his Masque team ensure they take the right initiatives towards sustainable seafood sourcing. “As a rule of thumb, we ensure that all our sourcing is done in season, and sustainably, by a network of small-scale farmers and producers. There are good resources, like Know Your Fish and In Season on Instagram, that also help us keep a track of what’s in season, what to avoid, what species are breeding and should be left untouched – we make sure our sourcing is always aligned with that. What’s challenging is that it’s still not an organised sector, in the way that there isn’t really an institutional framework that certifies products here, so you have to be certain of your partners and suppliers’ processes, which is what we aim to always do,” Dugar says.
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“We see where the seafood is coming from. Whether it’s the fishermen or the suppliers, we question them about their whereabouts. I would like to highlight our foraging trips, especially the one in Tamil Nadu, where we foraged sea urchins. We went to harvest them with fishermen on the boat and saw them freshly pick it up from the ocean, while sitting on the boat,” Varun adds.
Committing to an approach that’s kinder to the planet, oceans included, can be daunting with most of us not knowing where to start. With brands making an active effort in educating customers about being sustainable, the effort is greatly reduced and it’s only about making a more cautious, conscious choice. And this is a great place to start.