How many miles?

AT THE DELICATESSEN counter of my local Woolworths supermarket – which promotes itself as ‘the fresh food people' – in the inner-Sydney suburb of Balmain, I saw some fillets of firm white-fleshed fish for sale. They were, said the caption on the tray, ‘Nile perch' imported ‘frozen' from Uganda. I found this hard to believe, but the counter-hand confirmed it. Yes, they were ‘fully imported'. Well, at least Woolworths says where its food comes from.

A week later I visited a small fish shop in the same suburb that sells a few fillets and shellfish. I asked for a handful of scallops, not noticing the caption. The man at the counter told me with some pride that they were ‘Japanese'.

‘Japanese scallops?' I said. ‘We are importing scallops from Japan?'

‘Yes,' he said.

‘Why?' I asked.

‘Because they're cheaper,' said he.

‘Cheaper? How can that be?' Caught in Japan's inland sea, frozen and then flown here, were they really still cheaper than ours, from Tasmania? That week our dollar was buying only ¥60! (It's improved a lot since.)

‘They're probably farmed,' said the counter-man.

‘No doubt,' I replied, and wondered whether they were farmed in Japan or imported there from Japanese-owned scallop ponds somewhere in South-East Asia. I left with a handful of prawns, not frozen but probably farmed.

I later discovered – through David Hardy's Scallop Farming (Blackwell, 2006) – that scallops in Japan have traditionally been grown and fattened by aqua-cultural co-ops around northern shorelines like Mutsu Bay, on the main island of Honsh-u. They are attached to long-line nets or baskets that trail down for two hundred metres or so, and don't need to be fed or protected with chemicals. Within the aqua-cultural community the Japanese scallop farm is regarded as a model of efficiency. So there.

Nevertheless, the implications of food miles are baffling. I once filmed the harvesting and snap-freezing of prawns straight from brackish ponds in Luzon, in the Philippines, and knew that Japanese seafood importers bought direct from these farms throughout South-East Asia. Conglomerates such as Maruha – formerly Taiyo, and involved in whale hunting – import seafood from all over the world. (Taiyo used to own a baseball team, the Taiyo Whales, but the team changed its name to the BayStars when the anti-whaling movement started in the US.)


I INVESTIGATED WHAT else was on offer in my part of Sydney. At a bigger Woolworths, in Leichhardt Market Place, I found more Nile perch fillets, priced at $11.98 (‘from Lake Victoria imp frzn produce of Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya'). There was also ‘basa' from Vietnam, prawns from Thailand and China, barramundi from Taiwan and smoked cod from South Africa – all of which would have arrived here frozen, even though the permanent signage above the section says ‘Fresh Seafood'. In the same centre, Aldi was offering a variety of frozen ‘white fish' in packets, imported from New Zealand. Closer examination revealed these to be ‘red cod' (skinless or with ‘skin on') and ‘hoki' (blue grenadier). At Coles, smoked cod fillets (‘capensis hake', ‘wild caught' and ‘thawed') were also available, at $11.98.

Jonnie's, a smaller specialist shop, also offers Vietnamese ‘basa', and I have since seen the fish in several fish markets. The man behind the counter said that it was imported frozen and defrosted by Jonnie. At Sydney's fish markets, as well as the wide range of fresh fish caught in Australian and New Zealand waters, you can also buy dried and frozen fish, including smoked cod.

As for the Nile perch: they don't come from the great river but from Lake Victoria, into which they were probably introduced, and are caught by fishermen from Kenya and Tanzania – creating their main export earnings. Nile perch is also known as black bass – the species name is Lates niloticus – and can weigh more than two hundred kilograms. You can go game fishing for the ‘world's largest freshwater fish' near the Ssese Islands, in the centre of the lake. And you can buy fillets online, direct from Uganda, for about $5.50 a kilo – if you order a minimum of eighteen thousand kilograms. Woolworths doesn't buy from this supplier, and its prices have ranged this year from $11.98 to $16.98 – cheap, when you consider that fresh local flathead fillets cost more than thirty dollars.

Uganda's Nile perch trade expanded in the 1990s and doubled in recent times. It now constitutes 90 per cent of the country's fish exports, most of which go to Europe. The Portuguese fisheries consultancy Megapesca reports that because Europeans, Americans and Australians like fish without much fat, the perch are ‘deep-skinned' the day after landing, when all ‘dark flesh' is also removed. The Japanese prefer theirs with the skin still on. The perch are then ‘blast-frozen' and trucked to the port of Mombasa, or airports at Entebbe or Nairobi, from which they are flown to Europe and elsewhere at a cost of up to US$2 a kilogram.

Uganda also exports a smaller fish to Europe, the more plentiful tilapia, also frozen; but despite a short-term moratorium on exports to Europe ten years ago, when it was first realised Lake Victoria was being over-fished, Nile perch stocks are again being seriously depleted. According to Fish & Information Services Australia they fell by more than 40 per cent in 2008; ten fish processing factories have already closed, and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization has been asked to impose either a seasonal moratorium on fishing part of the lake or a total ban for two years, and a crackdown on poachers and the expansion of fish farms.

I confess to feeling squeamish about eating the carnivorous Lates niloticus, even if it is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids we all need, because I wonder how old it might be and what it might have eaten. But clearly there are Australian customers who buy it.

I wrote to Woolworths and asked them why they still imported Nile perch from East Africa. The answers I got were, to say the least, opaque. Yes, they were aware that the fish was in short supply – although there was no acknowledgement that as a species it was ‘threatened' – but that was due to the European trade, and in response Woolworths is no longer promoting the product. In the words of its media department: ‘As much of the Nile perch stock is heading to Europe we have therefore decided to stop advertising Nile perch to reduce demand for it through our stores. But while there is still a consumer demand for it we will continue to stock it.'

I couldn't tell whether this meant Woolworths was running down stock and stopping imports, so I asked again. ‘Forgive me for seeming obtuse but is Woolworths running down existing stocks or still ordering supplies from Africa? Hope the question is clear.'

But answer came there none. Nile perch fillets are still on display, and were $16.49 when last spotted.

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