Sustainable Seafood Buying Guide

seafoods
When shopping for seafood at the market, how do you know what is truly sustainable? Photo by Alexander Raths

Seafood has traditionally been a nutritional powerhouse for humans, being high in protein, minerals and vitamins and low in saturated fats. It’s often touted as a food we should be eating to get our omega-3 fatty acids, lose weight or to give our children the best start in life. Seafood is entwined in Australian culinary culture, from smoked salmon and prawns on the barbeque to fish and chips. Australians eat 25 kg of seafood per person each year.

But is our abundant Australian appetite for seafood sustainable? Is the fish or shellfish we eat caught or farmed in a way that does not affect the long-term health of the species, or the marine habitat where it is harvested? Current data shows Australian fish stocks are following the worldwide trend of being stressed and over-exploited. We are still eating plenty of species categorised as depleted and vulnerable to exploitation, such as shark, tuna and Orange Roughy.

For the average person, presented with a smorgasbord of seafood to buy in the supermarket, or turned into enticing meals in the restaurant, it’s hard to remember which species of seafood are sustainable. Fortunately, there are some comprehensive guides available to help us make ethical seafood choices. It’s also good to have some understanding of what’s behind these guides and what they mean.

OCEAN FISH: WHAT TO ASK

What species is it?

A general guide when choosing fish from the ocean is to eat smaller, faster-growing species such as sardines, mackerel, whiting and mullet. This may involve a change in our eating habits and tastes. Help is at hand, with plenty of wonderful recipes available online for people willing to make the conscious choice.

It’s important to break our habits of buying the large, longlived species of fish such as tuna, salmon, Orange Roughy and the shark species commonly known as flake. They definitely don’t fit in the sustainability picture and they are also the most likely seafood to have accumulated mercury in their flesh. Unless you ask, when you buy fish and chips you are mostly likely eating shark. Orange Roughy is a long-lived species that doesn’t reach breeding age until it’s at least 20 years old. Because it lives in high-density populations, near the ocean floor, Orange Roughy is also at risk from bottom-trawling. For these cumulative reasons, it has less opportunity to spawn and produce young.

Where is it from?

It’s important to know where the seafood you are buying comes from. Australian fisheries are some of the best managed in the world and use catch quotas, limits to fishing boat size and limits to the type of fishing gear used, to protect against over-fishing.

While the focus in the past has been to manage a particular species in isolation, more and more Australian fisheries are bringing in controls that consider the whole marine ecosystem and the effect the fishing of one species has on all the other species in that environment.

This is not to say that all Australian fisheries are sustainable. When you are buying seafood you really need to check your guide and ask what State in Australia it comes from, and whether the species in that particular fishery is being sustainably harvested. For example, buying wildcaught snapper in Victoria gets the sustainability YES tick, while snapper caught in Queensland and New South Wales gets a big NO, with stocks reported as being fished out and depleted.

How is it caught?

There are a number of different fishing methods and some are more damaging than others. In general the least impact comes from purse seine nets (a weighted net that closes like a purse) where bycatch is very low and single species can be targeted. Handline, dive fisheries and squid jigs are also thought of as low impact.

More problems occur with midwater trawl nets, gillnets and drifting longlines, where bycatch can be dolphins, seals and turtles. The worst fishing methods are anything that trawls the ocean floor, which damages seabed habitats and can include high bycatch of vulnerable species such as sharks and other slow-growing species.

SHELLFISH

Oysters and mussels are farmed in Australia and are considered a sustainable seafood. They do not need to be fed and have a low impact on ocean habitat or other species. Pipis are harvested off beaches in NSW, Vic and SA and are generally considered a low-impact and sustainable resource.

Eastern rock lobster in WA is a good news story. From depleted stocks, the lobster fishery was rebuilt through sound management and is now thriving. Abalone is sustainably harvested in most parts of Australia and has a low-impact method of fishing. Crabs are generally well-managed and sustainable; as are squid (often served as calamari) and octopus.

farming
Photo by Huan Photo
seaweeds
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Clockwise from above: Oyster farming is seen as a sustainable practice in Australia; Mullet fish are a sustainable choice; Drying seaweed for eating.

fish
Photo by Meshutt

FARMED FISH: WHAT TO EAT

Fish farming is a big business. One third of seafood produced in Australia comes from fish farms. With large scale aquaculture operations located all over the country, on and offshore, the methods of farming vary. So we really need to ask, each time we purchase farmed seafood – how is this fish farmed and is it good for the environment? Is it a nutritious, healthy food source? How many kilograms of wild fish were caught to make 1 kg of this farmed fish?

