A sustainable future for fish?

Posted by Guest blogger - Raymond Blanc on 21 February 2012

This is the text of the speech given by chef Raymond Blanc at the first Sustainable Cities Fish Forum in London, on January 24 2012. (Reproduced with permission).

Dear friends, Dear colleagues - thank you for coming today.

I am heartened that so many of you have taken your private time to dedicate your whole day to think about what our industry can contribute to sustainable fishing. Your very presence tells us that things are changing; that it is not any more business as usual, - and that we all share the same concerns. I am sure we would all accept that what we serve in our restaurants should reflect our values.

Even a few years ago - if I asked a chef about the sustainability of, say, a Dover sole: where does it come from? What is its spawning time? The minimum size, which fishery? - I would have received a blank look. Whereas today, these issues are at the forefront of our consciousness. I really believe this is the kind of problem where just thinking about it will suggest solutions.

You know what, I feel like a grizzled old soldier who has done so many battles about this issue for many, many years. Yet, I still feel as passionate as I did before.

I agreed to become an ambassador for Sustainable Fish Cities because I care deeply about all these issues and to understand the problem better. We are now working together to present a unified voice and a co-ordinated campaign about the way we use our marine resources to support sustainable fisheries and responsible fish farming.

We - in this room alone - are responsible for buying millions of pounds worth of fish every year. We have the power to be a huge influence on the market for sustainable fish - positive or negative.

I think I fully understand your problems as I operate first as an independent (Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons) and also as a small group of restaurants (Brasserie Blanc), and I can assure you that it is easier to make a profit at the top end where the customer will pay a premium for rare and sustainable goods. In the middle, the margins are squeezed harder, yet the quality and the sustainability of the food are not too dissimilar.

And on the top of that we are all in a deep recession. These last five years, the cost of our food has increased by more than 40%; did we increase the price of our food to our customer by 40%? Of course not. We had to become creative, learn to use every bit of the animal, learn to work with lesser-known cuts of meat and unknown fish, and at the same time also embrace all the rules of sustainability.

Looking back - It has been a good business decision.

Lately, we've all seen, that some of the chains and groups have taken sustainability on board. Yet the seas are being depleted and the costs went up. Cod, that royal fish, so abundant just a few years ago, - has been overfished almost to extinction and replaced by pollock and hake. We had to learn how to cook it, and the consumer how to eat it! Though it was a challenge, pollock and hake have both been integrated into our kitchens and into our diet. It wasn't all that difficult! And it also allowed stocks of cod to replenish.

Today's chef is not only a craftsman, he also needs to be a teacher, a transmitter of values and an expert in sustainability issues - and, of course, he needs to make money. It is a tough ask. Welcome to the new world! Actually all this is really to the good - for chefs are now reconnecting with the true values of gastronomy.

Let's understand how it works: there are four main players - the Marine Conservation Society (MCS); the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC); Seaweb's Seafood Choices; and Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming.

The role of the MSC is to use their fisheries certification programme to monitor the health of the world's oceans. This transforms the market into a sustainable one. The MSC blue ECO label is reserved for the highest level of sustainability - it means the world's toughest, best practice.

On the other hand, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) works to create a list of fish to eat and fish to avoid. It tells us to avoid dramatically low stock of endangered species, and to choose instead other seafood. (Maybe it's time to cut out the alphabetic confusion and combine the labels?)

And there's the Good Catch Manual, to which all chefs have access: it gives us the knowledge that allows us to buy responsibly. It is an essential tool for making the most informed choice. Sustain works on all parts of the food chain - an umbrella which covers fish and agriculture; it has always driven better food standards.

To make these choices, I believe it is crucial that each of us chooses the very best informed supplier on sustainability and traceability issues. Then your supplier becomes your partner. He will train your team; make them aware of the issues, help you to set up standards and help inform you guests. Along the way he will help you, with your food costs and also your with food safety issues by providing proper provenance, how seafood has been caught: where, when and sometimes, by whom.

