Seafood is health food and consumers want more - and the Federal Government is urging Australians to eat more - but there are limits to what the ocean can provide. For many fisheries around the world, those limits have been breached. Over the past 30 years the number of overfished stocks has tripled and now one in four fish stocks are overfished.
At the end of last year the Federal Government announced a major restructure of the south-east fishery, with a $220 million buy-out to secure fish stocks and guarantee a profitable industry. According to a recent survey by the Bureau of Rural Sciences, the Australian Federal Government's main research arm, 40% of Australian consumers think that commercial fishing is unsustainable, and 57% of the consumers surveyed believed that the provision of a sustainability label would influence their purchases.
One solution is third-party verification of sustainable fishing practices, such as the eco-labelling certification provided by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international non-profit organisation. Through the work of the MSC, Australia is taking steps towards producing a global solution to a global problem. Politicians, scientists, food industry educators and high-profile chefs have all pledged their support.
To carry the MSC logo - a tick of approval - a fishery must undergo a rigorous certification process. This blue oval logo is a way for concerned consumers to see at a glance whether the seafood products they buy are sourced from sustainable fisheries, which are commercially-driven partnerships delivering both community benefits and sustainable ecological benefits. The MSC now has 14 fisheries certified to the MSC Standard globally. This may not sound like much but it includes the world's largest managed fishery (for pollock in Alaska), and covers Alaska salmon, pollock, New Zealand hoki and South African hake. There are also smaller-volume and higher-value species available such as Western Australian rock lobster. Indeed, there are now about two million tonnes of fish available globally which could carry the MSC's sustainability label - which is 10 times the entire Australian catch.
European retailers are avidly catering to consumer interest. The MSC's blue trade-marked logo is currently displayed on more than 280 products in 24 countries. In Australia there more than 30 MSC-labelled products for sale - mostly frozen and canned offerings - and there are plans for more. The world's first fishery certified to the MSC's strict environmental standard was an Australian fishery, the Western Australian Rock Lobster Fishery, and several other Australian fisheries are currently undergoing the certification process. Food service remains an area where consumer interest is not yet being satisfied, despite the availability of sustainably certified hake and hoki.
While acknowledging the Federal Government's recent initiative of a national seafood education campaign, "What's so healthy about seafood?", in response to research which shows that Australians are eating less seafood at home, from the Marine Stewardship Council's perspective, ensuring that consumers can buy tomorrow the fish that was available today is critical to the health of the industry and the environment.
The MSC is urging Australians who love their seafood to participate in the inaugural Sustainable Seafood Day to be held in Australia on February 17 to raise awareness of responsible fishing practices by demanding evidence of sustainable fishing practices from their seafood suppliers. Increasingly, the MSC will become the name associated with a global solution to this problem by establishing an environmental standard for well-managed and sustainable fisheries.
Duncan Leadbitter is a respected Australian marine biologist and an FMCA member.
"The seafood industry has long had the reputation of being high on the list of anti-environmentalists in the food industry, and while sadly this can remain the case in certain fisheries and individual enterprises, the actions of the MSC are proving that the industry must, and can, change. The commercial benefits of providing sustainable, environmental supply in the contemporary seafood world are real - a third party independent certification of this provides consumers, end-users and the trade with the security that this is a genuine endeavour. Like never before, there is a need for the MSC to be encouraged, respected and endorsed by the seafood industry, not only for the absolute moral position we must take for the future of our planet, but clearly if we plan to be a growing part of modern food supply." John Susman, Bizzfish, Sydney
"Gone are the days when we could consider our wild-caught fish as a limitless resource. In the 23 years I've been involved in the food industry, it has been obvious that fish populations are dwindling. The Marine Stewardship Council's work goes a long way in assuring all of us as consumers that the management of fish stocks is being handled in a sustainable manner, so that we can continue to enjoy our seafood." Steven Manfredi, Manfredi Enterprises
"I commend the whole blue-label MSC accreditation system which allows consumers to make an informed decision on buying fish that they know have been environmentally responsibly managed. The social and environmental cost of overfishing is a very real and sobering issue. Ensuring that a sustainable supply of our local fish will be there for future generations to enjoy in their diets is an imperative legacy." Catherine Saxelby Consultant Nutritionist
"If we as Australians are to continue to enjoy the beautiful fresh and healthy harvest of our waters in the years to come, we must ensure that our fisheries are managed sustainably. I congratulate the Marine Stewardship Council - it has an important job ahead of it. It would be irresponsible to endanger any of our marine life because of thoughtless human greed and myopic management of this precious and delicious natural resource, which we take for granted will always be on our plates." Margaret Fulton OAM
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