Salmon:

This biggest-selling fish in Australia is Atlantic salmon; also labelled as salmon, Tasmanian salmon and smoked salmon. There are no wild Atlantic salmon in Australian waters, hence the fish that make up this $500 million industry are all farmed. The farms are all located in the cooler waters of Tasmania where this cool-water fish can survive. Hatcheries grow the fish indoors until they are around 12-months-old, then they are fattened to harvest weight of 4 kg in sea cages. With up to four million fish in sea cages at any time, that’s a lot of fish poo and a portion of uneaten food floating to the bottom of the waterway or lake. The result is a higher nitrogen content in the surrounding water. Mass fish kills in Macquarie Harbour have been attributed to the increase of fish farming in the area. Huge leaps have been made in what the salmon are fed and now just 30% of their diet comes from wild-caught fish. Unfortunately, this means they are now being fed food that includes soy and canola oils. Not only does this mean eating salmon is supporting monocropping of these plants, it also means you are eating short-chain omega-3 fatty acids through the fish from the vegetable oils, not the more beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that usually come from eating seafood. And yes, farmed salmon flesh would look grey if they didn’t add synthetic colours to give it that pink hue that ‘consumers demand’. Salmon does NOT get a good sustainability rating.

Prawns:

Farmed prawns offer some great environmental credentials. Mainly farmed in warmer Queensland waters where prawns can thrive, prawn farming is worth nearly $90 million and has good regulation of the wastewater. Some farms grow their own prawn food using sea algaes, with no wild fish inputs, and some reuse their wastewater to grow edible seaweed for human consumption. This is in stark contrast to prawn farming in Asia, where unregulated fishing boats trawl the ocean floor for anything that can be made into prawn food, irreversibly damaging marine ecosystems. Make sure you check your country of origin labelling!

Shellfish:

The farming of shellfish such as oysters and mussels in Australia is seen as a sustainable practice and has little impact on the marine environment. Both filter food from the ocean and do not need feeding. Abalone are similar and are farmed in the ocean and inland.

Barramundi and perch:

In Australia, barramundi is farmed on and offshore and has a good sustainability rating. This is compared to wild-caught barramundi, which doesn’t have a sustainable fishing rating, due to the high number of bycatch of vulnerable species such as turtles and dugongs. It is the same story with perch – caught in the wild it’s a no, no. But farmed is fine.

IMPORTED FISH: WHAT TO EAT

Imported fish is a huge part of the Australian seafood diet, with around three-quarters of the seafood eaten here imported from overseas fisheries. Where does this leave us when we are trying to sort out what’s sustainable and what’s not? Fisheries in Australia are generally well managed, but fisheries management standards in other countries will vary greatly. If you are eating imported seafood (you won’t know unless you ask if it’s at a restaurant or cafe), the main guides (see resources) can offer sustainability guidelines or brands.

Is it okay to eat tinned fish? Again, it depends on the fish and where it comes from. Greenpeace offer a Canned Tuna Guide, so you can make an ethical decision on what to buy. Don’t be fooled by cans that have a ‘dolphin-friendly’ logo. There is no regulation on what this means or whether it means anything at all. Groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council offer a blue tick system on brands of imported seafood that they consider sustainable.

EDIBLE SEAWEED

An important food from the sea that is often overlooked is seaweed. Some seaweeds contain 40% protein, as well as the ocean nutrients and trace elements we find in other seafood; and seaweed is a rich source of natural iodine. Seaweed can be foraged from our beaches in a way that is sustainable (see Pip Issue #9 for harvesting guidelines and seaweed potential).

Seaweed has the benefit of being extremely fast-growing. It also draws CO2 from the ocean; so the ocean can capture CO2 from the atmosphere and can de-acidify the ocean water. Seaweed can be farmed and is already big business in parts of the world, including China.

Construction of large-scale offshore farms have technical and financial difficulties, however seaweed farming on a smaller scale closer to where people live provides more viability. There are innovative people out there farming seaweed for human consumption, including the crew at 3D farming (see our book review this issue). With 10,000 edible plant species in the sea and so far only a few being farmed, the potential is enormous.

