Local snoek not all it appears to be

Snoek is one of the Western Cape’s most well-known delicacies, yet, more than half the snoek found in some of Cape Town’s retail chains are imported from New Zealand. SA’s Snoek and New Zealand’s barracouta are the same species, but the label “snoek” may give the impression the fish is caught locally.

When asked about their snoek, Woolworths spokesperson Neeran Naidoo said: “we’d love to offer customers locally caught snoek. However, snoek is not caught in commercial quantities locally to ensure supplies through the year. Local commercial fishermen focus on other fish species.”

However, senior lecturer and fisheries expert at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, Dr Moeniba Isaacs, disagrees.

“There is enough snoek caught in South Africa for Woolworths and Pick n Pay,” said Isaacs.

According to a report in West Cape News, the Fishing Industry Handbook 2011 shows that in 2010, total snoek landed in South Africa was 10,292,609kgs – nearly 65% by informal line fishers, much of the rest by commercial hake trawlers – and the total barracouta imported from New Zealand 5,690,968kgs.

“The issue is with having ice at the landing site. There is a lack of investment in that cold chain. It is cheaper to buy imported snoek,” said Isaacs.

A large proportion of Woolworths food products are sourced locally and their website states that the company is “committed to helping existing local suppliers”.

But Woolworths provided no answer as to why they do not establish relationships with the local fisherman, saying only the “quality of the local snoek is inconsistent”.

Even buying snoek from wholesaler and retailer Snoekies does not guarantee the locally-caught product.

Snoekie’s procurement director, Marco Paioni, said up to 70% of their snoek was imported barracouta from New Zealand, adding, “the two species are identical”.

“All our snoek is local, salted fresh and frozen,” said butchery general manager of Pick n Pay, George van Diggelen.

“We are not importing from New Zealand, there is enough local product. We buy from wholesalers.”

Van Diggelen said Pick n Pay does not deal directly with fishers but “in future we will look at approaching the local fisherman”.

However, Pick n Pay buys their snoek through Snoek Wholesalers. When West Cape News spoke to Snoek Wholesalers the spokesperson confirmed the company supplied Pick n Pay but would not disclose where the snoek was caught. “That is confidential information. I can not tell you where we get our snoek from, it is company policy.”

However, packaging labels on snoek bought in Pick n Pay states the fish come from New Zealand.

Snoek is the main target species for Western Cape line fishers and contributes more than 50% of the line fish landed, said Isaacs, but Cape fishers were being exclude from the cold chain into major retailers.

With snoek being a “traditionally and culturally important” part of South Africa since the 1600s, Isaacs argues that ‘snoek’ should be a local, trademarked product name that can only be used for fish caught in South African waters, much the same way as champagne refers only to sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France.

“The labeling should be honest. If it is from New Zealand it should say barracouta.”

Janine Basson, Manager of Seafood Consumer Outreach at SA Sustainable Seafood Initiative, said: “we would support the following information on the product packaging: species name, method of capture, country where the species was caught. This is the level of information that you require to make a sustainable seafood choice”.