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There's plenty more fish in our sea -- so why don't we eat it?


Something fishy: Dáithí Ó Sé,
Max Kelly , and Alabama
Pashely cook haddock at a
Bord Bia promotion
Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

Something fishy: Dáithí Ó Sé, Max Kelly , and Alabama Pashely cook haddock at a Bord Bia promotion Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

Something fishy: Dáithí Ó Sé, Max Kelly , and Alabama Pashely cook haddock at a Bord Bia promotion Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

I f you were flicking through TV channels last week, then chances are that you saw a little of Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver's Fish Fight on Channel 4. This is a campaign by the two chefs to persuade British people to experiement with different types of fish.

It seems that the British public are great fans of salmon and cod. And the situation is no different on this side of the Irish Sea.

Salmon and cod account for 60% of the Irish fish market. And most of the cod eaten here is imported because the Irish fishing industry has notoriously low quotas for cod catches.

Our addiction to cod means that overall about 40 percent of the fish eaten on this island nation is actually imported.

Meanwhile, the waters around Ireland are full of up to 40 different species of fish, many of which are regarded as delicacies in Spain and France.

So is it time that we Irish got a bit more adventurous in our eating habits?

"I don't think people here realise the variety of fish in Irish waters," says John Nolan, who runs the Castletownbere Fisherman's Co-op.

"We export most of these fish because there just isn't a market here for them. Yet on the continent, Spain in particular, they'll pay good money for a fish caught here that most Irish people won't even have heard of."

Take the fish known here as black bass which the Spanish call Mero. "It's a prehistoric-looking fish," says Nolan. "It's dark and because it comes from the deep it has this thick head to withstand pressure. But it tastes beautiful, not unlike John Dory."

Most of our black bass goes to Spain where consumers there snap it up.

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Eddie Sheehan is chairman of the Irish Fisherman's Organisation and operates three boats out of Castletownbere, fishing from Killybegs to the Dunmore East.

"We've a very low monthly quota for cod, so when we do catch it we have to throw it back into the sea because we're not allowed land it. I'd say cod, monkfish and haddock are the three types of fish we end up throwing back the most," he says.

There are many who claim that on entering the EU -- or the EEC as it was then known -- Ireland failed to negotiate adequate fishing rights in our own waters. We have on average the right to land just 8% of the fish in Irish territorial waters.

Aside from the quota problem, the Irish fishing industry has been hit by high fuel prices and competition from Asia and South America.

"I've heard it said that the airports are now the biggest fishing ports because so many fish are flown into the country," says Sheehan.

Meanwhile, prices are falling because consumers, even in overseas markets, have become more cost-conscious.

The Spanish are big fish fans, eating about 40kg per head a year. The average European fish consumption is in the region of 24kg per head. But here in Ireland we consume just 16kg of seafood per head each year.

Quite why we don't eat so much fish is anybody's guess. Some claim it relates to the former ban on eating meat in the Catholic Church on Fridays. Fish somehow became known here as penitential food.

Then there was the decline of the traditional fishmonger, a trend that's starting to change, according to industry experts.

Donal Buckley of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the State agency charged with promoting the Irish fish industry, claims that there's a new-found interest in the fish market.

"There's a growing awareness that fish is good for us," he says. "While we might not eat it at home, we tend to eat fish when we go out to restaurants.

"So we're looking at how we can encourage people to cook fish at home. There are new products on the market like 'fish in a bag' where you don't have to prepare the fish at all."

He believes that many people are frightened of preparing and cooking fish, particularly if it's an unusual variety.

"I think that's something the industry is starting to deal with. If we want consumers to eat more fish then we need to make sure it's presented to them in the right format -- it's boned and filleted, and also that there's advice about how to cook it," he says.

BIM is compiling a 'seafood circle' list of fish experts around the country. It includes recommendations for fishmongers and fish counters at supermarkets.

It's also got plenty of recipes and tips for preparing and storing fish.

"If we could only get Irish people to eat fish once a week, we'd double the size of the market," says Buckley.

For more information check out www.seafoodcircle.ie

For fish recipes check out Kinsale-based Martin Shanahan's Fishy Fishy Cookbook available from his restaurant of the same name (www.fishyfishy.ie)

For more details on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight and for recipes check out: www.fishfight.net. He also has a cookbook dedicated to fish called 'The River Cottage Fish Book'.

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