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Fri 28 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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Plenty more fish in the sea?

Demand for seafood is growing, but over-fishing poses a challenge for the region's restaurants as they try to find the supply.

Demand for seafood is growing, but over-fishing poses a challenge for the region's restaurants as they try to find the supply.

With the seafood market booming worldwide, new challenges and opportunities are being created for foodservice operators, wholesalers, producers and manufacturers.

Sustainability was the central theme at the Fish International 2008 exhibition, held in Germany last month.

People are more interested in where food is coming from — it's not just plain eating any more.

"Three-quarters of the oceans' fish stocks are either fished to their limit or in decline," said chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Rupert Howes, speaking at the event.

"The world's population is growing at a fast rate and consumes more and more fish and seafood. It is clear that we have to preserve fish stocks to secure supplies, safeguard livelihoods and maintain the functionality of the oceans' ecosystems," he continued.

An independent NGO, which has developed criteria for sustainable fishing, the MSC runs the only internationally recognised eco-certification and labelling programme for fisheries.

"To date, 26 fisheries worldwide are certified to MSC standard," said Howes, adding that demand for certified, sustainable seafood is at an all-time high and is steadily rising worldwide.

"Demonstrating good environmental practice also boosts relations with the industry, community, conservation groups and the public," he said.

Regional perspective

Executive chef at the Renaissance Dubai Hotel, Andreas Kurfurst, agrees with Howes. He has noticed a trend for more "ethical eating" among customers.

"People are more interested in where food is coming from - how it's grown; how it's harvested - it's not just plain eating any more," he confirms.

"I believe that worldwide we're not really controlling [fishing practices] enough to sustain the cycle because, at the end of the day it's a business. It makes money - who cares about what happens five generations from now?"

Kurfurst says that hammour is a prime example of how over-fishing is affecting the supply of local fish.

"Hammour is very difficult to get these days," he confirms. "I think the government is looking at protecting it, so you can't get hammour under a certain size. In some restaurants they have baby hammour on the menu, but if you kill all the young fish, the species will die out because you break the [breeding] cycle," he says.

While the Renaissance tries to be responsible about where its fish come, commercial pressures cannot be ignored, as Kurfurst explains: "We are running a business - we have to look at prices, too, and on a day-to-day level, all this is pushing the prices up, as well as making certain fish more difficult to source."

There has been a notable increase in the popularity of seafood in recent years, according to the Renaissance. Each month the hotel orders 1000kg of frozen lobster for its Spice Island outlet alone, as well as up to 900kg of smoked salmon for its various outlets and banqueting events, and has just launched a Reef and Beef buffet in its Sails restaurant to meet the demand it sees for seafood among guests and Dubai residents.

"Seafood is associated with healthy eating. It's less fat and it's full of Omega 3 and other nutrients, and as people are getting more health-conscious, consumption is increasing a lot," says Kurfurst.

The hotel's director of food and beverage Hassan Yazbek says the lobster station at Spice Island is the biggest hit with guests.

"The chefs tell me that sometimes we get through 50 kilos of lobster a night there for that one station. And we keep up with the product, despite the higher cost - to us it's value added but it brings customers back so we won't trim anything out of this package just because lobster is rare or becoming more expensive," he states.

Like Kurfurst, he is also concerned with the impact of environmental problems on the fish industry.

"There is going to continue to be a lot of demand, but the supply is diminishing. One study I read recently, published in the US, said that by 2050 we may not have fish anywhere in the world," says Yazbek.
While this outlook may seem to be somewhat pessimistic, there can be little doubt that immediate steps need to be taken to prevent the annihilation of this natural resource, insists Yazbek.

Managing director for Wet Fish Trading LLC, Mark Allen, says that the situation would be greatly aided if chefs planned their menus to include seasonal produce only when it was actually in season.

If we all worked within the seasonal limitations, then it wouldn’t be a problem — we would only use what would be available.

"If we all worked within the seasonal limitations, then it wouldn't be a problem. There would be no such thing as the environmental issues or ecological issues because we would only use what would be available," he says.

"Certain species are abundant at certain times of the year, and not around at other times. [Suppliers] need to identify the trends so that chefs know what to put on their menus. It's all down to education."

Quantity and quality

Wet Fish Trading, a wholesaler that has been supplying fish to the UAE's hotel and airline markets for three years, has witnessed a growth in seafood orders during that time.

"I'm still selling the same species but I'm selling it in bigger quantities," confirms Allen. "Fish goes very well in the Middle East - the locals and the Europeans eat fish."

The company imports fish, predominantly from the UK, twice or three times a week and Allen knows from experience that quality counts just as much as quantity when restaurants come to purchasing seafood products.

"Most of the exec chefs here are executives - they have resorts and hotels to run and they're responsible for a food and beverage bottom line. Basically fish supply is about providing high-quality fish at the best possible price, in the safest conditions. It's a delicate balance of getting everything right and keeping everybody happy," he explains.

The chefs are very knowledgeable and most understand the difference between good quality and bad quality - when they see something that's bright and shiny with nice eyes, and the flesh is nice and translucent, they know it's a good product."

The company has invested "a lot of time, money and effort" to ensure that its factory gained its HACCP certification so that it would be able to guarantee this quality to customers. Inside the temperature-controlled processing unit, the Wet Fish team prepares bespoke orders for various hotels, predominantly in the five-star sector. Fish such as sea bass, salmon and John Dorys are the most popular with this clientele, according to Allen.

"It's what the European customers like. The fish that comes from local waters here is very nice but, with the exception of maybe two or three species, it's not as nice as the cold-water European fish. That's what attracts the customers - the big, fat fish that you get from British waters, rather than hammour and red snapper - they don't have the same kind of appeal," he says.

The Al Murooj Rotana Hotel & Suites' executive chef Joachim Textor agrees that he prefers cold-water varieties and is using a number of such species, such as herring and monkfish, as part of the weekly themed seafood buffet, which launched at the hotel's Pergola restaurant last month.

"The fish that comes out of Europe are more intense in flavour," he explains.

"I prefer to get the cold water fish, but it depends on the price and the season."

The new buffet features more than 100 dishes and Textor tries to use the freshest possible produce. This is especially important with luxury items, he says: "As a chef, if I put oysters on the menu they have to be fresh. A lot of hotels here buy the half-shell, frozen oysters but I believe this is not appropriate in a five-star hotel."

However, he concedes that sometimes there may sometimes be no alternative.

"We get what we want one week, and the next week we only get half," he says. But it is not necessarily the natural shortages of seafood that results in the failure of suppliers to fill orders: "There is room for further improvement with the suppliers - we need more reliable people," he concludes.

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