Documentary film maker Stephen Oliver and marine biologist Dr Adriana Vergés have teamed up in more ways than just their marriage to produce a hard hitting documentary that will change the way you regard marine life and the fishing industry from the depths of the ocean floor to the offerings at your restaurant table. What’s the Catch? Thursday 30th October at 8.30pm on SBS One.
Have you ever been asked if you’d like chips with your School Shark or lemon wedges with your ocean floor fed, intensively farmed, chemical infused prawns? Thought not, but truth be told many of us undoubtedly consumed one or the other in recent weeks.
It’s not breaking news that our oceans and most of their glorious inhabitants are suffering horribly. From bottom dwellers to majestic whales, no species is completely safe. Somehow though, for many of us this tragic situation and the treatment that these creatures endure for human consumption just doesn’t seem to ‘connect’ to our thinking when we order at the counter and at the restaurant table. We wince and turn away at abhorrent footage of animals suffering in farms and zoos but for some reason some of us don’t regard sea life as being capable of feeling pain. Strange really because their blood sure looks the same.
Hypocrisy runs rampant amongst us in terms of successfully managing a sustainable lifestyle and I’m certainly in that gang. Just this week I cursed loudly at the tv when a well-known breakfast show filmed their presenters at a marine theme park. They were backed by a joyous crowd of holidaymakers in crappy, slogan T-shirts, cheering as dutiful dolphins and other sea creatures jumped through hoops, kissed humans in a clinical swimming pool and danced in the air for a treat of dead, intensively farmed fish. The captive circus of it all made my heart sink.
Later that evening, work weary and with a fridge full of nothing, my two hungry children and their whinging got the better of me and I ducked into the local sushi restaurant on our way home. Less than 10 minutes later we were sat at our kitchen table, tucking into 4 species of fish and seafood surrounded by ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging. The next morning I signed an online petition lobbying against palm oil deforestation because I became tearful when I saw an orphaned baby orangutan half dead on social media. I then fed the dog (rescued from a pound of course), a large tin of unsustainably fished tuna that I found in the depths of the pantry because I’d run out of dog food. To top it all off, I later smugly purchased organic, free range eggs and environmentally sound, cruelty-free bathroom cleaner. Because I’m good like that.
Much as I try in some ways I clearly lack in others and hope as most parents do that my children habitually do better from a young age. Thankfully, an increased number of schools are providing environmental education to their students. My daughter’s primary school is one of them and my nature obsessed 10-year old couldn’t be happier. Her teacher is Ms Malin who has tirelessly dedicated her life to all aspects of environmental conservation and animal welfare from Antarctica, Borneo and Rwanda all the way to a Sydney school playground where litter analysis and the effects on our ecosystem all come into play.
Luckily for those of us who are sadly a little too old to have a Ms Malin in our lives we have a 3 part series called ‘What’s the catch’ coming our way on SBS and it’s not to be missed.
What’s The Catch?
Dr Adriana Vergés studied her degree in marine science at Galway University of Ireland followed by her Masters in Science Communication in Dublin University where she also produced a documentary for The Irish TV Network called ‘While Stocks Last.’ Lastly, she attained her Ph.D. in Ecology at the University of Barcelona in Spain. She has worked as a marine biologist and ecologist in Australia, Turkey, Spain, Japan and Singapore.
Oliver’s back catalogue is impressive with a sizeable list of successful projects behind him. This energetic and witty documentary filmmaker is sharp as a tac and never fails to deliver informative, punchy and humorous films. A firm favourite of mine was his comedic and colourful film ‘Chateau Chunder A Wine Revolution’ which aired on ABC1 in 2012 and BBC4 in the UK, providing an education in winemaking history with an abundance of belly laughs. It premiered at Cinefest Oz and was an official selection at the Napa Valley Film Festival. Clive James, columnist for the UK Daily Telegraph was a fan too declaring “A treasure of a show, charged along like a thriller”.
Respected presenter and farmer Matthew Evans (previously from Heat in the Kitchen and Gourmet Farmer fame) intelligently steers this investigation with diligent persistence and a hint of sarcastic wit which can never be a bad thing when we are faced with such devastating truths about how truly crap we are as a human race.
Dr Adriana Vergés
Heritage and Inspiration
I grew up in Barcelona and my heritage is 100% Mediterranean.
I was drawn to marine biology after spending every single summer during my childhood in a little house perched on a cliff only 50 metres above the sea in Mallorca. This is also where my mum’s family are from. This is where I learned to snorkel, windsurf and dive. What I loved about the idea of studying marine science at university was the thought of delving into the unknown and potentially contributing to some true discoveries. We still know so little about the ocean in comparison to what we know on land, even though it covers over 70% of our planet. I also loved the fact that marine science is by definition very holistic – to understand the oceans you need to know at least a little bit about the atmosphere, about physical and chemical oceanography, about marine geology and about biology – you get all the sciences into one.
