1 of 2
Copyright OCEANA/Enrique Talledo
A purse seine boat
2 of 2
Photo by Richard Owens
Mussels and clams are your best seafood option
The global population is growing and so is its seafood consumption. But fish stocks are declining fast. And eating seafood responsibly in Barcelona is no easy feat when overexploited species are on the menu in every other tapas bar.
Indeed, if you eat fish here, you are likely to consume a species on the brink of extinction. It’s difficult not to. According to the European Commission: “In the Mediterranean Sea, 82 percent of known stocks are overfished.…The percentage of overfished stocks is still too high and there can be no room for complacency: more efforts are needed to phase out overfishing.”
For consumers, finding out what is sustainable is an overwhelming task—especially when choosing from a restaurant menu. The sources regarding what is safe to eat are confusing and often contradictory. A species may be listed as endangered by one organisation and sustainable by another. It might exist in healthy numbers in one sea, but not the next. The catch method can be unthreatening or exceedingly harmful.
The typical tapas menu in Barcelona lists a range of fully-exploited, vulnerable and endangered species, along with species caught using methods that decimate millennia-old habitats and other species. But they can also include less damaging options, although not nearly as many as those at risk.
As a general rule, fresh is better than frozen and artisanal or traditional fisheries use more environmentally-friendly methods for catching their products, although they are not without their problems; some continue to catch species seriously at risk, such as rap (monkfish) and besuc (sea bream).
If you want to be able to make more positive choices the next time you’re faced with a restaurant or tapas bar menu, read on for details of what’s fine to eat in any quantity, what’s okay when caught in specific places (for those times that the restaurant provides such info) and what you should ideally avoid or eat only rarely.
Anchoa, Boquerón [Castilian]/Anxova, Seitó [Catalan] (Anchovy, salted or fresh*)—LIMIT
Prized Costa Brava anchovy populations have plummeted by more than 50 percent since 1994. According to Isabel Palomera, scientist at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM) in Barcelona, climate change and overfishing are the culprits. She points out that the minimum allowable catch size for anchovies is nine centimetres, a crucial factor in the decline of a species that doesn’t reproduce until it reaches 11 centimetres. Palomera also censures fishing companies for targeting anchovies when they form schools to reproduce, swiping all reproductive females before they have the chance to spawn. In 1994, the Catalan anchovy catch was 20,000 tonnes; in 2007, it was 3,000 tonnes. Since then, according to Palomera, “things have got worse for the Costa Brava anchovy.”
*Anchoas and boquerones are the same species. The latter refers to the fish fresh-cooked or marinated in vinegar. The term anchoa is used once it has undergone the salting process that darkens its flesh.
All tuna is on the Greenpeace Red List (a list of 19 species readily found in supermarkets that are endangered or whose method of capture is damaging to ecosystems and other species). The most vulnerable variety is Bluefin tuna, whose prized use in sushi has contributed to its 90 percent decline since the Seventies. Skipjack (listado) is the least vulnerable variety listed. It is claimed that albacore (bonito) is sustainable in the Cantabrian Sea by those who fish and can it. Mackerel (caballa) is a sustainable alternative.
Bacalao/Bacallà (Cod)—OK from Iceland
Most cod cooked locally is imported from Iceland, which manages one of the few remaining sustainable cod fisheries. It is best avoided from elsewhere. According to research collected by Oceana, an independent marine science research organisation, in other areas including the Irish Sea, cod is facing overexploitation and collapse, with levels 40 to 80 percent below safe biological limits. It is caught using bottom trawling, which decimates ocean floors and has high rates of bycatch (unwanted species thrown back into the sea dead or dying).
Previously, Spain’s cod came from the northern stock off the east coast of Canada (the Grand Banks), once the most plentiful stock in the world. In 1992, it collapsed and a moratorium was introduced, but it was too late. Some 96 percent (and that’s the lowest estimate) of the cod had been wiped out and it has never recovered. This was the first time it was realised that the fish in the sea are a limited resource and require sustainable management.
Bivalves: Mejillones, Ostras, Almejas/Musclos, Ostres, Cloïsses (Mussels, Oysters, Clams)—BEST OPTION
Mussels are filter feeders, grow easily and quickly, are inexpensive, versatile, delicious, rich in iron, and farmed locally and under good conditions on the Catalan coast along with oysters and clams, which are also sustainable options.
Mussels are commonly served as tigres (ground with onion, tomato and béchamel, crumbed and deep fried), steamed in white wine or served cold in a vinaigrette with chopped onions and peppers.
The European lobster is the only native lobster species in the Mediterranean. Its slow rate of growth and high price leaves it vulnerable to fishing pressure.
Little information exists on the species along the Catalan coast due to very low population densities, according to ICM researchers, such as Pere Abelló. He also explained to Metropolitan that even small-scale fishing for this species can be harmful as the traps and other traditional methods used can damage the delicate sea floors and rock walls it inhabits, and harm birds and mammals.