Beware of any supplier missing out on traceability and lack of knowledge. That is why your supplier is so important and crucial to your reputation. It is a guarantee. Traceability is crucial. Can any of us imagine buying meat and having no idea where it came from, how it was reared or not being able to trace it? Poor advice will have an adverse affect on your business.

The Marine Conservation Society's advice is accurate, free and easily accessible.

In the words of our new friend Caroline Bennett from Moshi Moshi, "We know the problems, we don't even need any additional information to know how to fix them: we just have to get on and do it." She shows that commercial and sustainable values can go together.

Let us be inspired by the examples of some of our successful colleagues - chain operators like Wahaca (who apologise for not being able to attend as they so much wanted to be present). They brilliantly use the Marine Stewardship Council certification and support small inshore, low-impact UK fisheries and demonstrate again, that you can be commercially viable, and sustainable.

There are plenty of good examples. Let us be inspired by the fine restaurants of Caprice and D & D restaurant group - they are removing Marine Conservation Society red-list fish from menus. They are showing us that some species are best left in the water.

It cannot be acceptable to serve eel or Atlantic halibut, species that are in crisis and registered as critically endangered.

The Marine Stewardship Council provides a valuable traceable, certified source of fish. We really should be supporting this eco label, every time we buy a certified fish we are rewarding sustainable fishermen, every time a customer sees the Marine Stewardship Council logo on our menus, it increases the likelihood he will buy a certified product in the supermarket. Businesses as diverse as McDonalds and Geetie Singh's organic temple, the Duke of Cambridge have certification - it can work in any business. Of course, this shouldn't prevent us from supporting our local fishermen. Le Manoir's fish is all bought from small boat local fishermen.

Others, such as Silla Bjerrum's Feng Sushi who, having considered in detail the issues of farmed tropical prawns, now only serve organic farmed king prawns.

All of us now recognise that sustainability is core to our business reputation; we are also demonstrating the commercial viability of operating responsibly. Again, not only are they both possible - they are compatible.

I urge you to take the short amount of time needed to look at the Marine Conservation Society's website and inform yourselves more fully than I'm able to do now. We should be saying to our suppliers that we will not serve king prawns where there is no regulation on the environmental effect of the farming or monitoring of human rights abuses. We discovered this to our own costs at the Brasserie Blanc, when we lost a star for the king prawns we were serving: so we immediately took them off the menu.

Today, we have taken the first step on a journey that will help our business, the sea itself and those who make their living from the sea.

Thank you again for attending the first Sustainable Fish Forum. We have used this day to share our experiences both of success and occasional setback. I am sure that today, we have learned from each other and set ourselves ambitious targets that will help to make our businesses successful and ethical.

Just to remind us of our targets:

  1. 1. To choose responsible suppliers and to ensure that they tell us the Marine Conservation Society ratings of the fish we put on the menu.
  2. 2. To train and retain our staff and to give the message to our customers
  3. 3. Look to work more closely with our colleagues at the Marine Stewardship Council: it is our most convenient and rigorous way of guaranteeing traceable sustainable wild fish.
  4. 4. Food is not fish alone, so working with Sustain will also provide some of the best advice you can get about farming and other food issues
  5. 5. Agree collectively to influence the way fish are caught by giving our business to sustainable and certified fisheries.
  6. 6. Finally to use our roles as chefs to pass on our knowledge to our colleagues and our customers alike.

To promote consumption of sustainable fish.

If today, we all sign the Sustainable Fish City pledge - simple, clear rules on what we will and won't do in the future - we shall have done a good day's work. Today is extraordinary: we have a roomful of restaurateurs, hoteliers and group owners who are willing to listen and want to bring sustainability to their kitchens and restaurants.

This is a victory in itself.

Raymond Blanc is one of the UK's most respected chefs and owner of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, the only country house hotel in the UK which has achieved two Michelin Stars for a total of 19 years. www.raymondblanc.com

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