There was a time – not long ago at all, in fact – when “Berlin seafood” was an oxymoron. Why shouldn’t it have been? This was a city 200km from the nearest ocean, where fish was historically consumed smoked or cured, if at all. Even as “vegetarian, but I eat fish” became a common dietary orientation, the options were dismal: frozen salmon, rubbery shrimp or bland fillets labelled only as ‘whitefish’, all of dubious origin.
Have a look at today’s restaurant menus, though, and you’d think the German capital had magically relocated to the coast. Oysters, once barely sighted outside of KaDeWe, have become as commonplace a starter as bread and butter. Crudo, sashimi and ceviche abound, and grilled octopus or seared monkfish is as likely to show up as an entree as steak or chicken. Even more magical is that all this oceanic bounty is touted as “sustainable”. Yes, even the tuna.
“I felt like people needed to taste what proper seafood is”
How did this happen? Two words: Fish Klub. Four years after Margaux Friocourt first began hosting pop-ups in Neukölln bars as “Oyster Klub”, her seafood import business has become the go-to supplier for the city’s trendiest dining spots, not to mention the many home chefs who frequent its pair of shops in Kreuzberg and City West and the foodies about to flood its new restaurant pop-up (May 4 – July 31). At the same time, she and her team are among Berlin’s highest-profile advocates for sustainable fish and fishing methods, presenting themselves as a (nearly) guilt-free alternative to an ethically fraught industry.
Providing a safe harbour for eco-conscious pescatarians wasn’t Friocourt’s original motivation for Fish Klub. “I felt like people needed to taste what proper seafood is, you know?” she says. A Frenchwoman with roots on the Breton coast, she grew up eating fresh fish and oysters pulled straight from the ocean. On moving to Berlin in 2016, she found herself dismayed by the city’s seafood culture – or lack thereof. “Whatever you could get was fished by big trawlers, huge boats that are at sea for like two weeks. It means the fish aren’t well-handled and they lose their taste. Compared to what I eat in France, it’s like the difference between a zucchini from a farm and one from a supermarket.”
The case for traceability
Those mega-trawlers don’t only affect the taste of the fish. They destroy sea beds, scoop up large amounts of “bycatch” (non-targeted species that are then thrown out) and, due to their fuel intake and the carbon they release from the ocean floor, have a yearly CO2 footprint equivalent to the entire aviation industry. Operated by Dutch, Scandinavian, Chinese, American or eastern European corporations, they relentlessly prowl the oceans, moving on to new areas once stocks are depleted. They’re the main source of some of Germany’s favourite saltwater fish, including herring, cod and Alaskan pollock (aka Seelachs, the species used in frozen fish fingers).
“I’ve seen Seaspiracy, what can you tell me so that I can keep eating fish?”
Along the coasts of Brittany and Vendée, however, a handful of family-owned shellfish farms and fisheries still do things the old-fashioned way: hauling in their catch with lines or small nets, concentrating on species that are plentiful and in season. These are Friocourt’s trusted suppliers, a network she cultivated over years of sourcing ingredients for restaurants and luxury hotels. “Most of them use the Pavillon France label, which has a bunch of requirements: small boats, no bigger than 20 metres long, which go out at sea in the morning and come back the same night with only two or three people on board.”
She plays a video sent from one such boat, displaying the day’s catch: a handful of crates, each containing about a dozen shimmering Atlantic pollock. “Compared to a trawler, the output is nothing. But it’s done with love and care with respect for the product.”
For Fish Klub, sustainability is tied to traceability: knowing the exact source of a given sea creature allows Friocourt and co. to verify they’re not contributing to overfishing or marine habitat destruction. That’s how they were able to put tuna, that most taboo of ocean fish, back on Berlin menus.
“Even me, before I started Fish Klub, I wasn’t eating tuna anymore,” Friocourt says. “It’s understandable. We’ve been told for like 30 years that tuna are endangered, which is true – in some parts of the world. But with us, we’re only getting it from around Brittany, only line-caught, and only in summer, when it’s in season. For each, I receive a certificate telling me where in the Atlantic it was caught, the name of the fisherman, the harbour, the weight of the fish itself… If we have tuna at all, it’s because there’s a lot to be fished that season, and we have the reports to prove it.”
