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Conflicting sustainable seafood guides confuse consumers

Whether at the supermarket or the local fisho, most people find it difficult to know what seafood is sustainable. To help consumers make more informed choices, conservation organisations have been busy…

Are any of these fish sustainable? A seafood guide might help you figure it out, but it might not… Diarmuid Fisherman/Flickr

Whether at the supermarket or the local fisho, most people find it difficult to know what seafood is sustainable. To help consumers make more informed choices, conservation organisations have been busy with sustainable seafood campaigns.

In Australia, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) recently released a comprehensive Sustainable Seafood Guide, including a free smart phone application, to choosing seafood wisely. They label each type of seafood as “better”, “think”, or “no”.

The World Wildlife Fund has partnered with Coles to help the supermarket sell and label sustainable seafood.

These are both significant efforts intended to answer consumers' question: “What seafood is sustainable?”

Armed with my AMCS application, I recently went to Coles to buy some sustainable seafood. Coles clearly labels their seafood, indicating which is “a better choice for sustainable seafood”.

I was struck by some inconsistencies between the AMCS and Coles sustainable seafood guidelines. Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon and farmed Rainbow Trout, for example, are labelled as “a better choice” at Coles but categorised as a “no” by the AMCS seafood guide. In fact, I was sure it was a simple mistake made by the Coles employee and asked if they mislabelled the seafood. Unfortunately, the labels were correct.

Would you trust a politician or a doctor if they provided inconsistent information? It’s unlikely. Marine conservationists cannot expect the general public to trust us if we provide inconsistent information.

We suggest that this inconsistent information may contribute to a type of seafood stewardship crisis, one that the ocean cannot afford to battle. Consistent guidelines are essential if we want consumers to take sustainable seafood and marine conservation seriously.

Perhaps Australia needs a certification program. This program could work with the marine conservation organisations and marine scientists to develop consistent and transparent criteria for labelling seafood in Australia.

Carissa Klein
The inconsistencies between two of Australia’s leading conservation organisations highlight the issue that determining what is sustainable - seafood or any food - is not always straightforward. Determining whether or not seafood is sustainable requires a great deal of information. One needs to know the species fished, the fishing gear used, the place caught or the farming method used. All of this is information that Coles and AMCS consider.

Prawns are an Aussie favourite. They’re also a great example of how confusing shopping for sustainable seafood can be. Prawns can be a bad choice; for example, if they’re black tiger prawns farmed and imported. They can be a “think” choice, if they’re king prawns that have been trawl caught. Or they can be a “better” choice, particularly if they’re greentail prawns that have been haul caught in NSW.

Given this complexity, it is important that the origin and fishing/farming method be labelled at any seafood vendor. If prawns are just labelled “prawns”, how can a consumer know what they’re getting?

Australia needs laws that require more stringent labels on seafood sold at any vender. Together with consistent sustainable seafood guidelines, labelling laws could help make the consumption of sustainable seafood commonplace.

How do you figure out what it is they’re selling? Jeremy Keith

In some cases, however, it is straightforward. For example, both guides discussed here consider orange roughy unsustainable. In fact, as part of the WWF-Coles Sustainable Seafood partnership, Coles has taken orange roughy off the shelves of all their stores. This action that could make a big impact on the population of this species in Australia.

Globally, the health of our oceans is rapidly declining and is due, in part, to the consumption of seafood. A majority of the world’s marine stocks are over fished. To counter this, some seafood production has moved to farms. These can harm the ocean as well though, through pollution spreading of disease, and reliance on wild fish for feed.

The state of the ocean is problematic, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a health perspective. Over a billion people rely upon seafood as their main source of protein and many others consume it for its unparallelled health benefits. The conservation of our ocean requires actions at many levels. Given consistent guidelines and clear labels, consumers have the power to improve the state of the ocean by choosing sustainable seafood.

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37 Comments sorted by

  1. Shauna Murray

    Research Fellow at University of New South Wales

    Hi there,

    Unfortunately I think its even more complex than you describe. For example, even the orange roughy fishery is not so cut and dried as I understand it - while there was an enormous amount of illegal fishing previously and the stock plummeted, good policing efforts have reduced illegal fishing considerably in Australian waters. If consumers stop buying this fish from the well- monitored and regulated Australian orange roughy industry, then who will be there in sub-Antarctic waters to notice and monitor the illegal fishing of this species?

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    The concept is excellent.

    The Australian government should be fully supporting efforts to have both Australian produced food and Australian manufactured items assessed and labelled for sustainability, as this could provide a major competitive advantage for Australian exports, and significantly help reduce the huge amount of imports into Australia.

    Unfortunately, we have the most short-sighted governments, (to the extent one could call them un-Australian), and now organisations such as the AMCS are financed through charity donations, and being run by volunteers.

