Demystifying fish – everything you’ve wanted to know about buying sustainably
Author | GoodFishBadFish
It is now well publicised that the world’s fish stocks are in a bit of trouble.
Decades of mismanagement and continued overfishing have reduced species’ populations to the point that many of them on the brink of extinction. However, there is hope. Increasingly, consumers, government and the seafood industry are becoming aware of their impact. Many fishers and farmers are taking steps to improve their practices to the benefit of the environment.
The Sustainable Seafood movement addresses the cause of overfishing by empowering consumers to change the state of the fishing industry through their seafood purchasing decisions. By choosing seafood that comes from well-managed fisheries, you send a message up the supply chain (to chefs, retailers, wholesalers, farmers and fishermen) that responsible practices are a viable and necessary part of their industry.
A sustainable species is one that can withstand fishing pressures and is fished or farmed using methods that don’t damage the environment. However, sustainability is not black and white. The sustainability of a species can be measured in many ways and must include knowledge of the species’ origin, the fishing method used (including impact on the environment and on other species), levels of bycatch and total biomass.
Organisations and Information
Thankfully, there are several groups in Australia that can help consumers wade through this complicated information. Here are a few of them:
The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) produces Australia’s best-known sustainable seafood recommendations with ‘Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide’ (in print, online and app form). The guide gives a generalised view of the sustainability of Australian species, employing an easy and accessible ‘traffic-light’ system.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the world’s largest and most recognizable sustainable seafood certification scheme. Their distinctive blue eco-label identifies products and fisheries that have been assessed as sustainably caught.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) undertakes in-depth assessments to identify individual products (rather then whole species) that are sustainable. This acknowledges that a species may be managed, fished or farmed in a sustainable manner in one place, but exploited in another. To date, their ‘Sustainable Australian Seafood Assessment Program’ (SASAP) has identified 16 Australian products (11 Victorian).
Being an informed consumer doesn’t mean you have to memorise the recommendations of every guide and stick to them all religiously. It means incorporating the principles into your everyday habits.
While it is important to familiarise yourself with which fish are better choices, it is also worth acknowledging that sometimes the recommendations of the various groups differ. This arises because there are many different definitions of what constitutes ‘sustainable seafood’.
Like people, organisations have their own unique value sets and beliefs. They have formed their views on issues such as mammal and bird interactions, bycatch and what constitutes an environmentally acceptable fishing technique or aquaculture method. The answers to these and other questions inform their ratings or recommendations, occasionally leading to a difference of opinion. Therefore, as a consumer, your task is to define sustainability yourself, and then align yourself with a group that holds similar values.
Diversify your choices
An important principle to remember when attempting to consume seafood sustainably is to diversify your choices. There are so many fantastic seafood options available in Australia, but too often we only use a very small proportion of these, driving fishing pressure on these species. Many species have similar characteristics and should be considered interchangeable.
Rather than getting trapped in the mindset of thinking “I HAVE to have snapper/swordfish/salmon for this dish, because that’s what the recipe says”, instead purchase based on what is available and adapt your cooking accordingly. If this seems a daunting suggestion, remember that you can always ask your fishmonger’s advice! Show them your recipe or describe your desired cooking method and see what they can recommend. This will not only spread fishing pressure more evenly, it will diversify your cooking repertoire – you might even find a new favourite!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions!
To make an informed purchasing choice or look up a species in your preferred guide, you first have to be able to identify it! Ask seafood suppliers to identify species by their Standardised Fish Name, or check out www.fishnames.com.au if you think a species has been mislabelled.
Ask your fishmonger about the origin of your seafood and the fishing technique or aquaculture method used to produce it. This information is vital to making an informed choice about what to purchase. Letting them know your interest in sustainably sourced seafood will also encourage them to learn more and adopt responsible purchasing practices themselves.
Enjoying sustainable seafood is easy. With the right resources you can become an informed consumer and understand how the choices you make affect the future. For more information on how to find, choose and cook sustainable seafood, check out GoodFishBadFish
Six Quick Tips to help you eat seafood sustainably.
- 1. Eat Local
In general, Australian aquaculture regulation and fisheries management is very good – so only buy Australian seafood.
- 2. Eat lower on the food chain
Small schooling fish are usually fast breeding and short-lived, making their stocks more robust and more capable of withstanding fishing pressures.
- 3. Avoid larger, longer-lived species
Avoid tunas, shark (“flake”), skates and rays, which have very few young and are under pressure from decades of overfishing.
- 4. Ask questions
When at fishmongers or restaurants, ask about origin, fishing technique and aquaculture method. Ask suppliers of seafood to identify species by their Standardised Fish Name.
- 5. Diversify your Choice
Understand that there is a sustainable alternative available for every species and cooking technique, and that trying less-popular and under-utilised species is not just good for seafood species – it can be fun too!
- 6. Shopping choices
Be an informed consumer and signal your interest in sustainable seafood so that restaurants and retailers realise the demand for and the benefits of sourcing sustainable seafood products.
This article was written for FoodWise by GoodFishBadFish. A website resource for people passionate about sustainable seafood, it’s a place for consumers to visit for up-to-date and interesting information on the area of sustainable seafood. For more information, check out their website.