“What do you think about this?” he asked, waving a letter under my nose. I was in Poppa's Takeaways on behalf of the extended family and had just finished placing a complex order in two parts when Dave bounced over. I squizzed at it, surprised. Forest and Bird must have written to every takeway in the country for one to have come to Waingaro Road, Ngaruawahia. It was their latest 'best fish guide' with an explanation of how the shop could improve their fish buying choices.
I go to Poppa's because it ranks among the best fish and chip shops in the country, IMHO, so I was happy to see that Dave didn't take the easy route and throw it in the bin. We talked about why some of his best selling fish rank so badly on the sustainability stakes. I knew that a lot of hoki is still caught by bottom trawling (see my column 'fishing stories') and that there are questions about the quota levels. It seems that there are similar concerns around snapper and other popular fish. We talked about what he could do as a fish seller and he decided that he would put a large photocopy of the guide on his shop wall and encourage customers to move towards more sustainable choices, such as kingfish instead of snapper, or gurnard and tarakihi rather than lemonfish. It would be hard to wean the locals off their favourite fry, but he thought he should at least give it a go.
Now I'm not one of those people who think that green consumerism can save the planet. As a general strategy it is doomed to failure, as John Barrett of the Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrates in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. The reason partly comes down to the Jevons Paradox which says that increasing efficiency leads to increased net resource use. For example, more efficient car engines make it cheaper to drive, so people drive more. Conscious consumerism may be preferable to unconscious consumerism but will be inadequate unless it challenges the dynamics of the growth economy. As a tactic, however, green consumerism can be a powerful lever by opening up markets for sustainable products and by shrinking down markets for unsustainable ones. Put simply, if you're going to buy fish then the 'good fish guide' is a useful thing to have in your wallet or purse.
Or even better, to see on the wall of the local chip shop. No one expects shop keepers to put themselves out of business but we should expect them to provide their customers with this kind of information. Of course many takeaways only stock one kind of fish, in which case customers should be asking them to make sure it is one of the more sustainably harvested kinds, as Burger Wisconsin is doing. Its the kind of action that is easy, non threatening and potentially catalytic. There's no need to be rude or aggressive. When you next go to a place that sells cooked fish, ask if they received a guide from Forest and Bird and how they intend to respond to it. This week is a good week to do that, since yesterday was World Oceans Day.
The world's oceans need a bit of a birthday treat right now, what with BP spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico and anti whaling activists in the Japanese courts. New Zealanders have been understandably preoccupied with Peter Bethune, who faces a potential 15 years in jail for attempting a citizens arrest on board a Japanese whaling boat and has just been cut off by Sea Shepherd in a very strangely timed decision. We have been less conscious of the Japanese Greenpeace activists who also face jail terms for exposing corruption in Japanese whaling. May Tangaroa protect them all.