    The concept is excellent, but getting our governments on board, and supporting the concept is perhaps the greatest obstacle.

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  3. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    A popular local tavern we attend started indicating "food miles" and attempting to indicate sustainability on their menu.

    For example, one of the things they did was take swordfish off the menu, as the fish take about 14 years to get to the stage at which we were eating it.

    It's a pretty difficult job no doubt and interpretation of data will result in inconsistencies I imagine. This can only improve however.

    As long as it's not a cynical 'greenwash' attempt from Coles, more power to them I say!

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    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Agreed, All power to Coles, even though as an independent researcher I development the "rival" AMCS guide's classifications.
      So the consumer get's a bit confused with different guides.
      It doesn't matter too much at this stage, in the early development of fish guides, if we do have a bit of a difference between them. At least we have some guides now!
      Differences do and will mainly turn on the weight given to ecosystem affects and bycatch issues, rather than whether a species is overfished or subject to overfishing, which is well documented.

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    2. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      It's worth the risk of being 'noticed' in a supermarket, to go and observe the shoppers and how they behave.
      By far the majority seem to be in a hurry, they buy by reading the big print and seldom, very seldom from my observations, read the small print. Not surprisingly, really, because in so many cases the 'small' print is very small and often printed on a coloured background, like black on dark green. One does get noticed if you carry a torch!

      I just wonder if, no matter what we do, we will ever outwit those who don't want us to know?

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    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jennifer WIlliams

      Jennifer,
      All very well. However, at the rate of classifications under this scheme - just 5 sustainable fish identified in in 2010 and 12 in 2011 - it will be a case of far too little too late.
      And what about species not exploited sustainably? Consumers need to know this, above all, when they go shopping.
      In the AMCS Guide over 130 species are classified and imports and canned products are covered too. Classification of Imports are just as important as the status of locally-caught fish.

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  4. Peter Horvat

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation will be shortly releasing the first Status of Key Australian Fish Stocks - late November early December - www.fish.gov.au

    For the first report, 49 wild caught species were selected based primarily on their contribution to the value of Australian fisheries and volume of catch.

    The big difference with this report, is the fact that assessments were undertaken on at the individual stock, management unit or jurisdictions assessments level depending…

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    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Horvat

      Peter,
      It is unfortunate that the above comprehensive classifications, which will be very welcome, stop short of adoption of more than a brief review of ecosystem effect.
      It is painfully obvious that there are many fisheries where ecosystem and bycatch effects are extremely important and that on any reasonable interpretation should render them "say no".
      Moreover, fish imports are now greater than Australian produced fish in value and volume. The importance of their assessment for sustainability goes without saying.

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    2. Peter Horvat

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      Well Colin, you may be surprised. The reviews in many cases do take into consideration other factors, including by-catch. As noted this is the first time a review of this kind has been undertaken.

      Imported products are another question which at this point we are not focused on. The goal is to progressively improve the reporting in Australia.

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    3. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Horvat

      Peter,
      The status of fish stocks managed by the Commonwealth, i.e. whether overfished and subject to overfishing, is already available through the comprehensive annual ABARES Fisheries Status Reports and in the case of state managed fisheries from their published status reports. So it seems that what you intend publishing is not new but a compilation of existing assessments.
      The AMCS fish guide takes into account these assessments as well as the wide literature on ecosystem and bycatch effects of fishing and incorporates them in its assessments of 130 species; It also includes assessments of imports - fresh and canned fish - important because these make up >50% of Australian fish consumption.
      Moreover, I doubt whether a fish guide produced by the Fisheries Development Corporation will have have the same level of independence in the eyes of the consumer as the AMCS Guide which was put out for tender, undertaken by an independent researcher and peer reviewed.

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  5. Mike Jubow

    forestry nurseryman

    Shauna raises some good points regarding monitoring. I firmly believe that a properly and scientifically scaled 'Sustainability Label' would be an enormous help particularly if in conjunction with accurate labeling of country of origin. Our family will not buy imported fruit, vegetables, canned or processed food unless it is a rare treat and not produced by any Aussie manufacturer or grower. The label specifying 'Imported and local product' just doesn't cut it. What part is imported? Is the Aussie part the package or the water in it? Are the standards as good as ours when health is concerned? Is it full of chemicals or does it have the potential to bring a new plant, animal or human disease into the country. Yes, a sustainability label in conjunction with proper country of origin may force some better regulation into the market place.

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    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Mike, A very, very good point.
      Labeling is the key to providing the consumer with reliable information. Let's take a simple example. "Flake", very popular in fish and chips is actually shark.
      Shark is listed as "say no" in the AMCS Guide for very good reasons. But many Brisbane consumers would be revolted if they realised that they were eating scalloped hammerhead, IUCN-listed as endangered globally.
      Likewise many Victorians would be aghast at knowing they were eating school shark, listed as conservation dependent by the Commonwealth government.
      The fish guides aren't so helpful where there is lack of labelling or labelling is misleading.
      We need to get to a point where every fish is labelled correctly by species, country of origin (of the fish and not the can!), and if aquaculture or wild caught, and if the latter by what method (e.g. longline, purse seine or pole-and-line in the case of canned tuna).

