SSummer in Australia is all about seafood, from fish and chips on the beach to shrimp on the barbie. But how do you know if seafood is sustainable, that is, harvested from healthy stocks with minimal negative environmental impact?
More than a third of the world’s fisheries are exploited at unsustainable levels, according to the latest figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Research shows that the public is increasingly aware of the problem. But 62% of seafood consumed by Australians is imported, which can make it difficult to determine where the food is coming from.
While comprehensive guides to sustainable seafood like Good Fish from the Australian Marine Conservation Society are readily available, we know some people find them intimidating and time consuming to use. To keep things simple, we’ve rounded up five tips for a better seafood buy, focusing on holiday favorites.
Five ways to make sure you’re buying sustainable seafood this summer
Eat farmed Australian shrimp. Much of the intensive overseas shrimp farming has been linked to the destruction of coastal habitats, and some wild Australian shrimp have bycatch issues, meaning rare species like dugongs and turtles are accidentally caught by trawling. In contrast, Australian shrimp farming is done in tanks on land, making it a more sustainable industry.
Eat wild caught Australian lobster. This year, lobster prices are much lower than usual due to export issues. Australia’s lobster fisheries are generally fished sustainably, as opposed to imported lobster.
Eat farmed Australian oysters and mussels. It’s hard to go wrong here – fresh local oysters and mussels are widely available in stores and restaurants and are generally sustainable. Imported options are not widely available and are usually tinned.
Eat farmed Australian barramundi. Locally farmed barramundi is the most commonly available sustainable fish species. Some Australian wild-caught barramundi fisheries have bycatch problems, while imported farmed barramundi have recurring disease problems.
When in doubt, choose fresh Australian seafood. Australian fisheries are better managed than most in the world, generally making local fish the best choice.
What to watch out for
My team and I looked at over 50,000 seafood from supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets in South East Queensland and found that only 5% could be classified as sustainable.
If you buy seafood to cook at home, you’re more likely to find sustainable options at specialty seafood stores, which we found were more likely to stock Australian produce. While some sustainable options are available in larger supermarkets, they favor imported seafood more.
We know there are a lot of salmon enthusiasts out there – this was the most common seafood found in our survey. Almost all of the salmon sold in Australia is farmed Atlantic salmon produced in Tasmania. Unfortunately, this salmon is classified “say no” by the Good Fish guide, due to significant environmental impacts.
On a positive note, the Tasmanian salmon industry is working to address these well-documented issues and the potential for improvement is high. It’s worth checking the guidelines for sustainable seafood frequently, as durability changes over time.
The Good Fish guide lists more options, such as sustainable abalone (wild and farmed), mullet, mud crabs, and whiting.
And eat outside?
Australia does not have regulations requiring origin and species labels on cooked seafood. This means that when you buy flakes, it could be a critically endangered species like the hammerhead shark or school shark.
This is not a problem we can solve as individual seafood enthusiasts. A 2014 Senate investigation found that the cooked seafood exemption should be removed, but it did not become law.
To address this problem, the government should introduce laws to improve the transparency and sustainability of seafood, especially in restaurants and cafes. This would make Australia a world leader in this area, as many large countries have not made country of origin labeling mandatory for cooked seafood.
As we work towards a national solution, it is important that we vote with our wallets to purchase sustainable seafood wherever possible. This will encourage the industry we want to see and prevent unnecessary destruction of our oceans.