Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sustainable Fish and Chips

By Carissa Klein

One of the simplest things anyone can do to promote marine conservation is to stop eating unsustainable seafood.

Whether it’s fish-and-chips by the seaside or prawns on the barbie at Christmas, Aussies love their seafood. For most of us it’s a part of our way of life. For a country that has such a love affair with the ocean and the food we harvest from it, I find it perplexing that we eat so much unsustainable seafood.

The bottom line is that the health of the world’s oceans and its fisheries are in decline (and this includes our own Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s most precious icons). A range of actions are required to reverse this situation, but one of the simplest things anyone can do is to stop eating unsustainable seafood.

Why isn’t this already happening? Basically there’s a lack of awareness and action in the general community. The good news, however, is that there are easy things we can do about it.

Sustainable seafood can be defined in various ways, but as Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide (www.sustainableseafood.org.au/) and its counterparts around the world make clear, sustainability is not only about the status of individual species stocks but the impact of fishing on our oceans, which includes the broader effects of fishing on habitats and ecosystems.

Two key steps are needed if we are to shift Australia’s love for seafood from unsustainable to sustainable: accessibility to sustainable seafood and better labelling.

As a consumer of seafood, I want sustainable options. However, I usually find that the average fish-and-chip shop or restaurant has few (sometimes no) sustainable options on the menu.

There are restaurants that specialise in sourcing sustainable seafood but they are all too rare. What we need is to be able to head to the local fish-and-chip shop and reliably find sustainable choices.

And as much as we need easy access to sustainable seafood, we also need for there to be no access to clearly unsustainable seafood. For example, it’s common to see orange roughy on menus despite it being listed widely as an unsustainable choice and even listed as “conservation-dependent” under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Another problem with sourcing sustainable seafood is inconsistency in seafood guides. Fish that your local supermarket claims is sustainable may not be labelled as such in other guides. Who do you trust? I usually end up walking away empty-handed, but who can blame shoppers for going ahead and buying it anyway if they’re told it’s a responsible choice?

In some ways, the problem is similar to the difficulty of finding a range of organic vegetables at the local greengrocer or supermarket. One way that this has been addressed in agriculture is through “fruit-and-veg box” schemes, in which you choose a provider you trust to supply you with sustainably grown (organic and local) vegetables. Similar schemes for seafood are rare. There’s no doubt that a project like this would help consumers in Australia to eat more sustainable seafood.

And then there’s the issue of labelling. Unlike in Europe, Australia’s seafood labelling laws are weak. When you order cooked seafood, you can’t be sure about its origin or what species you are eating, despite what the vendor tells you.

You may have thought your last order of barramundi was a good local choice – either sustainably farmed or locally caught. Two-thirds of the barramundi consumed in Australia is imported, and even the barramundi from Australia has varying degrees of sustainability depending on where it was farmed or caught.

If we can’t rely on labels in fish-and-chip shops or restaurants, how can we choose sustainable options? This is the focus of one Australian-focused environmental program called Label My Fish.

Australia is viewed as a global leader in marine conservation by many other countries, primarily due to the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004, which set aside 33% of its area as no-take zones. This reputation is now at stake.

Australia could be a leader in sustainable seafood production, but first we have to care about what’s on our plate.

Carissa Klein is a member of the Environmental Decisions Group. She is based at the University of Queensland.