Sustainability: What does it mean?

The phrase ‘sustainable seafood’ is increasingly used in Australian public life, but what does it actually mean?

The phrase can mean different things to different people, but most people agree that in general, ‘sustainable seafood’ can be defined as follows:

  • Wild-caught sustainable seafood is produced without taking too many of the target species, doesn’t cause excessive harm to the ocean environment or catch damaging numbers of vulnerable marine wildlife. Sustainable fisheries meet the long-term needs of fishermen, seafood consumers and the environment together.
  • Farmed seafood is produced without causing excessive harm to the marine environment, including harming vulnerable marine wildlife or polluting surrounding waterways, and feed fed to farmed fish is not heavily dependent on fish sourced from wild fisheries.

With all the talk of sustainable seafood, you might come up against some myths about what sustainable seafood means. We debunk a few of them here.

Myth: If it’s farmed, it must be sustainable

Reality: Not all farmed fish is produced sustainably, and some farmed fish is more sustainable than others.

There are many ways of farming seafood (a process known as ‘aquaculture’). Most shellfish are farmed without requiring any additional feed input and this is generally more sustainable than farming species that require additional food. Mussels and oysters filter their nutrients from the surrounding seawater and in general are a great option. It starts getting complicated when aquaculture farms grow carnivorous fish that are fed other fish. Fish pellets are often made from wild caught fish, and it generally takes more of these wild caught fish to grow less farmed product resulting in a net burden on wild fish stocks.

In addition, pollution from fish farms (fish waste and excess feed) can ‘over fertilise’ the surrounding waterways leading to disruptions in the natural ecosystem balance.

Myth: If it’s organic it must be sustainable

Reality: Most wild-caught seafood is naturally organic, as it grows in the sea with zero (deliberate) chemicals added to aid growth or prevent disease. However, this does not mean that all seafood caught from the wild is sustainable. Sustainability for wild-caught seafood is a measure of the impact of production on our ocean environment, and has nothing to do with the presence or absence of chemicals.

Some farmed seafood, whether Australian or imported, has an organic certification. If it’s farmed and it’s certified organic, then it may have better farming practices, not use chemicals and the farm may have lower stocking densities of animals.

Myth: All Australian seafood is sustainable

Reality: While Australia manages our fisheries and fish farms better than most, we still have a long way to go before all our seafood is truly sustainable. We still have fish species that have been overfished and populations have not recovered to healthy levels, and some of our fisheries also place a heavy burden on vulnerable and iconic marine wildlife such as dolphins, seabirds and turtles.

On the other hand, it’s easier to find information on Australian fisheries than those from overseas, and sourcing locally can be valuable in understanding the provenance of your seafood. Increasingly, customers are interested to hear where and how their fish was caught or farmed.

Myth: Sustainable seafood is more expensive

Reality: Seafood that holds a third-party certification of sustainability may be a little more expensive than non-certified seafood, due to the costs of certification the fishery. However, international research has shown that customers are willing to pay a price premium for certified sustainable seafood¹.

Certified sustainable seafood has limited availability in Australia at present, but there are plenty of sustainable choices from fisheries that have not gone through a certification process that are a steal – smaller scale fisheries may not be able to afford the cost of certification, but the absence of certification doesn’t mean the fishery isn’t operating in an environmentally responsible way.

Myth: Customers won’t pay for Australian seafood

Reality: Australian seafood is more expensive than a lot of imports, as Australian fisheries regulations can drive our prices up. However, market research from other food sectors shows that customers are willing to pay a price premium for Australian produced food.

Most restaurant customers assume that most seafood is Australian, but when presented with a choice between imported and Australian, customers are often prepared to pay more for Australian produce.

Labelling laws relating to the sale of cooked seafood in the Northern Territory require that imported seafood is identified as such. Evidence has shown that customers support local produce and are prepared to do so with their dollars².

Myth: Customers aren’t interested in sustainable seafood

Reality: Experience from the UK, America and Canada shows that customers are interested in the provenance and sustainability of seafood. International (including Australasia) market research from 2014 shows that the health of the oceans is important to 90% of people surveyed¹.

Although Australian consumers are lagging behind a little, we are seeing ‘sustainable seafood’ becoming much more of a mainstream term, with increasing public and media awareness of the issues. Customers also expect businesses to take environmental issues into account – by taking part in the Chefs’ Charter, you and your restaurant can provide your customers with the assurance necessary that you’re doing the right thing by the oceans by making sustainable seafood choices.

What’s in it for me and my business?

Membership of the Good Fish Project Chefs’ Charter can provide you with the framework and guidance necessary towards sustainable seafood solutions for you and your restaurant, and can give your clientele confidence that you’re doing the work for them and making environmentally responsible choices .

In addition, as part of Good Fish Project commitments to participants in the Chefs’ Charter, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS – the organisation behind the Good Fish Project) will promote committed restaurants through social media and to our database, specifically targeting those customers who are looking for restaurants that have made that sea change to sustainable seafood.

References:

1 International (including Australasia) market research conducted by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) showed that 39% of those surveyed were prepared to pay more for certified seafood.

2 Evidence from a recent Australian Government Senate enquiry into restaurants seafood labeling laws heard evidence from restaurateurs in NT and around the country; this evidence suggested Australian’s want to support Australian producers and are prepared to pay more for Australian than imported seafood.