Sourcing sustainable seafood, it sounds pretty simple right? You find out which species are over-fished and don’t buy them. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As The Food Sage’s investigation of sustainable seafood discovered, it’s one hell of a murky fish pond.
The Australian Marine Conservation Organisation considers six wild-caught species of fish to be overfished, or vulnerable to over-fishing: blue warehou, gemfish, orange roughy, shark, southern bluefin tuna and blue grenadier. In its sustainable seafood guide, the organisation also advises consumers to say no to farmed Atlantic salmon – which puts significant additional pressure on the marine environment. Imported hake and canned tuna (predominantly skipjack, albacore and yellowfin) are also in the group’s no-go zone. What’s more, we should think twice about buying barramundi, blue-eye trevalla, flathead, ocean perch and prawns (particularly aquaculture prawns) – as these are heavily targeted stocks. That wipes just about every fish i cook with off the menu.
The government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) begs to differ. At the recent National Outlook Conference in Canberra it listed six over-fished species. And it only agreed with the Marine Conservation Organisation on three: shark, southern bluefin tuna, and gemfish. Unlike the conservation group it does not list entire species as being in danger, more specifically honing in on some individual stocks instead. For example, rock lobster (northern zone, South Australia), snapper (Queensland, NSW and Western Australia), shark in Western Australia and the school shark Australia-wide), prawns (NSW), tuna (southern bluefin), crabs (Tasmania).
A different outlook
On the other side of the shark net, the Sydney Fish Market, which sells 70 tonnes of fish daily, says all the fish it sells is sustainable, even though it stocks some of these so-called over-fished species. On its web page about sustainable seafood, the market says it “meets or exceeds all requirements of relevant environmental legislation and regulations”. That is, any fish that makes its way to the market – even southern bluefin tuna, which shows up rarely (just one tuna, once a year, if that, according to managing director Grahame Turk) – is caught under a fishery management plan that has been approved by the government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Under the EPBC Act’s list of threatened fauna, four species of fish are considered “conservation dependent” – orange roughy, school shark, eastern gemfish, and southern bluefin tuna. This means they are threatened due to historic decline but are now under sustainable management arrangements. This is why Mr Turk considers the rare southern bluefin tuna that arrives on the fish market’s auction floor as being from a sustainable source. It’s a controversial, but legally sound, school of thought.
Meanwhile, award-winning sustainable fishing author Tom Kime claims he uses only sustainable seafood at his Sydney café Fish & Co, yet he ships Alaskan salmon hundreds of thousands of kilometres to his door. He says wild-caught Alaskan salmon (which spawns several times before dying) is fished according to Inuit tradition where the environment is respected. It is then frozen and shipped to Australia, which is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than farmed Atlantic Tasmanian salmon that spawns just once in its lifetime. It requires five kilograms of wild fish to raise one kilogram of farmed Atlantic salmon that is then air-freighted fresh throughout Australia daily – all-in-all this has a far greater impact on the environment.
Kime uses local, sustainable, produce wherever possible – such as yelloweye and mulloway from the Coorong in South Australia, which is certified sustainable by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and Spencer Gulf prawns, which are in primary assessment from the MSC. But he also advocates the use of hoki from New Zealand (otherwise known as blue grenadier), which the Marine Conservation Organisation advises consumers not to buy, scallops from Patagonia, hake from South Africa and clams from Vietnam. According to Kime, there is insufficient sustainable fish stock available in Australia, therefore it is better to ship some sustainable catch from overseas rather than further depleting struggling local sources. His philosophy flies in the face of the ever-growing “eat local” movement.
Clear as mud
These are the muddy waters of sustainable fishing that consumers wade through daily. For those who want to do the right thing, and protect fish stocks for future generations, it is unclear what is right or wrong. Armed with our trusty sustainable fishing guides we go off in search of sustainable catch, but just what’s sustainable and what’s not is ill-defined and often mis-leading. Exactly which species are over-fished, or more specifically which stocks are over-fished, differs depending on who you talk to.
One side insists that claims of over-fishing are out-of-date, or alarmist, while those who warn against over-fishing say there is too much green-washing going on.
Certainly sustainable seafood is a burgeoning industry. In the United Kingdom, sustainable seafood – which is usually identified by an eco-label that fisheries can use once they have passed an expensive certification process – increased 154 per cent to be valued at £178 million between 2007 and 2009, according to the Ethical Consumerism Report 2010.
The MSC, a n0t-for-profit organisation which operates one of a number of certification schemes, has been operating in Australia for about five years. Three fisheries have been certified: Western Rock Lobster Fishery, Lakes and Coorong fishery in South Australia, and Mackeral Ice Fish fishery. Two more are in final assessment. About 30 have had pre-assessment certification – a confidential review that tells them how they would perform under full assessment. Pre-assessment costs between $10,000 and $15,000, and full assessment between $60,000 and $150,000, depending on the size and complexity of the fishery.
In an environment where consumers are increasingly concerned about the provenance of food purchases and the sustainability of the environment and food stocks, an eco-label is appealing. MSC has 67 products on the market in Australia – mostly frozen and tinned brands. Aldi, John West and Birdseye support its brand.
The day before the MSC-driven Sustainable Seafood Day on March 18, Woolworths announced its sustainable seafood strategy, including the introduction of MSC-certified canned salmon into its Select range and said it will introduce certified albacore tuna next month (which the Marine Conservation Organisation disapproves of). Woolworths also delisted yellowfin tuna and orange roughy from its stores.
On the same day, Coles announced that the World Wildlife Fund was reviewing its seafood purchasing practices and more certified sustainable seafood would be introduced and some existing fish would be phased out. In a press release, Coles pointed out that it stocked tinned skipjack tuna (which, again, the Marine Conservation Organisation disapproves of), and last year removed orange roughy from its stores. If the supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon, it’s because sustainability sells.
On the same day the South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association issued a media release that said the decision by Coles and Woolworths not to sell orange roughy was:
“not based on current science or sustainable management practices” and was “misleading for customers”.
“The Association has confirmed that Coles and Woolworths have not taken advice from CSIRO who is the current orange roughy stock assessor or from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority who is the current Government management agency.”
Currently, no Australian fishmongers carry MSC-labelled products. Anyone who stocks the blue eco-labelled produce – be they shops or restaurants – must obtain a chain of custody certification, which costs time and money to be approved. Fishmongers, no doubt, don’t want to restrict their trade. And if they take the view of the Sydney fish market, their catch is legally sustainable if they follow EPBC regulations.
So where does that leave the consumer? Pretty confused, no doubt.
For my own part I’ve decided to stop thinking about which species are unsustainable (as un-politically correct as that may sound) – because that path is too fraught with contradictions. What I’m going to focus on instead are species of fish that are plentiful: things like leatherjacket, mackerel, and sardines. I’ll give cooking with these little beauties a shot. It will push me out of my comfort zone and it will be my own effort to help protect stocks where sustainability is – at the very least – in doubt.
Let’s call it The Food Sage’s seafood challenge. I’ve never been big on cooking fish – it’s a hard sell in my household. So I’m looking for foolproof recipes for some lesser-known varieties of fish. Go on, send them in! I’ll post news of my successes and failures. And i’ll share the recipes that work well, so readers can join in. I’m not saying that all the seafood i cook will be lesser known varieties (there is a recipe for steamed barramundi in Shaoxing dressing that i am itching to try) but i will try my hardest. When i fall off the wagon – or the tinny – i’ll let you know.
I am also going to do my homework, so that I am better informed. Because there is nothing worse than feeling like you have taken the bait, for someone else’s cause.
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