It’s Christmas, and tis the season of splurging on lobster and prawn. It’s ‘pop another prawn on the barbie’ time. Now more than any other time of year (or decade for that matter) our crusty little friends from the sea have reason to scamper and hide. You see somewhere along the timeline, between corduroy bell bottoms and hyper-coloured happy-pants, we swapped lamb roasts and yorkie puds for seafood platters and oysters kilpatrick as the culinary symbol of celebration. Yes, seafood and the festive season go together like a horse and carriage, or stubbie shorts and a can of VB. Or Sonny and Cher.
In fact, world-wide demand for seafood products has exploded in general, doubling over the last 30 years. But this insatiable appetite for seafood has wreaked havoc on our oceans. Today, we are faced with the very real threat of all of the world’s major fisheries collapsing by 2048. Populations of some key seafood species have been reduced to only 10% of what they were in the 1950s. Thirteen of the world’s 17 major fishing zones have already been depleted or are in serious decline, and the remaining 4 are fully exploited.
Now more than ever is the time to use our consumer power and vote with our wallets for a better, more sustainable fishing industry. Ask questions of your fishmonger, shop for more sustainable fish species, and talk about this issue with others in your life.
Of course, you need information to do this, so we’ve summarised some of the major issues surrounding modern commercial fishing practices to get you worded up quickly in time for Christmas lunch.
Commercial fishing (bottom trawling, gillnets etc)
Used to catch seafood like tuna, mackerel, flathead, flounder, orange roughy/deep sea perch, prawns
The ethical issue
Bottom trawling and gillnets are some of the most common methods of commercial fishing, but along with collecting fish these methods are exceptionally good at catching turtles, dolphins, seals, sharks and sea birds. This ‘bycatch’ is thrown back into the ocean but in reality most of the catch is either dead or dying before it re-enters the water. It’s estimated that a quarter of the world’s total catch is bycatch.
The environmental issue
Both bottom trawling and gillnets are highly destructive methods, virtually wiping out any coral and sea life in its wake on the ocean floor. Thankfully gillnets are now banned in NSW, but bottom trawling and other methods used to catch deep-sea fish and prawns are still causing major destruction.
Sea-cage fish farming
Used to breed fish like barramundi, southern bluefin tuna, snapper, mulloway, Atlantic salmon and trout
Why farmed isn’t necessarily better...
Sea-cage fish farming is often touted as a solution to our depleting wild fish reserves, but in reality it opens the door to many health and ethical issues.
The welfare issues
Fish raised in sea-cages face the same issues as animals raised on land-based factory farms. Almost all the salmon sold in Australia is raised in sea-cages in Tasmania (which is why it is labelled Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon), and have come to be known as the battery hens of the sea because of the intensive conditions - almost 50,000 fish are packed into each cage. Not quite the pristine playground the name would suggest.
The health issues
Fish farmed in this way are fed antibiotics and vaccines, as, not surprisingly, the more fish you stuff into a cage the more likely each is to suffer from disease. Salmon is also fed synthetic food colouring to give their flesh the pinkish hue we’ve grown to love (which is found naturally in wild salmon due to the krill they eat). These drugs are then transferred to us when we tuck in, posing health risks such as cancer and eye defects.
The environmental issues
- Fish raised in sea-cages are fed a combination of grain and fishmeal. It takes up to 4 kg of fishmeal to produce 1 kg of farmed salmon. In fact around 40% of the total world catch of fish is used to make this fishmeal, representing a grossly inefficient use of scarce resources.
- Sea-cage farmed fish often escape their enclosures and spread disease amongst wild fish communities. In December 2007, up to 25,000 salmon and trout fled their Tassie sea cages and escaped into the wild.
- Fish excrement pollutes surrounding coastal habitats and destroys natural ecosystems. It’s estimated that only 30% of the protein in fishfeed is retained by the fish – the rest is excreted and washed into the surrounding seas, contaminating the habitats of wild marine species.
What to buy
According to these resources, mindful seafood lovers should say no to:
- Commercial scallops (King, Southern and Tasmanian)
- Anything raised in sea-cages including Atlantic salmon*, ocean trout, barramundi, kingfish
- Orange roughy (deep sea perch), flake, snapper, swordfish, southern bluefin tuna
- Some species of lobster (Southern rock, Eastern rock and Tropical rock)
- Some species of prawn (King, Tiger, Banana, Black Tiger, Bay, imported).
*For all you salmon fans, you'll be pleased to know that sustainably and ethically-farmed salmon is available in Australia. Yarra Valley Salmon is one example of a company doing the right thing by the environment and the fish involved. They are one of the only fresh water aquaculture farms in the world to take a completely natural approach to rearing, and milking (they also make caviar), their Atlantic Salmon - refusing to use any antibiotics or chemicals. Check their website
for local stockists. They also feature in our cookbook The Sustainable Table
The AMCS says some better seafood choicec are:
- Freshwater farmed fish such as eels, carp and crayfish (yabbies) as this method is less problematic to the environment
- Calamari, cuttlefish, octopus and squid (wild Australian, not imported)
- Leatherjacket (wild)
- Bream (wild)
- Trevally (not Silver)
- Western rock lobster (wild)
- Australian salmon
- Blue mussels (check out Sea Bounty
for an Australian example of good-practice mussel farming)
- Blue swimmer crabs
- Haul caught School and Bay (Greentail) Prawns in NSW.
- Watch what you feed puss-puss – cats do not need fish, they are naturally land-based animals – yet clever marketing by the cat food industry has seen us feeding millions of tonnes of fish to cats, as well as to other animals grown for fur.
- If you buy canned seafood, ensure you choose brands with the Marine Stewardship Council logo, which certifies that the seafood has come from a fishery that practises sustainable fishing. Canned tuna should be limited – tuna has high levels of mercury which poses serious health risks.
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