Sustainability Confusion West Lake Style – It’s Fish No.4: the Black Pomfret

Scientific Name: Parastromateus niger

Common Names: Black Pomfret, Black Butterfish
Origin: China
Date: 1st September 2012
Where: Fusion in Discovery Bay
Weight: 1.210 catty (605 g)
Cost: $77.40 (64$ per catty)
Recipe: West Lake Style poached with rice and broccoli
WWF Sustainable Seafood Guide: “confused”

I try to make an informed decision when buying seafood. But the Black Pomfret stumped me! Here is what I found:

  • WWF Hong Kong’s sustainable seafood guide did not list this fish at all, what does that mean?
  • WWF China has no sustainable seafood guide I could find (I think they are working on it still)
  • WWF Singapore listed it as “AVOID” if wild caught in Indonesia (what about other places?)
  • WWF Indonesia lists it as “AVOID” in general and “THINK TWICE” if caught by gill net or lift net
  • WWF Malaysia lists it as “AVOID” if caught by trawling from Malaysia

If anyone from WWF is reading this: the sustainable seafood guides are great and useful, but need to be trans-national and regionally integrated. Fish do not know borders (neither do a lot of fishing boats) so don’t think so local. I realize the paper pocket guide would become unwieldy if all countries were involved in the same guide, but what about the website, apps etc.? Why not make them as global as the internet and as trans-national as the fish?

Now my Black Pomfret was sold as “Origin: China”. What do I do? There is no WWF China sustainable seafood guide I can find anywhere. Annoyed as I was about this, I decided to write the following email to Park’n Shop Customer Service:

Dear Customer Service,
 I recently bought a black pomfret fish (Parastromateus niger) from 
you’re the fresh fish counter at Fusion store in Discovery Bay. 
The fish is marked as origin “China”. As I try to only buy sustainable 
seafood, I am disappointed that I am unable to make an informed decision 
based on the labeling of your fish. When it comes to buying sustainable
seafood it is very important to know how the fish was caught (farmed, 
gill net, line caught, purse seine, trawl etc) and which exact region
it comes from. Simply stating “China” gives no real information as it 
covers a large area of several seas with entirely different ecologies, 
such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Gulf of Tonkin. 
Even in just the South China Sea, there are several biological regions, 
which can be very different biologically and in terms of fishery stocks.
Please supply to me more information on where and how your marine fresh 
fish in general and the black pomfret are sourced.
In future please update your fresh fish labels with more information, 
including the method of capture and the specific ocean region where is 
was caught or farmed, rather than simply stating “China”.

Here is the response I received:

Thank you for your email expressing your concern on the Black Pomfret that we sell in our Discovery Bay Store.

We have checked with our suppliers and they inform us that the Black Pomfret supplied to the Hong Kong market is caught by trawling in the South China Sea from Shantou to Hainan Island. We hope this information can help you for selecting and we have passed your valuable suggestion regarding the fish label to the related departments for reviewing. It is always our belief that continuous feedback from customers will not only improve our goods and service but also allow us to make shopping in our stores an enjoyable experience. Meanwhile, we look forward to your continued support.

None of the Sustainable Seafood Guides mention Black Pomfret from the South China Sea, but as Park’n’Shop tells me the fish is wild caught by trawling. Trawling is amongst the most indiscriminate and destructive fishing practices. It decimates the whole seabed and results in huge by catches of fish and invertebrates. It’s the marine equivalent of bulldozing a forest to hunt a stag. So my verdict is definitely AVOID the Black Pomfret in future.

On a recent trip to Macau’s Maritime Museum I saw some of the former fishing grounds for this species – mainly at the seaward end of the Pearl River Estuary around small islets and on the eastern side of Shangchuan Island (Guangdong). I doubt very much any of these grounds are still fished for this species, seeing as both Hong Kong’s and Macau’s fishing industries have collapsed from over-fishing.

Black Pomfret (Parastromateus niger) range
Computer Generated Native Distribution Map of Parastromateus niger (reviewed)., version of Aug. 2010. Web. Accessed 4 Sep. 2012.

Herklots & Lin – my 1962 guide to this project – called this fish an excellent food fish – marketed fresh, or dried or salted. It inhabits coastal areas with muddy bottom where it spends the daytime near the bottom and comes to the surface at night to feed on zooplankton. Near the water surface it often swims on its side. It can enter estuaries and normally forms large schools. It occurs in the Indo-West Pacific from East Africa to southern Japan and Australia with a depth range of 15 – 105 m and can grow to a maximum size of about 75 cm.

The Meal:

I knew this fish would taste similar to Pompano so I tried a different recipe Hangzhou/ West Lake Style fish. Its probably meant to be cooked with a nice freshwater fish (carp or similar) but I am not picky. The result was good, but I misjudged how much corn starch was needed to thickened the sauce properly, so it ended up more watery than it should have been. Still 7/10 for the recipe, and in terms of the fish itself, it was very similar to Pompano with nice firm flesh and big bones that make it easy to filet or at least easy to avoid choking yourself or spending hours picking away at your meal.

black pomfret cooking
The Black Pomfret Stewing in a Nice Shiaoxing Rice Wine mix
black pomfret west lake style
Ready! Black Pomfret West Lake Style

I give it a 8/10, although I will not buy it again on account of the AVOID status from WWF

My wife said it was the best fish yet and gives it 8/10 (I think).

Next week’s fish…I have no idea, lets see what I can find from my list.