The Good Food Weekend is a must in the Brussels annual event agenda. As part of the official programme, Mundus maris offered workshops with fish tastings on Friday, 19 and Saturday, 20 October 2018 in English and French respectively to help participants navigate the waters towards delicious and also sustainable fish and seafood. Our workshops were supported by wholesaler Pintafish and Bia Mara, the sustainable fish 'n ships restaurant.

In preparation of the workshops, the Mundus maris team researched the scientific literature, gathered information from European Commission services and the Belgian Federal Agency responsible for food safety. Information gleaned from FishBase and SeaLifeBase with pictures, minimum size at which species reproduce depending on the temperature where they live and the maximum sizes observed in nature was helpful during visits in fish shops, market stalls, supermarkets and restaurants.

The spot checks served to ground truth the application of the rules and also hear from practitioners what were the most important choice criteria for them when buying fish and seafood. The smaller retailers were often part of a family business with other members of the family engaged in whole saling or fishing or both, but all emphasised the importance of trusted relationships with companies more upstream in the value chain. Several shop vendors reported having worked in different stages of the distribution chain in other European countries and therefore had good knowledge of practice on the ground they said varied more than the general rules applicable in Europe would make you believe.

Red Mullet specimens of adult size (between 20 and >30 cm)
next to babies of Cod that reproduces above 60 cm length
Big specimens of Red Mullet, handlined


Chez AlbertWhere vendors were owners or close to owners, they had considerable knowledge about fish and value chains. Hygiene and freshness were definitely on top of everybody's concerns. Those at the top end, emphasised that individually line-fished products immediately conditioned on ice on board were simply much superior to fish caught in large quantities by trawl, which would smash them in the cod end and produce much lower quality. Only a minority was, however, actively engaging with the very real threats to sustainability of resources and future supplies. We always asked whether they were paying attention to buying only mature fish to make sure there were enough adults remaining in the water to produce the next generations of fish.

In some cases, they accepted measuring fish from the North Sea with our fish ruler to check in practice that they were mature fish. We also heard in one case from the owner of a shop selling at the top end, Poissonnerie des Tongres, that he would only source fish from known producers using low impact methods. But the more frequent response to our questions was that they were at the end of a long distribution chain and had no say in production methods. All the same, most of those we visited, except two, who had substantial quantities of baby fish on sale at very low prices, were indeed selling adult specimen, especially of wild caught fish.

We also visited some supermarkets, including one with a large seafood counter. Much of the portion fish in the supermarkets is rather cheap convenience food already plastic packed and ready to cook. Even the fish counter, despite the care for hygiene and better labelling than small retail shops, could not disguise it was catering for different types of clients, where price-consciousness plays a higher role to other criteria.

In their refrigerators, some products carried the label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), but not a majority. Perhaps the supermarkets had already taken notice of the criticism about continued labelling of fisheries, which did not respect the standard. The standard focuses on three core elements: (1) sustainable stocks of fisheries resources, (2) low impact fishing methods, (3) effective fisheries management. With growing awareness about pitfalls in the industry, some scientists and civil society organisations are asking to include often disregarded labour conditions according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), especially attention to suppressing forced labour and slavery on board fishing vessels into an upgraded standard. More information about this aspect of the industry can also be found on the website of the large coalition Make Stewardship Count - with more than 80 organisations and individuals, of which Mundus maris is a member.

Labelling did not meet minimum information required by European legislation in any of the shops we visited. One shop had no labelling whatsoever, though the vendor was knowledgeable and quite willing to explain for each fish species, whether whole or in fillet, what the species was, where it was supposedly coming from, whether it was wild caught or from aquaculture and more. Such information must have been available on the boxes arriving from the whole saler, though it was not used for labels in the display. 

In the attempt to trace the fish from catches at sea through the different stages of conditioning, processing and trade to the plate of the consumer.we also talked to whole salers in direct contact with fishers, such as Pintafish, who told us about the challenge of sourcing fish caught with selective gear provoking minimal environmental damage in Belgium and other European countries. The bigger wholesalers we contacted were sourcing from Rungis and other regional markets in large quantities and had little time for our questions. They were primarily concerned about the freshness of the product and assured us that hygiene standards and value chain labelling were rigorously respected. Again, low impact fishing methods, resource conservation for future production and the like was clearly not high on their agenda.

To our surprise, in the large and diversified restaurant landscape in Brussels, we found only two that explicitly referred to sustainability as a major criterion in their client information: Bia Mara and Racines. Bia Mara was particularly interested in a collaboration and also supported the workshop with white wine and beer. During the preparations, we brought together Pintafish and Bia Mara to explore their common interests. Their efforts to offer meals based on sustainably produced fish and seafood is all the more important as a recent study by the Catholic University of Leuven on behalf of OCEANA demonstrated high levels of mislabelling and fraud among restaurants in Brussels.

That provided for a lot of inputs to share with the registered participants during the two workshops. After a welcome drink, participants would make themselves comfortable around small tables and interacted with questions and comments with the presenters.

Cornelia E Nauen of Mundus maris gave the introductory talk which provided lots of information about where fish consumed in Brussels may originate.  She explained the principles of Slow Food/Slow Fish which aim at ensuring good, clean and fair products. In the light of globally falling production from overfished resources she added sustainable production as a Mundus maris principle to the criteria. All criteria were explained and discussed with the participants together with concrete steps to help avoid confusion or a feeling of powerlessness as consumers.

There was e.g. a question about the difference between cultured and wild caught fish. That should be clearly distinguished on the product lable. But even without, cultured salmon is rather easily distinguishable by the broad white bands of fat between the myomeres (the segmented flesh of fish). That is the result of selecting them for fast growth and their comparatively little movements in captivity. Wild salmon and other wild fish have firmer flesh and texture.

The first hand accounts of Wim Versteden of Pintafish and Marco Ferracuti of Bia Mara gave excellent insights into the challenges, but also opportunities of responsible companies. You could have heard a needle fall during Wim's account of how he build up his fish business from an early start as a farmer. It's so much more lively to hear it from the horse's mouth rather than reading it in a paper or report.

As it goes when there is a lot of to and fro in the conversation, we rather let go of the initial agenda and gave all the time for this sort of lively exchange.

As participants still had lots of questions and comments we simply moved the fingerfood and wine for the final tasting session into the workshop room and continued with such reinforcements.

Before leaving participants could take away some useful information materials, including fish rulers for the North Sea and the Baltic, the information sheet about minimum length of fish frequently found in Brussels shops and more tips and info sources to explore at home, e.g. recipes for common seasonal fish to create diversity in the menu. The pocket guide for labelling and a general overview of the European fishing and aquaculture sector by the European Commission were also available.

We thank our friends of Ateliers Plateau 96 for hospitality and cooperative neighbourhood.

So, see you perhaps next year! In the meantime, check out in practice what you have discovered.