Ignorance is bliss – The lack of consumer awareness

By Umair Shahid

Bluefin Tuna sushis, Brussels, Belgium.

Bluefin Tuna sushis, Brussels, Belgium.

“Until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding”— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ignorance can come in various forms, sometimes it is a blessing not to be aware; however I strongly believe the feeling of elation of being free does not remain long and cannot be cherished in a manner that is or not questionable for actions. There are many times we are faced with certain aspects of life that we seem to hold dearly to ourselves and some we just tend to turn away merely because it primarily is not our concern or point of interest.

For instance, let us take the example of environment. It is a well-known fact that environment has not been at the forefront of policy makers. Similarly, the general public’s lack of awareness of environmental issues, particularly ignorance of smarter ways of living and consumptions is a message that seems to have been forgotten. I say this because we continue to pollute our seas and rivers, we continue to exploit natural resources, driving our one and only Earth towards extinction. Are we not aware that we are pushing mankind towards extinction?

I cannot imagine any food item that does not have its roots in nature, fisheries being a prime example. Pakistan’s stands rather low on consumption of fish protein, which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization is about 600 grams per person per capita. To this amount, I am convinced to state that utilization of fisheries resources is essential and encourage the general public to consume fisheries products as much as possible. However, there is slight issue.

All that we eat, we never question its source. We never ask if the eatables entering our homes are from a sustainable source, or whether they originate from a place where hygiene is of any importance. For instance, in agriculture, the heavy use of pesticides and its impacts on human health cannot be determined or that if the vegetables being farmed are irrigated using contaminated water? There are many questions that arise, but we mostly enter into futile debates that are shelved once we return to our daily lives.

Similar is the case with the restaurants that we dine at. We can never about the quality of food being served, especially if food items are not related to poultry and beef, which are staple parts of our daily diet and we can tell if the food tastes a bit odd. But when it comes to low priority proteins like fish, we are ill-equipped to make a sound judgement.

I spend almost every weekend dining out, and thus try to explore the up-beat places in Karachi which serve good food. I have had several occasions where I have asked for fish, which is mainly titled as, ‘pan seared sea bass’, or ‘red snapper’, two of the very common names that appear in almost all menus across Karachi serving fish.

From my experience, I have seen that the fish one orders is not exactly one that is served in 95% of the cases. The fact was also verified from friends and interviews I conducted and feedback received from various sessions that I conducted to educate the masses. I can quote at least a dozen cases where the fish that was ordered turned up to be shark meat in the form of fillets, finger fish, and I’m also including food served at wedding receptions.

In a more recallable incident, I went to a restaurant with around 25 people, including members of an international delegation of which one was a fisheries minister. About nine people ordered seafood. But contrary to our expectations, the ‘fish’ that was served turned out to be shark meat. The fisheries minister being at our side further added to the embarrassment, forcing us to strongly protest with the management. The restaurant team finally agreed to cut off the sea bass title from their menu.

Wouldn’t you mind if you asked for a chocolate ice-cream and get vanilla ice-cream served instead? I believe the consumer must be aware, and it is consumers’ responsibility to really ask, and ask twice, and ensure that you get the worth of money being spent.

Have you ever tried eating a shark? Or have you ever had shark meat before? I would safely speculate that around 75% of the population living in cities have eaten and tasted shark meat but are unaware of the fact. This is a bit traumatizing for some, but others seem not affected.

So the question is, is it that bad to consume sharks? Firstly, not all sharks are endangered or threatened, and not all species are apex predators i.e. at the top of the food chain. The species that are not categorized under any scientific body (such as IUCN, CITES, CMS) are species that can be caught in a fishery and there is no bar on their consumption.

Then there are species of high importance, ones that have been enlisted as endangered, threatened or protected and fall under the category of scientific bodies with a management regime in place to regulate catch in a given fishery and trade. It is important not to exploit the stocks of these species for commercial purposes.

Sharks are high in ammonia, and can be easily recognized from their pungent smell. They can also be recognized with the distinction of their meat and the powerful flavours added to hide the smell. Another word of advice – since the past few months, shark meat is now being replaced with the Vietnamese catfish, Pangasius hypothalamus. This is another replacement that you may not enjoy. Vietnamese catfish is cheaper than shark meat and is a tasteless protein mostly consumed with battered crisp and sauce.

So the basic question to ask is, should we not get what we pay for? It is like paying for an iPhone and getting an android phone in return. It is like asking for a Batman movie ticket and ending up watching Superman. The commercial businesses offer consumers needs to be upheld at all costs, because it otherwise amounts to clear-cut fraudulent practice.

Umair Shahid is Coodinator Tuna Fisheries, WWF-Pakistan. 

Edited by Khan Shehram, Sr Communications Officer, WWF-Pakistan. 

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