The key to building a successful sustainable seafood menu is in knowing the basics. But in the diverse world of seafood, what exactly are they? Terminology surrounding seafood can seem complex, from the myriad of different fishing methods, whether wild caught or farmed, to the names of the fish themselves. But you don’t need to become a fisheries expert to understand sustainability: it’s all based on knowing your fish
There are three key questions to ask your supplier when you are ordering seafood:
You’ve probably already noticed that as consumers become more aware of sustainability, they are asking these questions. Whether people want to eat locally-caught fish, or want to know if it’s farmed or wild-caught, the following sections are a crash course on the fish basics to get you started on seafood sustainability. Three little questions, one big result: the confidence to understand how your fish got from the sea to your plate.
And if you come across some terms that don’t make sense, check out the Glossary for definitions of fisheries terminology.
Mislabeling can lead to much confusion in the seafood market; “Is this tuna the endangered southern bluefin, or the MSC-certified albacore?” Fish names are important because they help you make sure you’re getting what you ordered. You can also use the fish’s name to look up its sustainability in the AMCS’s Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, the MSC Ecolabelling Product Guide or other assessment programs listed in the Resources section.
Knowing your fish is crucial – so what’s in a name?
A single species can have multiple names. Let’s take the example of the Australian herring. Like all fish, it has a unique, two-word Latin scientific name – Arripis georgianus, but it’s also known as ruff, tommy ruff and Australian ruff. Some names are even more confusing: blue warehou (Latin name Seriolella brama), can also be known as black trevally, sea bream or Tasmanian trevally!
Steps have been taken to minimise confusion in the marketplace, but unfortunately the situation is far from resolved.
In 2008, the Australian Government introduced the Australian Fish Names Standard. This means that fish now sold to consumers through stores, fishmongers and restaurants should be identified with the fish’s standard common name. Your supplier must provide you with either the standard fish (as set by the Australian Government) or the Latin scientific name. These rules make it much easier for you to figure out the sustainability of the fish you want to serve, and helps your customers have confidence in what they are ordering.
The Fish Names website is a great resource for looking up the standard names you should use in your restaurant.
Fishing and aquaculture methods vary wildly in their level of impact on the oceans, and knowing how a fish was caught or reared has a big impact on whether it’s a good choice.
Wild caught seafood
Fish are one of the last wild-caught foods we eat, but because fishing happens out of sight it’s hard to think about how it gets out of the ocean to the market. Some fishing methods tread lightly on our seas by not damaging ocean habitats and by minimising the catch of unintended species, whereas other methods damage the ocean floor so badly that the scars can be seen from space.
Some fishing methods catch more non-target species than those they’re actually fishing for. Bycatch is the term used to describe the non-target species that are caught. If this bycatch has some value, it’s kept for sale; the remainder is generally thrown back into the sea, though by this stage it is often dead. Bycatch can also refer to vulnerable marine wildlife such as turtles, seabirds and marine mammals. This is particularly worrying as many of these species, like short-tailed albatross and Australian sea lions, are at historically low population levels. These species may not be commercially important, but these animals are crucial to the natural functioning of ocean food webs and to the health of our oceans.
The sea floor provides the surface for a whole host of marine life. Creatures like sponges and coral reefs live on the ocean bottom, providing hiding places and structures for fish and other sea creatures to live. Seagrass and algae grow up towards the sun, and provide shelter for young fish. When fishing disturbs the ocean floor, it can destroy the habitats that fish and ocean animals need to live.
The main types of fishing are described in the Wild Capture & Farming Methods section. These descriptions are generalised overviews of the methods: some fisheries may have less impact through the use of special technologies, or because of the area where they fish, or have representative areas protected in marine reserves. After reading through the descriptions and talking to your seafood supplier, you can decide which methods you feel comfortable with, and which you want to avoid.
Aquaculture is becoming more common as the demand for seafood goes up, and wild fish stocks go down. It seems like the perfect solution to the ocean’s blues – we can farm the seafood people want, and ease the pressure on our fisheries. But it’s not that simple. Some farms take pressure off wild fish stocks, but others actually increase that pressure. Some of the issues to consider are the use of wild fish to feed farmed fish and the impacts of the waste that farms create on the marine and coastal environment.
Wild fish in aquaculture
Many of the fish people love to eat are carnivorous, that is, they eat fish as well. Fish high up the food chain simply need fish protein to grow, and fish farmers who raise carnivorous or omnivorous species need to feed them with the right protein to help them grow into healthy, delicious and marketable sized seafood. Two issues come up when considering what farmers are feeding their fish:
- Where are the fish in the feed coming from?
- How much wild feed is needed to grow farmed fish?
Most of the fish used in fish feed are wild-caught. Most of these fish are small, fast-growing species like pilchards and anchovies. Often called ‘forage fish’, they form the basis of the diets of many marine creatures, from bigger fish to seabirds and dolphins. The pressure is on for these little fish – the demand for farmed fish increases every year, and so does the catch of forage fish for their feed.
