It is now well publicised that the world’s fish stocks are in trouble.
Decades of mismanagement and continued overfishing have reduced many species to the brink of extinction. There is hope, however. Consumers, government and the seafood industry are becoming aware of their impact and as a result fishers and farmers are changing their practices.
As consumers, our role is to be mindful of our seafood consumption. We can choose more sustainable species from well-managed fisheries and send a clear message up the supply chain (to chefs, retailers, wholesalers, farmers and fishers) that responsible practices are a viable and necessary part of their industry.
In this guide we break down the issues and then lay out some actions you can take to ensure your seafood fix is ethical.
What are the issues?
Importing and exporting mania
Australia differs from many other developed countries in that a large proportion of Australian seafood, which could otherwise supply the domestic market, is sold to export markets.
Meanwhile, 66% of the seafood eaten in Australia is imported from countries including Thailand, China, New Zealand and Vietnam. That means over 220,000 tonnes of seafood is imported annually. This makes seafood our largest food product import by far.
What type of seafood is imported?
Canned fish such as Tuna and Salmon, frozen fish fillets, Prawns and Squid are the major imported items. More than half of all fresh and frozen seafood imports are frozen fillets (61%) and frozen prawns (18%), predominantly from Thailand, China, New Zealand and Vietnam. These products meet consumer demand for low-cost seafood products. Frozen and thawed basa (catfish) fillets from farms in Vietnam are now the most commonly and widely eaten import. Most imported fresh whole fish comes from New Zealand, as well as a significant portion of the frozen fish fillets.
The problem with prawns
Prawns were once regarded as a treat and only served on special occasions like birthdays, wedding anniversaries and Christmas lunches. Nowadays, they’re cheap enough to be thrown on or in anything: curries, pasta, sushi, pizza. What happened and what is the true cost?
In Australia, about 50% of the Prawns we consume are imported, mostly from China and South East Asia. They’ sold at cheaper prices than local prawns. We may think we’re getting a good deal, but the environment and farming communities are paying the true cost.
Environmental destruction, food insecurity, human rights abuses and illegal land-seizures are just a few examples of the problems associated with prawn farming in Asia and Latin America.
The tuna pickle
Lot’s of us are big fans of canned tuna and sushi but our insatiable appetite for tuna has driven many of species to the brink of extinction. In 2021, species such as the Pacific Bluefin Tuna, Southern Bluefin Tuna and Bigeye Tuna were categorised as either threatened, vulnerable or endangered.
The good news is that enforcement of sustainable fishing quotas and cracking down on illegal fishing has had a proven impact on replenishing tuna stocks.
Why does tuna matter?
Besides being delicious and wanting to preserve tuna stocks for generations to come, tuna, like sharks, are apex predators – top of the food chain with not many natural predators. Taking too many apex predators out of our oceans disrupts the entire ecosystem.
Tuna are slow-growing and long-lived fish, meaning they take a long time to get to an age of sexual maturity in order to reproduce. This means populations in decline can take a long time to recover. Also, a common practice is to catch wild juvenile tuna and raise them in sea-cage farms, where they are fattened on wild fish to meet the requirements of fat content that influence the price of tuna. This stops them from reproducing in the wild.
Are the health concerns around eating tuna valid?
Yes. The health concerns are around mercury levels because mercury can affect brain and nervous system function and development, particularly in developing foetuses. Mercury is found in the ocean and is consumed by all fish. Mercury gets more and more concentrated the higher up the food chain you go, so large predatory fish like tuna and shark have higher levels of mercury. Dietary guidelines suggest that tuna (canned or fresh) should be eaten no more than 2-3 times a week.
Canned tuna guide
Be sure to check out the Greenpeace Canned Tuna Guide to learn which species and farming methods are better choices and which to avoid.
If you consider yourself to be an ethical meat eater then chances are you know exactly where and how to select meat so that the origin and farming methods are known. When it comes to being a mindful seafood eater however, it is not so easy.
- The standardised name of the fish or species
- The fishing technique used or method of aquaculture
- The country of origin or even more specific details such as the catch area
In Australia, country of origin labelling is now legally required for seafood products. This is a step in the right direction for seafood traceability, however it applies only to retailers – restaurants are not currently required to inform customers where their seafood comes from. The government is working on a proposed model for mandatory country of origin labelling for seafood in hospitality. In the meantime, the best you can do is ask questions and express your desire for more information and clearer labelling on menus.
Also look out for the blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel (see below) when shopping or dining out. MSC is an independent, non-profit organisation that provides certifications and eco-labelling for wild caught sustainable seafood.
Bycatch is the unintentional capture of non-target species in fishing operations. It happens when fishing gear is used to catch specific species but inadvertently catches other marine animals. This includes dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds, sharks, and other fish. Bycatch has negative ecological and economic consequences, such as harming non-target species and disrupting marine ecosystems.
Various factors contribute to bycatch, including the types of fishing gear used, fishing practices, and the location and time of fishing. Some fishing methods, such as trawling and longlining, are particularly associated with high levels of bycatch.
Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. As a result, many fish species are near extinction.
In Australia, certain fish, including school, scalloped hammerhead, gulper sharks, blue warehou, dogfish, orange roughy, eastern gemfish, and southern bluefin tuna, are considered “Conservation Dependent” by the government. Despite being at risk of endangerment, it is currently legal to engage in commercial fishing for these species.
See the GoodFish Sustainable Seafood Guide for a comprehensive list of species to avoid.
Issues with fishing methods
Fisheries use a range of different techniques to catch seafood. Some of these have a much greater impact on marine environments than others, so it makes sense to support those that employ least-damaging fishing techniques. Some lower-impact fishing methods include pole and line fishing, dive collection and pots and traps. Fishing methods that are known to have a negative impact include bottom trawling, gillnet and dredging, which is often used to collect scallops and clams. See Our World in Data for a complete run-down on fishing techniques.
Aquaculture or seafood farming produces over 49% of the world’s seafood. Seafood farming is often touted as a solution to overfishing and meeting global food security, but its impacts on the environment need to be carefully considered.
The World Wildlife Fund summarises the negative impacts of farmed seafood as:
- Excessive use of chemicals such as antibiotics
- Viruses and parasites that transfer between farmed and wild species
- Farm escapees can compete and interbreed with native fish, influencing the genetic diversity of the wild population
- Fish caught to make fishmeal and fish oil currently represent one-third of the global fish harvest, putting additional pressure on the world’s fisheries
- Excess food and fish waste increase the levels of nutrients in the water that can lead to oxygen-deprived waters
- Clearing of land for agriculture feed sources affects high conservation value areas
- Some aquaculture operations may exploit labourers, particularly in regions with weak labour regulations
Open sea-cage aquaculture is the farming of fish by enclosing them in cages or pens in natural waterways. Negative impacts include increased disease and parasite transmission and fish welfare concerns due to high fish densities, the risk of escape and interbreeding with wild populations, and reduced water quality resulting from the accumulation of faecal waste.
Impacts of plastic and agricultural waste on marine life
It would be unfair to blame all the problems of our oceans and waterways on lack of government regulation and the fishing industry. Human-caused pollution is affecting marine life and it is something we can all make personal efforts to reduce.
Around 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into the marine environment each year. Chemical runoff from conventional farms is also significantly contributing to growing marine dead zones around the world and toxic algae blooms. The choice to purchase organic and chemical-free food is a decision you make for your own health and that of our environment and oceans.
5 Steps to Sustainable Seafood
1. Diversify your choice and switch your fish!
Populations of popular seafood species such as shark (Flake*) and tuna are in greater danger of being overfished. Try something different, eat lower on the food chain (these fish regenerate more quickly) and give the popular species a break to preserve the balance of the ocean and ensure that future generations can enjoy them too.
Download the AMCS smartphone app for a list of ‘better choice’ seafood options. Or go veg instead!
*Much of the shark sold as flake in Australia is Gummy Shark from an Australian fishery and is not overfished. However, not all flake is Gummy Shark, other types of shark can be marketed as flake also, which can make it difficult for consumers. Of the 194 species of sharks in Australia, 70 were deemed as unsustainable at current levels of fishing. Sharks play a vital role in maintaining a balanced and healthy underwater ecosystem and are generally vulnerable to stock depletion because of the time it takes them to reach sexual maturity, that they have few young and are long-lived. Many people choose not to eat shark at all for this reason.
2. Educate yourself and ask questions
In Australia, country of origin labelling is now legally required for seafood products, but there’s still a lot missing from labels, such as fishing and farming methods and standardised species names. Be a savvy shopper and ask questions.
3. Buy local
A whopping 66% of the seafood Aussies eat is imported. Cheap imports are often fished and farmed without the same regulation, which adds to the environmental pressure placed on our oceans. Support local communities and sustainable fisheries where possible and if you are buying fish from overseas, look for accreditation logos (i.e. MSC) and sustainable fish species.
4. Fish is still meat, so make it a treat
Although our fondness for seafood may be growing, the number of fish in our oceans is not. Around 1/3 of global fish stocks are estimated to be overfished. In Australia, of the 101 fish stock assessed, 13 species are classified as overfished and there is uncertainty around 19 species. So, as consumers, what should we do to ensure we can have our fishcake and eat it too? The answer is pretty clear – we must adopt a new way of eating seafood. Make seafood a treat by choosing it less often and when you do, enjoy sensible portions of sustainable species that haven’t been overfished or harvested using destructive methods.
5. Buy fresh and reduce plastic pollution
Australians used 3.4 million tonnes of plastics in 2018-2019. Plastic waste has formed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean containing 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that weigh approximately 80,000 tonnes. It’s been estimated that plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals every year. Buy fresh to avoid unnecessary packaging. Fresh seafood will have been caught closer to where it is sold and thus have travelled a shorter distance to reach your plate.