Fishy business: choosing sustainable seafood

May 17, 2007

You’re standing at the fish counter in the market, staring at a dazzling array of unfamiliar fish with unfamiliar names, with a queue of eager shoppers jostling behind you.  If you’re anything like me, you panic.  You know that Orange Roughy is a no-no.  But what about Perch? Is it the same thing? Who knows?  You’re sure Flathead is ok… or is it? 

Many seafood-eaters know that there’s a list of endangered, overfished and unsustainably managed species that should be avoided.  But navigating the endless choices of wild caught, farmed, imported and local seafood is not so simple.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that, until recently, there was no standardised system for naming and marketing fish in Australia.   

Many of our fish species are known by more than one name.  It’s a relic of Australia’s diverse cultural history: immigrants faced with unfamiliar Australian fish gave them names from their home countries.  These names changed from state to state, and from region to region. Even fishmongers in the same street would refer to the same fish with different names.  This led to confusion and even deliberate mislabelling.  For example, when a campaign to save the overfished Orange Roughy in the 90s led to a fall in its popularity as a table fish, many fishmongers simply started selling it under its alternative names of Perch or Sea Perch.
The other problem is the lack of freely available information.  In the United States, the Monterey Bay Aquarium runs a Seafood Watch program that produces comprehensive, free downloadable guides for seafood consumers according to region, as well as printable pocket-size guides that shoppers can carry with them.   

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (ACMS) have produced a similar guide for our waters called the Australian Sustainable Seafood Guide.  However, to access information in the guide, you must visit the website, pay for a hardcopy version of the guide, then wait to have it posted to you.  Not very convenient if you’re trying to decide what to buy for supper that night.

If AMCS are really serious about protecting marine ecosystems and fish stocks, and they want Australian consumers to be proactive about choosing sustainable seafood, then they need to make this information easily accessible and free of charge. 

We live in an age of instant information: we expect the answers to all our questions to be at the ends of our google-savvy fingertips.  Forcing well-intentioned consumers to buy a hardcopy version of the Guide seems counterproductive to the goals of encouraging ethical eating, not to mention an unnecessary waste of resources. 

The Sustainable Seafood Guide should be up on the ACMS website, and regularly updated, not hidden away in some storeroom, printed in permanent ink. Presumably the not-for-profit organisation sells the information to cover their costs, but surely they can find another revenue for money raising; one that doesn’t undermine the effectiveness of their campaign?? 

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