There are different ways of describing the amount of fish used to grow farmed seafood. You may come across the term ‘feed conversion ratio’ – this means the amount of dry fish food required compared with the amount of fish produced, or it will be described as the weight of wild caught fish used to produce 1kg of farmed fish i.e. fish in vs. fish out.
Many shellfish, like mussels and oysters get their food by filtering the surrounding water for small animals and plant particles, so are not dependent on feed input. Other species, like prawns, barramundi and salmon, need feeding. Different fish need different quantities of feed input to grow; for example, carnivorous salmon require somewhere around 3kgs of wild fish to produce 1kg of salmon 1(depending on individual farming practices), whereas omnivorous prawns and barramundi need less. Southern bluefin tuna are caught as juveniles in Australia and raised in cages at sea. As tuna are top oceanic predators, they need much larger quantities of fish to grow to marketable size. In order to grow 1kg of bluefin tuna, farmers need to feed them 15-20 kg of wild fish 2.
Increasingly, there are solutions to feeding farmed fish and easing the pressure on our wild fish stocks. Forward thinking operators know that feeding farmed fish high quantities of wild caught fish is expensive and not sustainable, and are looking into ways to address this. Options currently being investigated are making fishmeal from the offcuts of wild fish, or using algal products and land-based crops such as lupins and soy. Some producers are also looking at ways to reduce wasted feed and reduce the impacts the farm can have on the environment.
Impacts of fish farming on the environment
In the best-case scenario, a fish farm would be clean, have good animal husbandry practices and have minimal impact on its surroundings. In worst cases fish farms produce too much waste for the environment to handle, the fish are in cramped conditions that can harbour disease and escape from the pens and spread disease in wild populations. Fish farms that have implemented control measures to address these factors are operating in a more responsible way.
For more of a look into how different forms of aquaculture can affect the marine environment, look at the Wild Capture & Farming Methods section.
Where did the fish come from?
The last issue to consider when thinking about the use of wild fish in aquaculture is figuring out where the fish originally came from. Many fish farmers raise their fish from eggs, and don’t rely on wild stocks at all. Other types of farms capture wild, juvenile fish and raise them into adults. For example, southern bluefin tuna are caught at small sizes and raised, or ‘ranched’, in pens. If not managed properly these operations can add to the pressure on our oceans by keeping fish from breeding and interacting with their natural ecosystem.
Getting to know the source of your seafood is an interesting and important way to determine if your producer is doing their best. Call them up, have a chat, and see what they have already done or are doing to improve their sustainability.
As the MSC has produced an international standard for sustainable wild-capture fisheries, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) initiative is doing the same for farmed fish. ASC certified products are marked with a green ecolabel.
Fishing methods vary country to country. Additionally, stocks of the same species in one country may be fine, while in others they may be severely depleted.
Know your source, and know your sustainability!
Besides the fishing or rearing method and the name of the seafood, country of origin is the last piece of the sustainable puzzle. Fisheries management is the way countries regulate aspects of catching and rearing seafood, like how many fish to take every year, or where to put a fish farm. Some countries have strong laws and regulations surrounding seafood, while others lack effective management. Sustainable seafood assessment programs look at the strength and effectiveness of fisheries management when ranking or certifying seafood.
A major problem facing the sustainability movement is the issue of traceability. With fish being shipped around the world, there are many points when mix-ups can occur. Some of these are on purpose – fishers or sellers change the name of one fish to a more valuable one to make more money. But some are accidental, and the sheer volume of fish on the global market means that these mistakes are more common than we would like. There are no worldwide rules ensuring fish are correctly labeled, and it can be difficult to get fisheries information from countries that don’t keep good records, or aren’t willing to share information.
Buying seafood caught or farmed in Australia probably means you’ll probably get more information on the provenance of your fish (check out the Resources section for more information). And while Australia could improve their traceability regulations, the government does publish information on fisheries management, including how many fish are caught, whether the fish population is increasing or decreasing, and how many boats are catching these fish. The same is not true for many other countries, so buying local means more information to help you make up your mind. It’s also possible to buy seafood directly from your local fisherman.
When you want to buy seafood that’s imported, how can you make sure the fish you’re buying is from a trustworthy source?
Choosing fish that is certified sustainable is one way of ensuring the fish you’re serving is the species it says it is and is from a fishery with an adequate management regime in place. For example, for a seafood product to bear the MSC blue ecolabel every link in the supply chain must be independently audited to ensure traceability. They even carry out DNA tests to verify a product with the ecolabel is from an MSC certified sustainable fishery. Sustainable seafood programs do the work of exploring traceability for you, and are a great way to address issues of country of origin.
1 Naylor, R.L. et al. 2000. Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies. Nature, 405 (2000), pp. 1017–1024
2 Ottolenghi, F. 2008. Capture-based aquaculture of bluefin tuna.ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/011/i0254e/i0254e08.pdf