About a week into the massive oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, I had an unsettling dream. In it, I was young and barefoot with sandy feet, waiting in the ice cream line at a beachside clam shack, when I felt a frantic scuffle near my feet. I looked down to find a fallen seagull, breast heaving, its wings broken and matted with heavy, dark molasses. Like the UAE, the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana wetlands are fishing hubs, coastal playgrounds where marine life has thrived. Seafood is a significant part of our heritage, our culture and our economy. Though we thankfully haven't suffered a similarly ecologically devastating catastrophe, our environmental track record is nothing to brag about. The UAE has the world's largest per capita carbon footprint, which means that, on average, each of us puts more strain on the global ecosystem than those in any other country (the US takes second place).
There has been some discussion of the havoc that's been wreaked on the delicate equilibrium of Emirati marine life by construction, municipal waste and most notably the development of man-made islands, beneath some of which lie suffocated oyster beds and indigenous sea vegetables. Can our natural elements be green enough to counter the carbon emissions we put out? Ninety-eight per cent of our water comes from desalination and the process requires the combustion of hydrocarbons. In the UAE, it costs more to produce a pint of water than it does to produce a pint of oil, though there are huge efforts underway by government authorities to make this a more environmentally friendly process.
As many people realise by now, overfishing is a serious problem. We've fried, grilled and kebabed eight of the country's most popular fish into the red zone of near-extinction. At the helm of the veto list is the ubiquitous and beloved hammour, also known as the orange spotted grouper. Excessive demand, destruction of habitat, poor fishing practices and misguided fishing methods have all contributed to the decline of our fish population.
In response to the issue, the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched the awareness campaign Choose Wisely (www.choosewisely.ae) earlier this month, intended to educate and empower consumers with the information required to make better choices. Thankfully, the campaign is also directed at suppliers, who have been encouraged to replace menu items featuring endangered species with dishes made with more sustainable fish from the region.
The potential for change is not solely the responsibility of the consumer; restaurant advocacy is imperative. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and subsequently the EWS-WWF initiative (with the support of Environment Agency Abu Dhabi) have released pocket-sized consumer guides for consulting when uncertain about the status of a fish species. As crucial as these local issues are, they're also just the tip of the iceberg. There's no end to the implications and controversies around consumption: farmed versus wild seafood, mercury poisoning - and just how is an ordinary person supposed to remember, after a long day at work, the varieties of cod that are endangered and those that aren't? Sadly, few fishmongers, restaurant cooks and servers even know the sources and stories behind what they're selling. It's hard to be a conscientious fish eater without either fearing or resenting the flounder in the frying pan.
In 2003, the Emirates Wildlife Development Agency criminalised ghost fishing, a phenomenon much less romantic than it sounds, which describes the act of lost or abandoned traps continuing to entrap fish. The International Fish Farming Holding Company, which promotes fish farming and the development of fish and shrimp hatcheries locally and abroad, is "developing restocking programmes to enhance wild fisheries". Since visiting a tilapia farm in a border town and a wild salmon cannery in Alaska, I avoid eating farmed fish wherever possible.
Overall, I eat fish and animal products less frequently than I once did. Fortunately, I happen to love small fish on the lower end of the food chain, some of which are in no danger of being depleted, such as anchovies and sardines, mackerel and naiser, also known as Ehrenberg's snapper. And I don't go near Mediterranean bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, hammour, shaari or orange roughy. Finally, reading about "bycatch" rates, which refers to the fish that are killed and discarded during the harvest of the desired fish, turned my stomach: Gulf Coast shrimpers throw out four kilos of bycatch for every kilo of shrimp, and 900,000 metric tons a year of fish are killed annually as bycatch, which amounts to 30 per cent of the fish that are caught in the first place.
On the bright side, fish species can recover, become sustainable again and flourish. It happened with Maine lobsters and it can happen with hammour. In the end, it was a dream about the oil spill that inspired me to write about sustainable seafood, but I'll be curious to check out the fourth Dubai Seafood Expo 2010 this October and to scour the forums at Fish Emirates (fishemirates.freeforums.org) while I continue educating myself on something I've cared about for a long time.
But before we can eat and live sustainably, we have to implement sustainable policies. We all need to care more about our oceans and the creatures living in them.