It is early morning in Barcelona's La Boqueria market and the fish stallholders are setting out their wares. Mounds of pink and gray glisten down the dim alleys -- shoppers and tourists peering at the fins and tentacles. It is not like any fish shop in Britain -- some stalls sell five different species of squid and cuttlefish, half a dozen types of shrimp and prawn, 10 different cuts of salt cod. It is a fish eater's haven in the heart of a city that eats and sells more fish than anywhere else in Europe.
Anyone who cares about where their fish come from -- and this should mean anyone who wants to go on eating them -- should take two tools when they visit the fishmonger. One is the handy guidance provided by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Fish to Avoid and Fish to Eat (the latter is still the longer); the other is a ruler. My ruler is the type handed out to commercial fishermen by the international advisory body, Incofish, and has pictures of key species with marks indicating when they can be considered mature (and therefore OK to catch).
So I set about lining up my ruler against the La Boqueria fish, starting with the mackerel (should be 34cm), the plaice (39cm) and the redfish (45cm). All turn out to be mere babies. The mackerel is half the designated length. A glance around the stalls shows 10 or more species on the MCS's Avoid list, including hake, swordfish, monkfish, bluefin tuna and, of course, cod.
I don't spend much time doing this because the Catalan fishmongers don't like my ruler -- or me. They don't want to talk about why they are selling tiny hake (one of Europe's most endangered species) and why not a single fish in the market has any "sustainable" labeling.
One old lady asks me what I'm after.
"I want to know why the Spanish are eating so many under-sized fish from populations that are running out," I say.
"It's simple," she says. "We like fish and small fish taste better."
Is anyone not aware that wild fish are in deep trouble? That three-quarters of commercially caught species are over-exploited or exploited to their maximum? Do they not know that industrial fishing is so inefficient that a third of the catch, some 32 million tonnes a year, is thrown away? For every ocean prawn you eat, fish weighing 10 to 20 times as much have been thrown overboard.
These figures all come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which also claims that, of all the world's natural resources, fish are being depleted the fastest. With even the most abundant commercial species, we eat smaller and smaller fish every year -- we eat the babies before they can breed.
??ellyfish and slime'
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at York University, predicts that by 2050 we will only be able to meet the fish protein needs of half the world population. All that will be left for the unlucky half may be, as he puts it, "jellyfish and slime." Ninety years of industrial-scale exploitation of fish has, he and most scientists agree, led to "ecological meltdown." Whole biological food chains have been destroyed.
Many of those fish you can see in such glorious abundance in Spanish markets come not from European seas but from the coasts of the continents of the poor: Africa, South America and parts of Asia. Fishermen have always roamed far afield -- the Basques began fishing the great cod populations off Newfoundland at least 500 years ago. And when serious shortages in traditional stocks around Europe began to be commercially apparent 30 years ago, the trawler fleets began to move south.