Europe’s seabass stocks are being hit hard by unsustainable fishing practices. If, we hope to continue eating this fish, we must no longer buy it during its spawning period. Relais & Châteaux chefs are taking the lead on this initiative by avoiding seabass in their menus in February and March.
Like many other marine species, seabass gather at certain times of year to breed in areas known as spawning grounds. A behavior that fishermen have unquestionably observed over the centuries – which means that February and March are often a time for truly miraculous seabass fishing. In an unfortunate parallel with the agricultural world, we have even come to refer to a “season” for this fish.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the creature’s popularity and the increasingly sophisticated equipment found on fishing vessels have gradually taxed the populations of this delicately flavored fish with firm, dense flesh. European seabass catches, which totaled some 1,000 tons a year in the late 1950s, rose to more than 10,000 tons by 2004 – an increase due in large part to the intensification of trawl fishery on spawning grounds. In 2014, scientists from the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICEM) sounded the alarm: European seabass stocks were in truly critical condition, especially in areas of the Atlantic beyond the 48th parallel. The “North Atlantic zone,” as it’s called, encompasses the Celtic Sea, the English Channel, the Irish Sea, and the North Sea.
In January 2015, emergency measures were put in place to protect the fish in this zone: Trawlers were prohibited from targeting the species and their seabass bycatch was tolerated, but only within limits. Seabass fishing is now prohibited in February and March, including for trollers – boats equipped with line-fishing apparatuses, for selective fishing that is less damaging to the resource and ecosystems. In the Bay of Biscay, however, the only implemented system is an annual catch ceiling: Seabass fishing is allowed there during the spawning period, and trawlers happily fish the spawning grounds in February and March, inundating fishmarket stalls with poor quality catches sold at low prices.
This management system is based on the assumption that the North Atlantic zone and the Bay of Biscay have different stocks. In other words, that the fish never cross this invisible 48th parallel. But the research begun in 2014 in an effort to better understand the situation – particularly the existence of a single school, or several schools, stretching from Ireland to Spain – is still ongoing. At this stage, precaution would dictate that the full moratorium imposed on the North Atlantic zone in February and March be extended to the Bay of Biscay – which some of the zone’s trollers honor of their own accord by not fishing for seabass from February 15 to March 15.
If we want to continue eating seabass in the future, we must stop purchasing it altogether in February and March. Many Relais & Châteaux chefs are setting an example by removing it from their menus during this period. The rest of the year, this fish should be consumed in moderation and any occasional seabass cravings should be satisfied with line-caught fish. Clearly, it would be ill-advised to recommend a substitute species out of fear of simply transferring the same fishing-sustainability issues to that other fish. So when it comes to these eating these finned foods, the watchword is “diversity,” and the chefs of Relais & Châteaux put this into practice as they offer everything from meagre, mullet, and mackerels to pollack, pout, and sardines.