Why seafood sustainability is more complicated than we realise

22 October, 2015 by
Danielle Bowling

Sustainability is a topic that gets chefs and restaurateurs all hot under the collar, and for good reason. They’re serving discerning diners these days – diners that want to know that what they’re eating was treated well when it was alive and handled respectfully once it was killed. They want to know that the environment that produced the meal isn’t left lacking as a result. Basically, they want to eat with a clear conscience.

But with so many mixed messages and conflicting arguments floating around the industry, it’s becoming more and more difficult for foodservice operators to make sense of sustainability. This is most certainly the case for seafood sustainability, where there are countless species, ecosystems, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses and agendas to contend with.

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 John Susman, managing director of Fishtales, a seafood industry agency which helps suppliers across the country with their marketing, product development, distribution and sales, recently presented to the staff at Caf Sydney about seafood sustainability, arguing that the matter is far more complicated than the average diner realises.

The problem with the topic of seafood sustainability, he says, is that it’s communicated to both the public and industry members as a global issue, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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“The sustainability discussion is a really local discussion. What happens here in Sydney Harbour is not what happens in Pittwater or Botany Bay. It’s a very microclimatic, microgeographical and micromanaged issue,” he said.

barra2.jpgHumpty Doo Barramundi

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As much as he admires and respects their intentions, Susman says NGOs have had a hand to play in oversimplifying the concept of seafood sustainability for Australians.

“They’re all very active and tend to have compelling stories and very, very compelling ambassadors like Tim Winton and Kylie Kwong. They are doing a fantastic job and they’re very well intentioned and very well meaning. I just need to say that a lot of their work is done based on global generalisations and global science. Seafood sustainability is a very local discussion.

“Case in point: the Marine Conservation Society (in Australia) have a little phone app with red, yellow and green lists for seafood, ranging from ‘do not eat’ to ‘best choice.’ They have snapper, for example, as red (do not eat). There are 17 separate snapper fisheries in Australia, all of which against the Australian Fisheries Research and Development Corporation science are green (best choice), except for one in the Northern Territory, which is still going through assessment. So there is a lot of conflicting information,” said Susman.

Not only is seafood sustainability overly generalised, the discourse today is also  one-dimensional. “A lot of discussion in Australia over the past 10 years has been almost exclusively focused on environmental aspects and I personally would like the approach, a very American approach, of having a triple-bottom line that includes environmental sustainability but also includes the social, the commercial and cultural sustainability. So, for example, if a fishery is closed on the south coast and the town of Eden no longer has its livelihood, what happens to that town? It shuts down, and so in my opinion we have a commercial and a social responsibility to the fishing industry around Australia.”

clams.jpgCloudy Bay Clams

Regardless, Australian chefs, restaurateurs and wait staff need to be aware and comfortable with communicating the fact that seafood caught or produced in Australia is world class, both in terms of quality and environmental sustainability, Susman said. Commercial fisheries in Australia are very heavily managed, with multiple layers of governance including state/territory governments, the federal government, environmental protection agencies at both the state and federal level, as well as native title management. 

“We’ve got 17 different managers of seafood in Australia, and fisheries managers have greater powers than the federal police. So forget smuggling drugs, if you smuggle fish you’ve got bigger problems. 

“Here in Australia there is an active law that was implemented in 1999, the Biodiversity and Environmental Protection Act, and that prohibits the unsustainable harvesting or growing of seafood in Australia. So at the lowest common denominator, any seafood that is caught or grown in Australia is by law sustainable.”

Further to the laws and regulations, some fisheries have also chosen to undertake third party certification of the sustainability of their fishery. International agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Friends of the Sea (FOS) provide additional validation of the status of a fishery.

Sashimi-yellowfin-cut.jpgSashimi grade yellowfin tuna

Perhaps the best example of Australia’s commitment to the sustainable production of seafood is our harvesting of the MSC certified Glacier 51 Toothfish. 

Located in the sub-Antarctic, 4,109km from Australia’s mainland is Heard Island, home of the Glacier 51 Toothfish. The wild fish are caught using long line and hook techniques from 2000m below the water’s surface.

“Globally, [Toothfish] is right up there with eating small children and pandas,” Susman said. “But this one is a story of absolute success for sustainability. In partnership with the Australian federal government, a couple of commercial fishing vessels were accompanied down to the Sub Antarctic by the Australian Navy, who chased the Spanish, Japanese and Russian pirates out of our territorial waters and set up a system for harvesting this fish in arguably the most sustainable commercial fishery in the world.”

toothfish.jpgToothfish

Heard Island’s Glacier 51 Toothfish fishery undergoes rigorous annual stock assessments in collaboration with the Australia Antarctic Division, ensuring ongoing monitoring of the stock. Fishing vessels also have to conduct research cruises and tag and release thousands of fish to improve the industry’s understanding of its biology and status.

“It’s an amazing fish and an absolute highlight of the Australian seafood industry to bring it to market as a sustainable fish, and an incredibly delicious one,” said Susman. 

Swordfish is another good example. Diners are often reluctant to order this fish because the generalisation is that it’s a threatened species, but Susman reminds us, sustainability needs to be considered on a local, not a global level. 

