A Return to Czech Carp

The country's traditional Christmas fish is a more ethical choice than exotic imports

Soon the streets of Czech cities will be lined with tanks full of carp, waiting to be bought for Christmas dinner. But it isn't only carp that Czechs love to eat at Christmas. Increasing numbers like to try out other fish too.

In fact, Czechs prefer eating sea fish to freshwater ones, as statistics about fish consumption show: 1.5 kilograms of freshwater fish are consumed per person per year, compared to five kilos of sea fish. Among the most popular is tuna. Four tonnes of tuna and 26 tonnes of tuna filets are consumed every year. But while rushing to buy their favorite tuna, Czechs are forgetting that the fish is one of the most endangered species around the globe.

Lukáš Pokorný cannot accept this fact. "When one sees tuna fish in shops and realizes that in five years this animal will be extinct, he or she should find it at least a little strange," says Pokorný, who set up a Facebook group called Odmítám jíst a kupovat maso z tuňáka/I Refuse to Eat and Purchase Tuna Meat. Describing himself as "80 percent vegetarian," he tries not to buy leather shoes and always checks the origins of the clothing he buys.

Sushi and bad feelings
In the Czech Republic, tuna meat is frequently used for high-end sushi. "I have bad feelings," says Bára Rektorová, the owner of the small firm Sushiqueen. "Looking for a safely caught fish in our country is a utopia. We are happy just to get good quality fish." She purchases her yellow fin tuna from the C.I.P.A company in Sri Lanka. But safe fishing methods make the fish too expensive for the Czech market, at 2,000 crowns per kilo. No single customer has ever shown interest in the origin of the fish, anyway, says Rektorová. After all, Pokorný's Facebook group has a mere 50 members.

Other countries in the region apply strict rules to protect endangered fish species. In Austria, the Norma and Lidl supermarket chains have banned the sale of yellow fin tuna. In Germany and the United Kingdom, fish restaurants always include information about the origin of the fish. In the USA, every other Hollywood celebrity shuns tuna sushi.

"Czechs do not perceive the sea as a problem," explains Vojtěch Kotecký of the environmental group Hnutí Duha ("Rainbow Movement"). "They are not fishermen for whom fishing is part of their daily lives."

But in a globalized age, that argument is no longer valid. Even the inhabitants of a landlocked country should think globally. More than thirty thousand sea fish are consumed in this country, according to figures presented in a publication called Česká stopa (Czech Footprint), produced by Hnutí Duha in 2004.

Good offer
"Take advantage of our offer -- buy black halibut! Black halibut on sale!" says a kindly female over the public address system at a Kaufland hypermarket. Halibut stocks have also been overfished and responsible consumers are universally advised against buying this type of fish. The Kaufland freezer also stocks other endangered species -- swordfish and shark. Their stocks are almost depleted too.

There's also a fish in Kaufland stores that doesn't officially exist: Dutch trout. The world of zoology world doesn't recognize this type of fish. It's a trade name used for herring smelt (Argentina silus), which is a critically endangered species. On top of that, Kaufland outlets in the Czech Republic sell "seawater pike," which, in reality, is European hake (Merluccius merluccius).

To date, no audit of Czech shops selling fish has been carried out, so consumers are dependent on the information on labels. Czech regulations stipulate that all packaging includes information about the type of fish and its origin. Some companies give the fish's name in Latin, the place where it was fished and the code of a specific fish collecting pool. Ideally, the packaging should also include a certificate from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC isn't without its flaws -- tolerating, as it does, some problematic methods of fishing -- but at least it certifies some endangered species.

Based on a survey of supermarkets across Germany, conducted by Greenpeace, Kaufland had the best practices. In the Czech Republic, Kaufland follows some ethical guidelines and provides a list of all the fish it sells, including the place where they were caught and/or bred. But this list also includes the endangered species halibut, yellow fin tuna and angler fish.

Although fishing has been on the increase, year by year, demand has been growing much faster, which explains the trend toward fish-farming, which is now the fastest-growing industry in the world. But, in terms of environmental impact, fish farms are something akin to pig sties. They produce a large amount of garbage that poisons the environment; fish can escape from the farms, breeding with other species and thus destroying their genetic fund; and they can also spread new diseases.

All this should cast a new light on the Czech carp. It is less problematic than any other fish mentioned in this article. It is not delivered to the market from faraway places and it certainly isn't among the world's endangered species. In the run-up to the holidays, we should bear that in mind when buying a fish for our Christmas dinner.

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