In Port of Amsterdam, Bart Van Olphen Sustainable Fishmonger Shares Some Fish Tales

It was not enough for Bart Van Olphen to be a succesful fish trader with Fishes, he wanted to share what he learned along the way and the result is Fish Tales (Kyle Books) with co-author Tom Kime. The book was published late 2009 in the UK and in June 2010 in the USA.

I conducted this interview with Bart Van Olphen a few weeks back.

His Fish Tales are still as fresh as they were then barring seasonal fluctuations of fish stock.

Fish tales

Q: Bart, what got you started in the fishmonger business? Was it a straight path or a tortuous one?

I've been a fishmonger only for the past 8 years. I originally went to an hotel school in Holland , more of a management course. I then decided I wanted to explore the kitchen side, headed for Paris with my Michelin restaurant guide, hit on a few doors and apprenticed as a cook working 12 hours a day, 8 days a week. I stayed in the restaurant business for a while and became aware of the various type of seafood on the market. In 2002, I hoped my first store in the center of Amsterdam. We had a chef on board who could advise customers on different dishes they could create with the day's purchase.

Q: Did you offer only sustainable seafood from the get go?

No we did not. Overtime I came to realize that some of the seafood stock I sold was sustainable and some was not. I asked my supplier if he could do anything about it and his answer was no. From that point it took me 2 years to find European suppliers with good practices and a year later I started reaching further afield with others in Cape Town an San Diego.

Q: Did it mean not selling certain types of fish an shellfish?

The seafood business is not very transparent, quite complicated actually. Once I realized there was a label (MSC) certifying fisheries, it made my life easier as far as deciding who to work with. Beyond the supplier side, we have to understand that 25% of the fish population is depleted, 50% is fully exploited by that I mean that if one more boat load is caught it takes you over the edge, last 25% is sustainable with only part of it certified so.

Q: In the beginning, was a lot of explaining needed with retail customers?

When we switched to selling only sustainable fish and stopped carrying certain types of seafood for the first few months some customers would get upset and say they would buy from the fishmonger next door. A bit later, we started trading with Hastings in the UK and when weather prevented them to go out we would just post a sign stating, not available due to bad weather. Seafood after all comes from nature. We have to accept that. You cannot control the elements.

Q: How do you select fisheries you work with?

In the case of Alaskan salmon, we chose it because I did not care for Norwegian salmon. I am not just a fish trader. I see us as a partner with the 8 or 9 purveyors we work with. From Hastings we get Dover sole and mackerel. In the end, consumers now want to know where their fish comes from. Being aware of who the purveyors are and a bit of their story matters, They can relate to them in a personal way. A good portion of the seafood sold through 'Fishes' comes from Europe. We try as much as possible to keep it local in order to limit our carbon footprint.

Q: Fresh fish has to travel, it involves packaging, insulation, how sustainable is that side of the trade?

This has come to the fore in past couple of years. We and many retailers selling fish including European supermarket chains have worked on reducing the impact of packaging and shipping. For fish coming from South Africa or the USA, fish is fileted as transportation costs are high. It also gives seafood products longer shelf life. Other aspects of the fish trade such as health factors and nutrients need to be adressed. A standard EU legislation might be the best way.

Q: What was the thought process that led to this book?

After meeting fishermen around the world, I was inspired to share my experiences, the personal stories that I captured along the way. I paid a visit to a Dutch publisher who suggested my book would reach a wider audience if it was published in English which led me to Kyle Books.

Q: For 'Fish Tales' did you decide on all the destinations with your co-author chef Tom Kline?

Not exactly, the process was already started with notes I had taken on my visits to Hastings and Norway. 50% of the writing was already done. Besides writing aspect, our trips hit some hurdles starting with bad weather in Norway. In San Diego, it took 6 or 7 days before we could go to sea. Except for these setbacks caused by Mother nature, things went relatively smoothly. We started rolling in January 2009 and book was published in November of the same year. We were motivated to have it out before the end of the year because 2009 marked the 10th anniversaty of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and they were involved with the book from the start not as a sponsor but rather as a partner.