“In the Mediterranean there’s been an active swordfish fishery for hundreds of years. Historically, the fish was harpooned which made it a fairly low impact fishery because obviously there’s only so many harpoons you can throw … but at the advent of high tech fishing, using long lines, they became a relatively easy fish to catch and certainly from the early 60s when the popularity of swordfish in the US started to really take off, until the early 90s, it was a fishery that could be referred to as one that exploited or overexploited, and as a result the stocks were attacked quite aggressively in certain parts of the world.”

cloudybay.jpgCloudy Bay

But this isn’t the case in Australia. For a fishery to be recognised as sustainable, the working benchmark is that it takes less than 15 percent of all of the available fish on an annual basis. The swordfish fishery in Australia operates at well below this level – less than five percent of the available biomass of swordfish swimming in Australian waters.

One of the major players in the Swordfish fishery, Walker Seafoods supplies MSC certified swordfish (whole fish and loins), as well as MSC certified yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna, big eye tuna (all whole fish and loins), and whole mahi mahi. It is Australia’s first MSC certified tuna fishery and the sashimi grade fish are wild harvested by hook and line to the sustainable standards set by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and Australian Conservation Act. All fish are landed live on the line and ike jime brain spiked, the most humane method of killing the fish.

“This Australian fishery can stand proud on its own two feet and say that it’s a sustainable fishery and it’s so bloody delicious that it should be something we celebrate,” Susman said.

His parting note to Caf Sydney’s front and back of house was this. “The reality is that there is no single species in this country that has ever been overfished … Overfished is when a fish has been taken to extinction or less than one percent, which is virtual extinction. We’ve never had a single instance of any (seafood) species in Australia. In fact, there’s been something in the order of 380 terrestrial mammals that are now extinct; nothing in the marine environment.”

Other examples of sustainable Australian or New Zealand fisheries include:

1. Kinkawooka mussels – Grown on the west coast of South Australia. These are blue mussels that are small, soft and sweet unlike the large, savoury oceanic mussels grown along the east coast.

Kinkawooka Shellfish supply scrubbed, cleaned and de-bearded live ‘pot ready’ mussels, packed in oxygen-saturated sea water. This ‘sea sure’ packaging preserves culinary integrity and extends shelf life of the live mussels. 

2. Cloudy Bay Clams – Wild harvested from the top of New Zealand’s south island. The company uses world class harvesting techniques that ensure zero bycatch and zero impact on the environment, and is much more humane (and efficient, with a less than one percent mortality rate) than more traditional farming methods seen in Italy, were the mortality rate at harvest is around 85 to 90 percent. 

This clam has an impressive high meat to shell ratio of 35 percent, and a shelf life of one month, chilled.

3. Saikou sushi grade salmon – Farmed in the glacial waters of Mt Cook, New Zealand. The fish are hand fed a natural diet that is in-line with what the fish would be eating at that particular time in its life, at that particular time of the year and at a particular water temperature.

The fish are constantly swimming against the fast flowing glacial melts, resulting in a lean flesh with very little intramuscular fat.

4. Humpty Doo Barramundi – Farmed on the banks of the Adelaide River. The farm’s sustainably constructed wetland system delivers consistent, quality salt water to the barramundi throughout the year – ensuring the fish has a clean, saltwater taste rather than the muddy characteristic associated with barramundi that is kept in fresh water. 

6. Skull Island tiger prawns – Harvested from Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. The prawns are only caught during the months of August to November each year and are caught during the night to ensure minimal impact on by-catch. The remainder of the year is closed to fishing to allow the juvenile tiger prawns to grow to size and reproduce.

The Skull Island prawns measure up to 20cm in length and 100g in weight, and are the largest wild prawns caught in Australia. The jumbo sized (10-12 pieces per kg) tiger prawns are selected, individually finger packed and snap frozen within minutes of catching, ensuring a crisp texture.

 

6 things you didn’t know about seafood in Australia: 

  1. Consumption is growing, but it’s got nothing on red meat. Australians consume 18kg of seafood per person, per annum. This compares to 213kg per person, per annum for red protein. We consume 12kg of seafood at home, but this includes canned, pickled and preserved seafoods. If you dismissed canned tuna, Australians would consume 4kg of seafood at home, which means we’re eating as much seafood at home as we are in restaurants. The average Australian is eating 1.5 seafood meals per month.
     
  2. Australia produces (through wild catch and aquaculture) 230,000 tonnes of seafood per annum. Globally, 145 million tonnes of seafood is produced, with China the greatest contributor, sitting at 54 million tonnes. New Zealand’s Hoki fishery alone produces 255,000 tonnes annually, so a single fishery in New Zealand is producing more than Australia catches and grows of all seafood species in a year.
     
  3. Last year, New Zealand became the largest single supply base of fresh fish in Australia. There’s more fresh fish from New Zealand sold in Australia than fresh fish from our own waters.
     
  4. Australia is home to 50 percent of the marine parks that exist around the world.
     
  5. Australia’s federal government spends about $70 million a year on the science that helps our fisheries to grow and prosper.
     
  6. Australia imports 300,000 tonnes of seafood annually – more than we catch, grow and export ourselves.

    “Despite what A Current Affair or Today Tonight might tell you, it doesn’t mean it’s all being grown in a toilet in Vietnam,” Susman said. “I know it’s quite fashionable for the locavore movement to say that they only ever use something that’s caught or grown within 100km, but when it comes to seafood, that’s completely and utterly impractical … we have such a disparate and vast supply network which means that we don’t catch a lot, and there’s also the fact of seasonality. It means that it’s very, very difficult to just pursue that locavore concept. I tend to think that the reality is that we need to accept imports,” he said.