Think global, act local, and think before you eat
Whether it’s fish and chips by the seaside or prawns on the barbie at Christmas, Aussies love their seafood. For most of us it’s basic to our way of life. For a country that has such a love affair with the ocean and the food we harvest from it, I find it perplexing that we eat so much unsustainable seafood.
The bottom line is that the health of the world’s oceans and its fisheries are in decline (and this includes our own Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s most precious icons). There are a range of actions that are required to reverse this situation, but one on the simplest things anyone can do is to simply stop eating unsustainable seafood.
Why isn’t this already happening? Basically there’s a lack of awareness and action in the general community. The good news, however, is that there are easy things we can do about it.
Sustainable seafood can be defined in various ways, but as Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide (and its counterparts around the world) makes clear, sustainability is not only about the status of individual species stocks, but the impact of fishing on our oceans, which includes the broader effects of fishing on habitats and ecosystems.
There are two key steps needed if we are to shift Australia’s love for seafood from unsustainable to sustainable: accessibility to sustainable seafood and better labelling.
Easily accessible sustainable seafood
As a consumer of seafood, I want sustainable options. However, I usually find that the average fish and chip shop or restaurant has few (sometimes no) sustainable options on the menu.
There are restaurants that specialize in sourcing sustainable seafood but they are all too rare. What we need is to be able to head to the local fish-and-chip shop and reliably find sustainable choices.
“One on the simplest things anyone can do is to simply stop eating unsustainable seafood.”
And as much as we need easy access to sustainable seafood, we also need there to be no access to clearly unsustainable seafood. For example, it’s common to see orange roughy on menus, despite it being listed widely as an unsustainable choice and even listed as ‘conservation dependent’ under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Another problem with sourcing sustainable seafood is inconsistency in seafood guides. Fish that your local supermarket claims is sustainable may not be labelled as such in other guides. Who do you trust? I usually end up walking away empty-handed, but who can blame shoppers for going ahead and buying it anyway if they’re told it’s a responsible choice?
In some ways, the problem is similar to the difficulty of finding a range of organic vegetables at the local fruit and veg shop or supermarket. One way that this has been addressed in agriculture is through ‘fruit-and-veg box’ schemes, in which you choose a provider you trust to supply you with sustainably grown (organic and local) vegetables. Similar schemes for seafood are rare. There’s no doubt that a project like this would help consumers in Australia eat more sustainable seafood.
Stronger labelling laws
Unlike in Europe, Australia’s seafood labelling laws are weak. When you order cooked seafood, you can’t be sure of where it is coming from (Australia or overseas) or what species you are eating, despite what the vendor tells you.
You may have thought your last order of barramundi was a good local choice – either sustainably farmed or locally caught. Two thirds of the barramundi consumed in Australia is imported, and even the barramundi farmed/caught in Australia has varying degrees of sustainability, depending on where it was farmed or caught.
If we can’t rely on labels in fish and chip shops or restaurants, how can we choose sustainable options? This is the focus of one Australian focused environmental program called Label My Fish.
Australia is viewed as a global leader in marine conservation by many other countries, primarily due to the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004, which set aside 33% of its area as no-take zones. This reputation is now at stake.
Australia could be a leader in sustainable seafood production. But first we have to care what’s on our plate.
Walking the talk
As a marine conservation scientist, I’m continuously struck by the prevalence of unsustainable and/or unlabelled seafood at conferences and workshops of conservation scientists. This observation prompted me and Renata Ferrari to assess the sustainability of seafood served at seven marine ecology and conservation meetings held in Australia (attended by over 4000 people from around the world). To score them, we used a publicly available guide which considers population stock status and the impact of fishing or aquaculture method.
Our results showed that seafood was served at all the meetings, and at more than half of the meetings at least one unsustainable species was on offer (Klein and Ferrari, 2014). Only about a third of the meetings offered a sustainable choice. If marine conservationists struggle to eat sustainable seafood at their own meetings, what hope is there for everyone else? Marine scientists and conservationists urgently need to turn science into action, and to lead by personal example.
Klein CJ and R Ferrari (2014). Walk the talk, don’t eat it: a call for sustainable seafood leadership from marine scientists. Environmental Conservation, available on CJO2014. doi:10.1017/S0376892914000253.