The Death of Fish Sticks Will Success Kill the Pangasius?

The Pangasius, or striped catfish, began taking the European fish market by storm a few years ago. It satisfied a voracious appetite for inexpensive white fish. But its success may become its downfall.

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Manuela Wendland looks through her round glasses at the many different kinds of fish in the fresh food counter. The saleswoman sees whole fish, half fish and fish fillets, all of them arranged on ice and surrounded by lettuce leaves.

Wendland wears a wide, blue apron and a hood over her ash-blond hair. These days, she says, she is seeing more and more Pangasius, a fresh-water species also known as the striped catfish.

It arrives frozen, Wendland says, and has practically no bones; it's mild-tasting and a good fish for kids. She picks up a piece and places it on a scale in a Hamburg supermarket. It weighs 198 grams (7 ounces) and costs €1.96 ($2.50).

The Pangasius made its first appearance in the fresh food counter three years ago. It was a new fish, a crisis fish that had been slated to fill the gap created by overfishing. Every year, the average German eats 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of fish, or about 50 percent more than in 1970. Varieties like cod, ocean perch and spiny dogfish are becoming scarce.

Nowadays, the customers standing in front of Wendland's counter know not to buy cod, wild salmon, ocean perch, tuna or North Sea plaice. According to a recent study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 77 percent of edible fish populations have been fished to the limit or beyond. Even pollack, an inexpensive, white fish commonly used in fish sticks, is become harder to find.

The People's Fish

But customers want inexpensive white fish with low fat content, and the Pangasius has all the beneficial characteristics a fish variety needs for the wealthy world to buy it. It is the new people's fish -- born in Vietnam and bred to suit the tastes of people around the world. It could become the fish of the future -- if it weren't for the fact that mankind is producing the Pangasius to death.

The white and healthy filets of Pangasius in Manuela Wendland's counter are more than just fish filets. They represent a small slice of the global economy. Wendland wraps the Pangasius filet in paper, puts it in a bag, staples the price tag to the bag and says: "This fish swims in the Mekong." In fact, three million tons of Pangasius swim in the Mekong, almost 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away from Wendland's fish stand, where they live in ponds the size of football fields or in cages in the water beneath houses.

This year, Vietnam will export 1.5 million tons of Pangasius filets to the rest of the world, including 143,000 tons to Germany alone. It arrives by ship in the northern ports of Bremerhaven or Hamburg, where it is loaded onto trucks bound for wholesale markets, from which it eventually reaches places like Wendland's or the frozen food sections of many other German supermarket chains as both filets and fish sticks.

Relative to 2006, 22 percent more Pangasius was shipped to Germany in 2007. And if importers have their way, the volume will continue to grow. But, if what the fishermen farming the fish halfway around the world say is true, there might not be as much Pangasius next year.

The Middle Man

One of the importers with a sense of what is happening to the Pangasius is Ulf Blaes. He is standing in a large building on the Mekong River with 1,500 women wearing numbers, white aprons, hoods and masks over their mouths. They look like doctors dissecting fish on long operating tables. "As a wholesaler," says Blaes, "you have to have Pangasius in your product line."

Blaes, a 49-year-old German businessman, runs the Food Company. He works as a middleman in the global food market whose job entails traveling around the world to transform the wishes of customers into demand and then convert the demand into supply. He buys fish from around the globe, including plaice from the world's oceans, zander from Kazakhstan, tuna, barramundi, swordfish and Pangasius from Vietnam.

Blaes mixes himself among the women to get a closer look at their work. Like them, he is wearing an apron, a hood and rubber boots. He travels to Vietnam six times a year to inspect the fish he is buying and the way they are farmed. Each trip involves flying from Germany to Ho Chi Minh City, driving six hours south in his dark Mercedes through small villages and on narrow roads, then taking a ferry across the enormous Mekong River to a fish farm owned by the Ntaco Corporation.

The fishermen arrive in their small boats to meet with Blaes behind the factory. They bring him fish in large tubs with water splashing from the top. The Pangasius industry is now responsible for the livelihoods of 5 million people. Workers in 34 plants can turn the fish into packaged fillets in two hours. The packages are then loaded into containers and shipped to 107 countries.

Blaes is the tallest person in the building and his head sticks out high above those of the Vietnamese workers. He wears canvas tennis shoes. Beneath his work coat, you can see his jeans, his untucked shirt and his Blackberry in his pocket. He uses the device often, reading and typing messages or making calls. His Blackberry connects him from here -- Long Xuyen, a city in the southern Vietnamese province of An Giang -- to the rest of the world. He also uses it to set prices and help him broker trades between the Mekong and the global community of consumers.

An example of the types of messages Blaes types into his Blackberry is: "Color: premium white or light pink. 120 to 230 grams. Five to no more than 10 percent protective glaze." The world wants a fish that is as standardized as a meat patty in a fast food restaurant. This is Blaes's goal -- and, on some days, his problem.

A fish is not an uncomplicated creature. It lives in a body of water that sometimes receives a lot of rain, and sometimes almost no rain at all. Sometimes there is a lot of oxygen in the water, and sometimes not much. Sometimes the fish does well, and sometimes it doesn't.

Global appetite and declining fish populations have made Pangasius a farmed species. But, for centuries, it remained a wild fish that traveled upstream to search for food along the riverbed.

As the fish grew and became more powerful, it reached lengths of up to 1.5 meters (five feet) and weights of up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds). When it was 3 or 4-years-old, it would leave the river's main tributary. The females would deposit their egg sacks and the males their sperm on tree roots in remote, flooded fields. Then, the fish would return to the Mekong and drift back downriver from Cambodia to Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Each year, 20-30 million fish would migrate into the delta region, where they were greeted by fishermen standing ready on the banks to catch the fish with fishing rods, nets and baskets.

French biologists were first to think about bringing the Pangasius onto the world market. They wanted to find out whether the fish could be cultivated, which entailed raising, feeding and breeding it. They wanted to intervene in the slow-moving course of nature.

The biologists built wooden cages, dug deep ponds and developed two species of the fish exclusively for farming purposes. The first was the Basa.

But the scientists soon realized that the Basa grew too slowly. It took an entire year before it weighed the two kilograms (4.4 pounds) it needed to go on the market, and it was also too fatty.

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