This kind of re-education – updating confused customers on which fish they “can” and “can’t” eat – is integral to Fish Klub’s mission. Their greatest challenge, though, isn’t rehabilitating tuna’s bad reputation. It’s steering customers away from Germany’s number-one favourite fish.
The trouble with Lachs
It’s protein-rich, cheap and ubiquitous, its image so unblemished that many a so-called vegetarian makes an exception for it. Yet the salmon served at your local sushi bar, French bistro or Aussie brunchery might just be the most problematic fish of them all.
Because, in the words of Friocourt, “wild salmon are so rare they basically don’t exist,” virtually all of the Lachs eaten in Germany is farmed, primarily by massive Norwegian aquaculture concerns. In March, Fish Klub took part in a panel talk at Markthalle IX called “Lachsfreie Zone!” in which experts explained the many problems with this approach: The fish are crammed together in too-small pens, necessitating the heavy use of antibiotics and toxic pesticides to keep diseases and parasites at bay. The chemicals damage the surrounding ocean ecosystem, while finned escapees spread sea lice to their wild counterparts. Then there’s the feed, composed of meal and oil from “lower-value” fish trawled for and processed in the Global South (depriving food-insecure countries of a valuable nutrition source) along with large amounts of Brazilian soy (linked to Amazon deforestation).
Fish Klub used to offer Norwegian and Scottish salmon certified as organic or Label Rouge, both signifying lower fish density and less pesticide and antibiotic use. “Starting a fish business in Germany without salmon is a challenge,” admits Friocourt. But since the beginning of this year, they themselves have been a “Lachsfreie Zone”, instead promoting French trout and overlooked species like plaice, meagre and red pandora. For the most part, it’s been working. “I’ve been happily amazed that customers aren’t asking about [salmon] anymore … As weird as it sounds, the pandemic has been helpful. All of the restaurants were closed, so everyone was cooking at home, and they were getting experimental. We could sell things like needlefish, really special species, and they’d be super popular.”
“If anyone knows a fisherman in Brandenburg willing to send their fish to us, we’ll definitely take it!”
At the Markthalle IX event, German environmental journalist Manfred Kriener posited that the most sustainable salmon alternatives could be found in Berlin’s backyard: the sturgeon, char and trout farmed in the lakes and ponds of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It sounds good in theory, says Fish Klub sales director Yves-Marie Origlia. “For a while, we were working with two well-known German freshwater fish suppliers – I won’t say who – but we later learned from others within the fish scene that they weren’t as sustainable as they seemed. We’ve reached out to a number of smaller fisheries in Brandenburg, but they all want to sell the fish where they are, not send it to Berlin. You could put a call out in your article – if anyone knows a fisherman in Brandenburg willing to send their fish to us, we’ll definitely take it!”
In the meantime, he says, Fish Klub is happy to remain “specialists of the sea world”, the environmental cost of trucking fish from the French coast to Berlin three times a week notwithstanding. “I’ve been trying to calculate our carbon footprint, but we still don’t know the exact number,” Origlia admits. “We use trucks, which are definitely better than the planes other companies are using, and we share them – we don’t have our own Fish Klub truck. Compared to all the other options, it’s the best we can do.”
And so, outside of field trips to Brandenburg Fischerhöfe or the invasive crayfish hauled out of the Tiergarten lake each year, these French folk remain Berlin’s most reliable bet for sustainable seafood. But they may soon have competition from a very unlikely source: Germany.
The return of German fish
According to the Slow Food association, March 11 was this year’s “End of Fish Day”: the date by which Germans had consumed a volume of fish equivalent to the country’s entire annual fishing output. Everything else – in other words, about 80 percent of the seafood we eat – is imported.
And as it turns out, even the seafood sold at Germany’s most famous fish markets might have an international resumé. That’s the hard truth uncovered by ex-fundraising manager and fishing enthusiast Lars Bäumer when he moved to Hamburg a few years ago. “I was really excited to get fresh fish from the German coast, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I started investigating why that’s the case.”
