Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fish ‘n’ Chips… in Laos?

I had the best fish and chips of my life last week, and I was nowhere near England. We were traveling in Thailand and Laos for the past two weeks. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a sleepy river town along the Mekong River, still touched by the influence of French colonization (at least in cuisine and architecture), after three days of weathering the near 110F heat (and ~80% humidity), we treated ourselves to some Western food for dinner. I had a brief internal struggle over whether I should order fish and chips in Asia, but then desire took over, and I went for it. (However, I shouldn’t have worried, given the deliciousness of the Pain au Chocolat all over town). And what I realized—in between exclaiming for the 27th time to Pete how delicious it was—is that I’ve never really liked fish and chips because of the fish (not because of the way it was cooked). Fishy-tasting haddock has nothing on the light, fresh Mekong mystery fish. Inevitably, this got me curious about Mekong fish species, and the state of the fishery there.

Delicious Laotian food, featuring brown sticky rice and chicken laap

It turns out that the Mekong has the second highest fish species richness in the world, surpassed only by the Amazon.1 Some of its native fish species look as though they have been lifted straight from the Pleistocene—600lb giant catfish (which I admit I fantasized would leap out of the water by our boat), and a freshwater stingray that supposedly reaches 1200 pounds! However, in what is a sadly familiar story, the fish diversity is threatened, as many of these species are suffering severe population declines from a combination of overfishing, water pollution, and upstream dams. This is particularly concerning for a country where much of the rural population relies on local fish as the cheapest source of protein.1 At the moment, the main threat to these fish is hydropower development, which under certain development projections could cut off 81% of the Lower Mekong Basin to fish migration, and turn 43% of the this section of river into a reservoir.2 There are currently 16 dams in the Lower Mekong, 47 more planned for completion by 2015, and 77-88 more to be completed by 2030… an astounding rate of development.2 But unlike the U.S., which is currently removing more dams than it’s building, many developing countries are still in the dam building phase. As well as being concerning, this presents an opportunity to research alternative, or at least more environmentally sound, solutions. Perhaps we should move to Laos.

Mekong River at sunset, Luang Prabang
Local fish at market
 We got to observe some interesting native fishing practices while in Laos. On our daytrip up the Mekong to a cave full of over 4000 Buddha statues, we saw people in small wooden fishing boats whacking the water with long sticks. At first, we couldn’t fathom what they were doing—the parting of the Mekong?—but then we saw them jump in the water and haul in fishing nets. Somehow, slapping the water with the poles was encouraging, or even herding, the fish into the nets. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to find out what kind of fish they were catching… but perhaps it’s the same kind that ended up in my belly later that night.

Fisherman on the Mekong
On the boat trip up to Pak Ou Caves
While I’m not sure what kind of fish was served up in the fish and chips that warm night in Luang Prabang—the awkwardness of the language barrier dissuaded me from asking—one way that we, as consumers, can have some sway over the commercial fishery is by being informed fish buyers. My husband and I often embarrass whomever we’re dining out with by asking the waiter where the fish came from (yes, Portlandia style, although I usually forbear from asking the fish’s name). In fact, on our trip to Thailand, we were eating out in an elegant Bangkok restaurant with family, and Pete and I began discussing where the salmon might have come from… only to be greeted by a snort of laughter from across the table. My sister-in-law and her friend had made a bet that we would ask about the salmon (while they cringed in embarrassment)… and indeed, they were right.

In an interesting example of how effective consumer pressure can be, a professor at UC Santa Cruz recently had his Marine Conservation class research which food markets in town sold environmentally sustainable fish, and then create a little pamphlet ranking them (red/yellow/green). Within a week, he got a call from one of the yellow-ranked stores asking how they could change. They were concerned about their public image. Shame, as it turns out, is an excellent motivator. (Even more so than guilt).

We have incredible power as consumers. And the more people that ask where fish comes from when they sit down to eat, the less socially weird it becomes. As “dancing guy” shows, be the one to set the trend…

1) Mekong River Commission (2010). "State of the Basin Report, 2010." MRC, Vientiane, Laos.
2) Baran, E. et al. (2012). “Fish Biodiversity Research in the Mekong Basin.” Ecological Research Monographs.