The most consumed lobster species is the similar but imported American lobster, whose population has exploded in inverse relation to the overfishing and decline of its predators, mainly cod and seals.
Popular local rice dish arròs amb llamàntol is not a good menu choice regardless of whether European or American lobster is used because many restaurants use prawns in the recipe, which have a high environmental cost (see gamba).
Calamares, chipirones, chopitos (Squid at different life stages)—OK from traditional, small-scale fleets
Squid is an abundant species at no risk of extinction though Oceana recommends giving preference to local, artisanal fisheries that largely use jigging, a selective fishing method that isn’t extraneously harmful to other species or the environment, whereas industrial fleets use destructive bottom trawling. Look for calamar de potera, although you’re more likely to find it at the market than in a restaurant.
Cigala/Escamarlà (Langoustine)–OK from the Mediterranean
According to researchers Francesc Sardà and J. Aguzz, the low reproductive rate and slow, awkward movement of this crustacean should make it vulnerable to overexploitation. But its numbers in the western Mediterranean have only slightly declined, perhaps due to its tendency to spend most of its time in the tunnels it digs in mud seafloors. Those companies fishing cigalas from the Cantabrian Sea, however, have been advised by the European Commission to stop.
Dorada, Lubina/Daurada, Llobarro (Gilthead bream, Sea bass)—LIMIT
Neither gilthead bream nor sea bass is at risk of extinction as most of it comes from aquaculture or fish farming (fish raised in offshore sea pens or inland pools). Fish that are farmed along the Catalan coast are preferable to those imported from elsewhere though it is recommended to limit the consumption of farmed fish as the practice can have a harmful environmental impact in the following ways: fish can be treated with antibiotics and release harmful waste into the environment; scientists warn that escaped fish that spawn with wild fish can badly affect the gene pool; and farming puts pressure on smaller wild fish that are needed to feed the carnivorous farmed fish.
Gamba roja/Gamba vermella (Red prawn)—LIMIT
Gastronomically rooted in Catalan culture in many rice and seafood dishes, the gamba rosada or roja economically sustains many small fishing companies in Catalunya. According to Francesc Sardá and J.B. Company, writing in Història Natural dels Països Catalans, the species is being exploited at the limits of its reproductive and economic sustainability. The Generalitat and the EU have been involved in trying to bring together scientists and fisheries to collaborate on ensuring the sustainability of this valuable catch for Catalunya.
Worldwide, shrimp is one of the most wasteful catches. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for every kilogramme of prawns caught, up to 20 kilogrammes of bycatch is thrown back into the sea dead or dying. Prawns are bottom trawled, the fishing method responsible for 27 percent of the world’s bycatch, including high numbers of turtles, and the destruction of corals and vital marine habitats that can take millennia to grow. Frozen packaged prawns generally originate in this way.
In Europe, hake is caught using bottom trawlers or longlines (two to three kilometres and upwards of fishing line laid on the ocean floor with thousands of hooks attached that catch turtles, dolphins and other vulnerable species as bycatch) and gillnets that catch unwanted, immature species that are thrown back dying, as well as dolphins and porpoises. Hake reaches sexual maturity around seven or eight years old, so it is vulnerable to overexploitation and fished above the threshold of safe biological limits in the Mediterranean set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which notes that there has been an estimated 10 to 40 percent decline in landings of this species over a recent 10-year period.
Pez espada/Peix Espasa (Swordfish)—AVOID
Regularly listed on menús del dia, the succulent flesh of swordfish is justifiably prized, and thus fully exploited, particularly in the Mediterranean where it is poorly managed. With no minimum EU landing size, Spain adopted its own of 90 centimetres which is less than the size it needs to reach to reproduce. Even the ICCAT (The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, not enormously respected due to its failure to protect Bluefin tuna), declared that current swordfish levels are dangerously low. Worse still, swordfish is targeted with destructive longlines and driftnets, an insidious method the UN declared illegal in 2002, but which continues to drown an estimated 100,000 dolphins and whales in the Mediterranean each year.
Salmón/Salmó (Atlantic salmon)—LIMIT
This is another species to avoid where possible due to the alarming effects that salmon farming can have on natural ecosystems. These come as a result of organic waste and chemical products and the use of antibiotics that can lead to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, while escaped fish transmit disease and parasites to native species. In addition, carnivorous salmon require up to five kilos of smaller forage fish to grow one kilo.
Sardinas/Sardines (Sardines)—OK from the Atlantic
Atlantic sardine stocks are within safe biological limits according to Oceana and are caught with purse seines, a selective method with minimal bycatch that doesn’t destroy ocean floors. However, research conducted by Isabel Palomera and the ICM on sardine stocks along the Spanish Mediterranean coast and Catalan coast, is alarming. The 1993 catch of 160,000 tonnes dropped to 15,000 in 2007, and it has continued to diminish.