Q: Did you know Tom prior to this collaboration?

Tom came along once the decision was made to work with a British publisher. Even though I trained in the kitchen, Tom was an established chef so he focused on the recipes. He also know the UK and Australian food scene. We met in London and planned the book before heading for each destination.

Q: What is your take on sustainable fishing labels and standards?

The MSC eco-label is the only one for wild caught fish with a wide reach. They are present in Japan, Australia, Canada, Europe, the US, Africa and their focus on population, fishing methods, clear labeling make it a natural fit. Other eco-labels exist such as Friend of the Sea or Slow Fish (in Italy) but they don't have the same global reach. For large retailers like Waitrose in the UK or Whole Foods in the US, clear labeling makes it easier to share information with customers.

Q: Do you see big differences around the world regarding what people consume? Are some type of seafoods neglected by customers?

We can and have to change consumers habits as some fish stocks get depleted. Tuna is a good example. With bluefin and the like being over exploited, we got customers to switch to albacore. In the beginning there was a resistance. Now in the Netherlands 20% of the tuna sold is Albacore and growing. In France, people are fond of St Pierre, Daurade and Mediterranean types yet many of these stocks are depleted.

Q: What parts of the world provide more sustainable seafood? Which positive signs can you share?

Over all, there is more sustainable seafood coming from Northern Europe than its Southern parts. In America, the West Coast is preeminent, add to that Halifax in Canada while the Gulf of Mexico has definitely been overfished. On positive side, if you are like sardines, this summer, in your native Brittany, near Douarnenez, the first French sardine purveyor was MSC certified, The other one in Europe is in Portugal.

Q: In Europe, I was used to people ordering a piece (a section) of a fish when warranted. In the US heads are taboo for many. A lot of fish is fileted or pre-cut as steak. Did things in that respect evolve overtime?

Change of buying habits in Europe have been heavily influenced by sustainability concerns. It took time yet it's worth noticing that in past 3 years, the awareness of sustainable fishing labels like MSC has grown to 60% in the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland rank even higher. In Holland, supermarkets are not selling species on the Red List anymore. Things have changed.

Q: In 'Fish Tales', I was fascinated by the simple way the Vietnamese clams are collected? I wondered on the other hand how the boats in Hastings get to sea since there is no visible harbor there?

The Vietnamese approach is very simple, very pure, the tide brings the clams. It must have been the same with oysters once before they were farmed. Fishery in Vietnam was only recently MSC certified. For Hastings, the lack of harbor/ pier means they have to push the boats to sea. Yukon fishermen in Alaska are also small scale. Not all fisheries bearing an eco-label will be small but many will be.

Q: How does cost, price to consumer and fair trade factors in sustainable seafood equation?

Sustainablily doest not just mean focus on eco-system but also people. We need a partnership in the food chain between fisherman, traders like me and consumers.

We also need to remember that 52% of seafood caught worldwide comes from developping countries where some governments have sold fishing rights to western countries but the population does not benefit. It's important to be fair with this natural resource as with others.

The cost of a South African catch might be lower but when you factor in shipping it comes to about the same for me as the same fish caught in Spain. One reason we buy from South Africa is that the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans provides them with a year round catch.

Q: What tools do you use, to communicate these subtle factors?

A very immediate tool we use is the webcam feeds consumers can check on the Fishes website that show the catch as it happens.

Q: Last, what are your favorite ways to cook fish ans some favorite recipes in 'Fish Tales'?

Pure, plain fish with olive oil, sea salt, baked potatoes make me happy.

As for favorite recipes in the book, I would say the Mussels from Denmark, Tuna Carpaccio, Alaskan salmon made so rich by its travel upstream might be best pick in the world. I also like Halibut from Alaska. In my mind, the purer is the better.

Thanks Bart for your time and your enthusiasm

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