What he found was a convoluted international seafood trade in which German fisheries must bring their catch to auctions in Denmark or The Netherlands in order for it to be sold. There, it’s haggled over by wholesalers – including buyers from Germany, who transport it back to places like Hamburg’s Altona Fischmarkt. “Germany has really lost its significance as a fishing nation – it hasn’t had its own fish auction since the 1980s. But what this means is that a lot of time and freshness is being lost.” Not to mention the CO2 footprint of all that transport and refrigeration. “I thought to myself, there must be a better way.”
In 2019, he and his childhood friend Andreas Reinhardt began reaching out to small fisheries along the North Sea and Baltic coasts. Their criteria resembled that of Fish Klub: traditional methods, zero trawling, seasonal and abundant stocks only. “We wanted to establish a network where we could get the fish directly from the harbour, pick it up with our own cooling logistics and get it to restaurants. It’s super-fresh, the fishermen make more money, and we know every part of the chain: where it was caught, when it was caught, even who caught it.”
Today, their company Frisch Gefischt delivers just-caught plaice, mackerel, hake, haddock and more to locavore-minded restaurants across Hamburg – and, as of recently, Berlin. When Dutch seafood importers Küstlichkeiten called it quits in mid-2021, they gave Frisch Gefischt access both to their prized Wadden Sea oysters (among other sustainably caught North Sea delicacies) and their chef connections, including the likes of Lode & Stijn, Barra, Kin Dee and Rutz. A direct-to-customer platform is slated for next year.
While Hamburg chefs had to be sweet-talked into replacing their precious salmon and cod with less familiar species, Berliners have been more receptive. “There are a lot of chefs here who take the time to understand where their products come from – it makes me happy to see that they care about it.” That may have to do with the educational groundwork laid by Fish Klub, as well as a pandemic that gave restaurants a reprieve from their hectic schedules. “Normally they’re operating under stress. Corona gave them a chance to think about their sources and suppliers, and maybe change structures for the first time.”
Eat fish, but not too much
In spring 2021, Netflix released the documentary Seaspiracy, a critique of the seafood industry that warned of “empty oceans” by 2048 and advocated for a total end to fish consumption. Not long after, says Origlia, Fish Klub began receiving messages from concerned Berliners. “They were saying: okay, I’ve seen Seaspiracy, what can you tell me so that I can keep eating fish? I basically just tell them what we’re doing, and how it’s different from what they saw in the movie, and they either understand it or they don’t. We’re not trying to prove anything – if someone wants to go vegan because of Seaspiracy, feel free.”
Friocourt’s view is slightly less charitable. “There are so many people making a living off of fish, whose families have been fishing for 10 generations, using ancient methods… I think they should have the right to live and work, you know what I mean? I have nothing against vegans, but most of them eat avocados and soy, which are a nightmare, ecologically speaking. People should just get more informed.”
Both Fish Klub and Frisch Gefischt position their coastal imports not as a more sustainable option compared to veganism or locavorism, but to a seafood mass market that would continue without them. It’s with this justification that both companies have an eye on expansion throughout Germany, despite the potential environmental impact of the additional transport and refrigeration. “The question is, what’s the baseline?” says Bäumer. “If we stayed in Hamburg, it’s not like people everywhere else wouldn’t eat any fish – they’d just stick with the sources they already had. Whereas if we offer them an alternative, which might not be perfect but is definitely better than the status quo, we’ll have a net positive impact on the world.”
To be sure, it’s a more expensive alternative, one that Berliners wouldn’t have countenanced as recently as half a decade ago. But with residents’ growing eco-consciousness (and disposable income) comes a willingness to treat fish and shellfish like the luxury product it ought to be. According to Origlia, “We get students at our stand at Markthalle IX who say they’ve almost stopped eating fish, but still come to us for the ‘fish of the week’ … It’s just a different way of thinking.”
As industrial fishing devours more and more of our oceans, eating less but better fish may not just be a different way, but the only way. Or as Bäumer only slightly hyperbolically puts it: “It’s a ticking bomb – even the fishmongers themselves don’t know how risky the ground is they stand on. I think we have another five years, maximum, that things can exist the way they have been. And then people and chefs will have to realise we can’t keep living like this, or it will only lead to destruction.”