On a good day, I’m diving with sharks and turtles and setting up experiments with algae using my little Go Pro cameras on beautiful and remote places like the outer Great Barrier Reef or Ningaloo Reef.I love being underwater and the writing part of my job (and I do spend most of my time writing). On a not so good day, I’m stuck in the office working on budgets for grant applications or marking student exams.
Your role in this project?
I was the scientific advisor for What’s The Catch. I liaised with Steve during the pre-production stages suggesting potential interviewees and advising on the overall narrative and structure from a scientific point of view. When the scripts were written I checked the facts against published reports or scientific papers.
What concerns you the most as a marine biologist?
Globally, there’s no doubt that overfishing is the number one threat to marine life. In Australia, my main additional concerns are in relation to climate change (ocean warming and acidification) and coastal development, which can cause very substantial pollution and huge issues like sedimentation.
What are your tips on how we can all enjoy seafood more sustainably?
Every time you eat seafood, ask what it is, where it’s from and how it was caught and produced.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society have developed a free app to help consumers understand which are the most sustainable fish to eat, it’s a brilliant resource, as is their website.
Amongst the most sustainable seafood to eat are sardines, Australian mussels, oysters, calamari, Spanish mackerel and Yellowfin bream. Try seaweeds, they are delicious and good for you. Avoid eating endangered species such as Bluefin Tuna. School shark is also quite endangered and if often sold as Flake.
To keep up my research on the effects of climate change in the world’s oceans and help develop sustainable solutions for aquaculture.
Background to this project.
Our presenter Matthew Evans has made several seasons of his TV show Gourmet Farmer with the production company Essential Media, so that relationship was already there. He wanted to do something about fish so that’s how it started… but there was a lot of development to do, to work out.
We spent about 18 months making the show – the first 3 or 4 months was just research, then about 3 months filming, then editing, post production, fact checking, publicity, etc.
Is this the first project that you and Adriana have worked on together?
I brought Adriana on as the scientific consultant because I know first hand just how hard she works. I knew that whatever the formal arrangement, she would be on hand 24/7 anyway so it made sense to make it official. And she is a kick arse marine ecologist! It is not quite the first time we have worked together as we both actually worked on the very first Big Brother about 15 years ago… but enough of that already.
The seafood industry is a complicated beast – there are so many stakeholders with an interest in what is said and published about our seafood, that made it difficult navigating around between what people want you to hear and what is actually the truth. And I mean that both ways – industry want you to think it’s all fine, just keep buying and keep eating while conservationists want to highlight the problems and dangers of current consumption without always acknowledging some of the things the industry does well. Our objective was to try to show that when it comes to getting better labelling on our seafood – almost everyone agrees. So we really wanted to show that the need for improved labelling on all our fish is blindingly obvious. We tried very hard to make sure this was balanced and fair, and our feedback so far seems to be that we have achieved that.
The ultimate objective for this project?
Ultimately the main objective is to change the law on seafood labelling so that anyone that sells fish or seafood of any sort, either fresh or cooked, wholesale, retail or restaurants have to tell us what species it is, where it is from and how it was caught or farmed. Most people are already doing the right thing, so let’s not let people hide behind everyone else who is actual doing the right thing.
What shocked you the most while working on this project?
Plenty. I guess the first one is that over 70% of all the seafood we eat in Australia is imported. That is not in itself a terrible thing, indeed there is a strong argument to say that Australia, despite its abundance of ocean could not provide enough seafood for itself anyway (although I dispute that if we actually change the type of fish we eat and farm), but we want to know when our seafood is imported and how it was produced. There are very well managed fisheries and producers overseas but we consumers just don’t know which ones they are as there is not enough information on labelling.
What’s to come after What’s the Catch?
I guess the key is to get the law changed first, which is looking promising as we did manage to get a Senate Inquiry happening which you will see in Ep 3 of What’s the Catch? (Nov 13th, SBS). It might not happen for several months or even years but I am confident it will happen one day. After that, there needs to be a comprehensive awareness campaign to help consumers know how to interpret all this new information. But that is stage 2 really. First we have to make sure that consumers get the information they need to make sustainable choices about their seafood. It won’t fix everything, but you can’t fix anything without it. Finally, I guess we want as many people to watch What’s the Catch? as possible this Thursday 30th Oct, Nov 6th and 13th and then go to labelmyfish.com to join the campaign to make sure we get the change we all so clearly need.
Adriana and I also curate a series of film screenings at the Australian Museum called “Science and Storytelling” which was born out of our lounge room discussions at home! The idea is that we show a marine themed film and then have a Q and A with both the film makers and the scientists who feature in the film to discuss the challenges around communicating science on screen. We have had three events so far and they have all been booked out and warmly received so we want to continue those into next year.
Many thanks to photographer Simon Bernhardt, Dr Adriana Verges, Stephen Oliver, Ms Malin and Icebergs Terrace, Bondi.
I was surprised how little you mentioned seagrass.
Hi Hugh, This interview was conducted before Dr Vergés embarked on her seagrass campaign I believe, as, guided by her, this topic was never mentioned by her in our meeting and in my research of her work prior to our interview, this project had not been mentioned at that time in relevant press.