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Victorian Guide — Reconnecting producers and consumers

Ensuring the Sustainability of Seafood

Friday, June 8, 2012 — Editorial, Skills and Knowledge

All too often Atlantic salmon, swordfish or tuna appear on restaurant menus, which is something worth questioning. Should we be eating something that is unsustainable? Some seafood species are overfished or endangered; some are farmed or fished in ways that dramatically pollute or damage the marine life or environment irreparably. In other words, we may be depleting the ocean of some of our favourite meals, so if we enjoy eating seafood, why not take more measures to ensure that we can keep eating seafood in the future? Emiko Davies investigates.

As Greenpeace states on their website, “Fish are supplied in a fundamentally different way to other animal food products. Meat and dairy products are farmed – as we consume them, more animals are reared to ensure continued supply. In stark contrast, the vast majority of fish we eat are not farmed but essentially mined – taken from the ocean without consideration for maintaining the source sustainably.”

It’s not all bad news for seafood lovers, however – it’s just about making the right choices. Farmed mussels are always a good choice, as are oily fish like mackerel and sardines. It’s a topic that deserves much more attention from all around – consumers, chefs, supermarkets alike.

To delve further into this, take a look at the websites of Melbourne-based Good Fish Bad Fish and Italy’s Slow Food campaign dedicated to seafood, Slow Fish. Another good article that covers the issue is this one by journalist Rachel Lebihan at The Food Sage who asks whether food writers should be more responsible in informing consumers about sustainable food choices.

Afterwards you may ask yourself why it is that restaurants, chefs, cookbooks and supermarkets don’t make more of an effort to spread the word about the alarming damage that is being done by over-fishing, aggressive forms of fish farming or fishing methods.

There are important exceptions, such as chef Ben Shewry from Attica restaurant in Melbourne, whose mesmerising video “Kobe and the Sea” on the sustainability of abalone and passing on traditions to his son may bring you close to tears (“Spindrift”, where Shewry meets with Victorian mussel farmer, Lance Wiffin, is worth a watch too) and the US supermarket Whole Foods should be mentioned too for recently making the leap to selling sustainable fish only.

Luckily as a consumer it’s easier than you may think to inform yourself and figure out the best seafood choices in your area, thanks to numerous resources that bring choosing sustainable seafood to your fingertips.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has a very handy sustainable seafood guide app that you can download for free that makes deciding on your next meal, whether in the markets or a restaurant, a very easy one. Your favourite fish are simply labelled “say no”, “think twice” or “better choice” – you may be surprised by the results. Good Fish Bad Fish have a seafood converter on their website, an equally handy tool when you’re looking at that swordfish recipe and wondering what else you could use instead. Just type in the name of the unsustainable fish and the converter tells you a similar but better alternative and how to cook with it. Then there is even Greenpeace’s Australian sustainable canned tuna guide – proof that consumer demand for information on how or where the fish comes from can make a change.

The Italian-based Slow Fish website (available in English, French, German and Spanish too) is worth a thorough look for some global perspective on the issue as well as some inspiration, from the traditional recipes according to region to the which fish? guide. This last one touches on a subject that Oliver Edwards from Good Fish Bad Fish also warns about.

“There are many different definitions of what constitutes ‘sustainable’, and the recommendations from the various guides and certification schemes can sometimes seem contradictory or confusing. Consumers need to work out for themselves how they define sustainability, and then align themselves with a group with similar values.”

Nevertheless, there is unanimous and universal consensus that should not be ignored by responsible consumers. There’s a short list of certain species to avoid that should already sound familiar to many: swordfish, bluefin tuna, sharks, Atlantic salmon, for example.

Edwards says, “I think the key to eating sustainable seafood is to eat locally and diversify your choice – there are so many fantastic seafood options available, but sometimes we get trapped in this mindset of ‘I HAVE to have snapper/swordfish/salmon for this dish, because that’s what the recipe says’.”

As a consumer, ask questions and get the information you need to make an informed choice. What is the species? How and where was it fished? Line-caught? Farmed?

Eat lower on the food chain – the fish that are fast breeding, robust and short lived (such as sardines), are a much better choice than larger, older fish that have relatively few young and a long lifespan (rays, tuna, sharks, for example).

Don’t assume that farmed seafood is necessarily the good choice. But don’t assume that all farmed seafood is the bad choice, either.

According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s guide, wild barramundi is a better choice than farmed barramundi – a carnivorous species fed with wild fish in sea farms that have a high potential for pollution (tank grown is a better choice). Farmed abalone is a better choice than the highly depleted wild abalone; unlike barramundi, naturally herbivorous abalone are not reliant on wild fish feed and less likely to cause pollution or leave a damaging environmental footprint. Likewise, farmed scallops have a low impact on the environment and are a better choice than wild, where they are overfished and dredge caught (using a steel frame that rakes its way through the seabed – one of the most destructive of fishing methods).

But whose responsibility is it to demand more awareness on this issue of sustainability? The consumer? Figures in the food industry such as chefs, food writers or the fishmongers themselves?

“Responsibility for the promotion of sustainable seafood falls to everyone, but as I see it the more influence someone has, the more responsibility they have. It is the ‘celebrity chefs’ and well-known food writers who drive trends and influence the public’s consumption habits, so I would like to see them informing their followers about sustainable seafood,” says Edwards. What comes to mind is the change and awareness that was brought about worldwide by the campaigns of UK celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the horrors of poultry battery farming versus free range chickens and eggs.

“That said,” continues Edwards, “Consumers are the ones who can really ‘vote with their wallets’. Ultimately, no chef is going to put a species on a menu that they don’t think will sell, so consumers need to show their support by being more adventurous eaters and trying the unfamiliar.”

And think of it this way – if you like eating seafood, wouldn’t you like to see it on menus and in markets for years to come?


Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at


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2 comments on —
Ensuring the Sustainability of Seafood

  1. Damian said —

    It’s really insrietteng reading what others do in that position. I’m often the “naggy” one in my friend circle, eating local, sustainable, etc. I would have to say, most the time in the grocery store I don’t say a thing. It’s just not the right venue. However I think my actions speak louder than words. When I have a cart full of organic and local food, with lots of beans and fresh veggies people can literally see the difference. I’ve noticed people staring at my cart, and I’ve been asked by people many times how I cook a vegetable I’m picking up or what I do with a fruit. That’s when I start to talk. It’s easy to get up on a soapbox, goodness knows, I’ve done it. But making people feel bad doesn’t work. I really believe that the best thing I can do is live my life in a healthy, sustainable way and then people see how awesome and fun it can be.

  2. Hi Emiko,
    I work for the Marine Stewardship Council in Australia and New Zealand and it would be great to get your input for a guide to Sustainable Seafood we’re developing for chefs, please drop me a line


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