Fish & Cheap – the seafood tale

Recent surveys show that the majority of Australians care for the health of our environment. And Aussies love seafood – seafood from sustainable sources. The industry argues that Australia has some of the best managed fisheries in the world and that therefore we consumer don’t need to worry. I say that first has little to do with the latter and that we actually have enough to worry about!

First of all, one has to be aware that not all seafood we consume comes from Australian fisheries. In fact, the biggest share of seafood consumed in Australia comes from overseas. Australian fisheries provide roughly 200’000 tons of seafood per year. Local aquaculture accounts for another 30’000 tons. However, from the total of those two together 78’000 tons are being exported and sold overseas whereas another 30’000 tons are used as bait for fishing, what leaves us with roughly 120’000 tons of seafood (whole) or 71’000 tons of final products from local sources per year. Considering that Australians currently consume around 250 ’000 tons of seafood each year (final products), local sources thus account for only about 28% of the total consumption whereas 78% of all seafood products are imported. Consequently, it seems obvious that when evaluating the sustainability of the consumed seafood we should focus on the imports and not the local fisheries.

And while everything seems to be fine with local seafood, it can be heard again and again that imported seafood was so bad. Queensland Senator Ron Boswell cited in an article from SETFIA claims that “Our top-quality Australian fish is competing with cheap product from countries that don’t have to match our environmental record, our controls on fishing methods or our sustainable fisheries management. Those countries don’t have all the extra burden that Australian fishing businesses are forced to carry as well, like carbon tax, the exorbitant price of refrigerant gas and all the add-on costs of complying with government red tape in this country.” Is it that simple? Are all imports bad and should we just stop importing seafood?

Definitely not, this is a complete misinterpretation of facts. With an average consumption of 24.7kg of seafood per person per year Australia’s need for seafood cannot even closely be stimulated with local production – even if we would stop exporting. With a projected population growth between 30.9 and 42.5 million (that is almost double of today’s number) by 2056, the deficit will dramatically increase.
At the same time, sustainable and proper managed fisheries can only provide a certain limit of fish and seafood, which has already been reached. Also aquaculture has its implications: land-based operations are extremely water demanding and do not make much sense in a country that already has water stress, which will further increase with climate change. Besides, high labour costs do not really favour large-scale seafood farming in Australia.

What is more, the point is not – as Senator Boswell and other people claim – the lack of legislation and sustainability efforts in other countries. The point is that those responsible for sourcing of (sustainable) seafood, namely importers and retailers in Australia and other developed countries, do not respect the principles of a sustainable development and do not help other countries to protect their environment as well.

Many countries from which we eat our seafood have very strong environmental policies. The point is that while corruption in most of this countries is very high and people very poor, it is very difficult to enforce law and regulations. And the worst part of the story is that by importing the cheapest products with prices that are way under the market value and often even below production costs, retailers and importers in Western countries consciously and systematically contribute to a degradation of the environment and the exploitation of the poorest in those countries! It is them that are to blame and not the other countries for being slack.

For a long time representatives from NGOs and private organizations have been working on the issue and have helped farmers and fishermen in developing countries to improve their practices in order to meet sustainable principles. Ecolabels have set standards that guarantee for a high level of environmental and social compliance. Whereas in the seafood section in Australia such labels are basically only available for wild-caught products from local fisheries (Marine Stewardship Council MSC), there are many producers overseas that have achieved certification for their farming operations. For aquaculture such labels include the Aquaculture Stewardship Council ASC or organic labels such as Naturland or EU organic.
As an example there are a number of farms that produce the so often wrongly discredited Vietnamese catfish “basa” under the ASC label – from farms that are well better managed than those of which we hear and of which we have seen all the bad documentaries. However, while basa is sold readily throughout Australia, none of it carries the ASC label.  Thus, the question emerges “why do the good products not make it to Australia?”

If you want an answer to this question, you best ask your fishmonger or write a letter to Coles and Woolworths asking them why they do not sell certified products. Why they are contributing to the destruction of the environment in those countries whose population is already suffering from a degraded environment, from exploitation and a corrupt system that allows the powerful to make money with dubious practices with the help of Western buyers?
The answer is quite simple: certified products might cost a bit more than conventional ones. Maybe 30 cents per kilo for a fish like basa, a bit more for organic prawns. Still, they would be cheaper than many wild-caught products and affordable by all of us. As SETFIA says: Australians are willing to pay an extra for good local seafood. While shouldn’t we be willing to pay the extra for a responsibly sourced and produced import product?

If we care for the local environment we should (and I am convinced we all do) also care for the environment elsewhere. Climate change as a result of carbon emission more than any other phenomena shows how impacts in one place of the earth have effects at some other places. And especially seafood that comes from oceans who are all interconnected with each other, fish stocks migrating between countries without carrying for our national borders, makes it more evident than other products, that in order to safeguard the integrity of our planet, responsibility doesn’t stop beyond the national border.

Whereas we claim to have the best managed fisheries in the world, we Australian consumers (as those in many other countries) contribute to further degradation of the environment, child labour, abuse and other terrible impacts on other societies while eating imported seafood. However, this would not have to be. This could be changed. But for this, those who have it in their hands to change it, should act now: by focusing on the real issues and by sourcing sustainable seafood throughout their product range!
What we can do is asking for certified products and proper declaration of origin next time we go shopping or consume seafood at the restaurant.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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7 Responses to Fish & Cheap – the seafood tale

  1. Pingback: Sustainable management optimises value: The penny is dropping – and it is great to see! | Green Fish Blue Fish

  2. Actually I have heard that Coles and Woolworths have implemented a 2015 100% sustainable sourcing policy… However I think it could be limited to fish products.

  3. blaubear says:

    Well, you are right, they have. However, there are some issues related to that: first, there is no transparency as regards this sustainable sourcing policy (no transparency = no credibility). Second, the policy focuses on the assessment of local seafood products (means, it leaves the 78% where the focus should be out). And finally, 2015 is very far away. Why not act now if the problem is identified?

  4. Swampdog says:

    I would also add that casual observation of the fish displays in Coles/Woolies often leaves me scratching my head as to who is setting the “sustainability” criteria. No transparency at all imho. Great article blaubear. Although I’m a champion of our local fish I’m also tired of hearing about “evil” imported seafoods overrunning our shores when it’s the Australian “price point” demand that is actually driving that surge. If we coughed up a few more bucks for “better choice” imported seafood then maybe more of our local boy’s could afford to stay in the business.

    • blaubear says:

      I totally agree swampdog: It is actually that low-price import culture that drives local producer out of the business, because they cannot compete with incomparable low quality products. If they could compete with similar products (means similar in quality and price), they would have their place! The worst part of the story is that Coles is always putting their “local first policy” in front. In reality they are doing exactly the opposite. A good example is the Southern Squid Jig Fishery, an extremely selective and sustainable fishery that is highly “underused” because local fishermen and producer cannot compete with all that trash (trawling = a lot of by-catch) squid being imported at lower prices. A shame.

  5. Pingback: Murky waters around Australia’s sharks | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  6. Pingback: Murky waters surrounding Australia’s sharks | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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