Sustainable seafood
WellBeing|Issue190
Global seafood consumption has quadrupled over the past 50 years and interest in environmentally conscious fish choices has grown. But which types of seafood are sustainable and how can you be certain? We take a look.
MARTIN OLIVER

Which types of seafood are sustainable? This is a question that is preoccupying a growing number of consumers. Over the years, interest in environmentally conscious fish choices has grown, and the sector is now big business. Restaurants, including some in Australia and New Zealand, are now advertising themselves as avoiding serving endangered marine species in favour of better choices.

In terms of big-picture trends, global seafood consumption has quadrupled over the past 50 years. While part of this can be explained by population growth, the average person now eats nearly twice as much seafood as five decades ago.

In Australia, the Heart Foundation recommends two to three serves of fish per week, including oily fish such as salmon, sardines and pilchards. In affluent countries with more food choices, fish is acknowledged for being, on the whole, healthier than meat, and is an important part of the Mediterranean diet. This is reflected in shifting consumer behaviour.

The depressing conclusions of a 2006 Canadian study were that, following existing trends, by 2048 there would be no more wild fish left in the sea. Another 2020 study by academics from Germany, Canada and Australia looked at global fish stocks between 1950 and 2014, and found that, for 82 per cent of more than 1300 species studied, the numbers were in a state of depletion. The recommended solutions include “well-enforced and sizeable notake marine protected areas.”

Possible responses to this pressing challenge include avoiding seafood entirely, substantially reducing consumption or going for a responsible wild-caught option. Another potential solution could be found in the field of aquaculture fish farming. Fast-growing, this now represents about half of the total global seafood supply, and is expected to grow to nearly two thirds by 2030. However, aquaculture can have some environmental shortcomings.

One problem with wild fishing is by-catch, a term for the capture of non-target species that can sometimes be endangered. Some of this can be avoided via the use of by-catch reduction devices that either exclude some affected species, or which allow them to escape.

Endangered species and marine parks

Marine parks play a vital role in supporting wild fish populations, especially where fishing is banned or restricted. These areas represent sanctuary zones where fish can breed up their numbers undisturbed. At the 2016 International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, a target was set for countries to strongly protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030. For New Zealand the figure is 10 per cent.

Until recently, Australia had 36 per cent of its ocean area in highly protected marine parks. However, over the past few years it has downgraded the protection status of several of its marine conservation areas. Judging from public statements, the economic interests of the fishing industry seem to be uppermost in the government’s mind. This removal of conservation protection is opposed by many marine scientists. A statement drafted by the Ocean Science Council of Australia has attracted 1470 signatures from Australia and overseas and is open to support from more academics in this field.

While shark finning is illegal in Australia and New Zealand, the removal of shark fins is permitted in Australia if the shark has been taken as by-catch. As a result, scalloped hammerhead sharks are being finned as by-catch despite being regarded as “critically endangered” by the IUCN. This is occurring in Australia’s northern and northeastern waters, including inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Australia’s policies governing the scalloped hammerhead come under the national environmental laws, in the form of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. At the time of writing, this is subject to a once-in-a-decade review. Other endangered marine species that come under this protection legislation are the blue warehou and eastern gemfish.

Sustainability accreditations

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