DEMAND BETTER LABELLING

Australia’s seafood labelling laws are still vastly underwhelming. While retail outlets must use a country of origin label for raw seafood, they are only ‘encouraged’ to use the Australian Fish Names Standard. This is not mandatory, so if you see fish labelled as ‘white fish’ or ‘flake’ you can’t be at all sure of what you are eating.

If you are buying seafood from a cafe, restaurant or fish and chip shop, then no labelling is required at all. So you could easily be eating Asian farmed prawns in your takeaway seafood curry, or endangered Southern Bluefin tuna in your restaurant sashimi. Unless you ask, you won’t know. When 70% of all seafood eaten in Australia is imported, there’s a good chance what you’re eating doesn’t come from around here.

Regardless of labelling laws, we consumers can take responsibility for the seafood we are buying. When we dive deep into the ethics of sustainable seafood and ask the right questions – what species is it? where is it from? how was it caught? – then we can make good choices and still enjoy this nutritious food.

CONCLUSION – HOW TO CHOOSE SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD

  1. CHOOSE SMALLER OCEAN SPECIES – such as sardines, mackerel, whiting and mullet. Avoid long-lived, slow growing species like tuna, salmon, swordfish, Orange Roughy and shark (flake).
  2. CHOOSE SHELLFISH WISELY – most shellfish fisheries are sustainably harvested, including rock lobster in WA, oysters, mussels, abalone and crab.
  3. CHOOSE FARMED FISH WISELY – species that are sustainably farmed include prawns in North Queensland and barramundi in NT, QLD, WA, SA, and Victoria.
  4. BUY LOCAL – Ask your fish merchant or restaurateur and make sure the fish you are buying is Australian and preferably local to your area.
  5. CHOOSE SEAWEED – that is sustainably harvested or farmed as your nutritious food from the sea.
table

RESOURCES

RECIPES

PICKLED OCTOPUS

Ingredients

  • 1 litre white vinegar
  • 1 celery stalk, cut in rough chunks
  • 1 small brown onion, sliced
  • 3–4 parsley sprigs
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 kg baby octopus, gutted and cleaned
  • 1 tbsp sea salt, plus 1 tsp extra
  • 6 small red dried chillies
  • 1 bulb garlic, broken into cloves
  • 10 whole black peppercorns

Method

  1. Put one cup of the vinegar into a large saucepan with the celery, onion, parsley, one bay leaf and 600 ml of water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes. Add the octopus and salt and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, set aside the octopus, discarding the cooking liquid and vegetables.
  2. Meanwhile, put the remaining vinegar, bay leaves, chillies, garlic, peppercorns and extra salt in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes. Take the drained octopus and place into sterilised glass jars, pressing down well. Fill each jar with the hot vinegar solution, leaving 5 mm at the top, then divide the bay leaves, chillies, garlic and peppercorns between each jar.
  3. Seal with tight-fitting lids and leave in a cool dark place for at least one week before opening. Pickled octopus can be stored for up to three months and should be kept in the fridge after opening. It is fantastic with slices of steamed potatoes, dusted with paprika and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Recipe from The Gourmet Farmer Deli Book by Matthew Evans, Nick Haddow and Ross O’Meara (Murdoch Books 2012).

GRILLED SARDINES ON TOAST

Serves 2

This is total comfort food. If you can, buy fresh sardines, but the tinned variety also lend themselves to this dish. Whenever it has been served, there’s always been a solid request for it again.

Ingredients

  • 6 whole fresh sardines (or substitute small herring, baby mackerel, red mullet or smelts)
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp tomato sauce (ketchup)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 slices of good sourdough bread
  • butter, for spreading

Method

  1. Preheat an oven grill (broiler) to medium.
  2. Rub the sardines with the olive oil and place on a foil tray. Grill for five minutes on each side, turning once. Place the cooked sardines in a bowl and crush them with a fork. Add the onion, sauces and juice and mix well. Taste for seasoning, adding a pinch of salt and a little freshly ground black pepper, if necessary.
  3. Toast the bread, spread with good butter and top with the sardine mixture. Serve hot.

Recipe from The Gourmet Farmer Goes Fishing, by Matthew Evans, Nick Haddow and Ross O’Meara (Murdoch Books 2015).

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