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  6. Roger Crook

    Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

    What an interesting article.
    Here we are in Australia, surrounded by massive oceans and of course, marine parks, so 70% of the fish we consume is imported from all four corners of the world. I find that difficult to understand.
    I suppose it means we don't mind importing from countries who strip fish? A sort of Australian fish NIMBY or an 'I'm alright, Jack' attitude?
    Country of origin laws (COOL) laws are difficult if not impossible to impose.
    Our supermarket fridges are full of frozen vegetables…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Roger Crook

      If humans can’t solve the sustainability problem, then eventually we are doomed, and there is no question about that.

      There seems to be 2 parts to the problem.
      - Getting a sustainability label on the packet.
      - Getting country of origin label on the packet.

      It would probably be easier to produce food sustainability in this country than in various others, and the rewards for Australian food producers are potentially great.

      It would be a win for the environment, a win for the consumer, and a win for Australian food producers.

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    2. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Roger Crook

      Correction: COOL - Country of Origin Labeling, not Law,

      I had N Roxon on the mind at the time. Wondering how, with her experience, she became who she is.

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  7. Colin Hunt

    Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

    Clarissa,
    I undertook the research and classified fish in the AMCS Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide.
    All fish species are highly researched with every available relevant reference having been consulted to arrive at a classification. The online version of the AMCS Guide gives the seven main references underlying the salmon (Atlantic) classification as ‘say no’, and this referencing is followed for every species.
    Before publication classifications were independently reviewed by leading experts…

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    1. Peter Horvat

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      Colin, when did you do the review for the AMCS? I would appreciate a copy of the references you used. Likewise the list of experts that reviewed the material.

      I would be interested in the data you used for the comment about the use of antibiotics in Salmon in Tasmania. Antibiotic use is controlled by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, so they are pretty serious claims. From my understanding the FRDC are one of the only organisation that have undertaken a review of antibiotic use and based on this I think you are making a very un-informed comment.

      Likewise I would appreciate to know if you did any analysis comparing aquaculture, in this case Salmon and other forms of primary production, such as dairy, beef, pork etc?

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    2. Carissa Klein

      Postdoctoral research fellow in conservation biology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      Yes, Colin, one of the great things about the AMCS guide is that the criteria for categorising seafood are transparent. This is a contrast to the Coles/WWF sustainable seafood program. After failing to find any information online about how Coles/WWF decides which seafood are sustainable, I contacted Coles via their online customer service form. Coles responded via email but they were unable to provide me with written criteria or even a list of which seafood they classify as 'sustainable' - I was…

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    3. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Horvat

      Peter, The references for Atlantic salmon are as below.
      You would be most interested in [4] on antibiotic use in Tasmanian salmonid farming.
      As mentioned, in the interests of transparency, these references are listed with the clasification in the AMCS online web guide when "salmon atlantic" is entered.

      The guide was launched in October 2010 and was updated in may 2011.

      A comparison between fish aquaculture and intesnsive anilmal husbandry is not relevant here. What is relevant - and something…

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    4. Bob Milne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Horvat

      Further i think your statement
      " A comparison between fish aquaculture and intesnsive anilmal husbandry is not relevant here. What is relevant - and something the consumer should be aware of - is that antibiotics are used in intensive fish farming just as they are in internsive pig, cattle, and chicken farming."

      is completely wrong. When was the last time there was a labelling campaign that gave the "No go" destination to pig, cattle, and chicken?

      That's right NEVER

      And the Salmon Farms use significantly less anti-biotic than those terrestrial endeavours, many living their lives without ever being treated and never treated prophylactically.

      How exactly does this infrequent use of anti-biotics contribute to unsustainability?

      regards

      Bob Milne

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    5. Bob Milne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      So which of the list do you find salmon aquaculture guilty ? and more importantly where is the evidence? and to what are you comparing?

      It is counter-intuitive to have farmed salmon a "no go" on sustainability and you have demonstrated no evidence to the contrary.

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    6. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Bob Milne

      Antibiotics are not and have not been used in chicken farming 'feed' in Australia for a long long time.

      Chicken produced in Australia is antibiotic free. I do not know if this applies to imported chicken or even if we import chicken.

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    7. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Bob Milne

      Bob, I stand corrected. Don't know why, was thinking of hormones and chicken production, when I wrote about antibiotics.
      Antibiotics and Meat Chickens

      Antibiotics are an invaluable resource for the industry to ensure that chickens keep or regain their health. Both in human and in animal health applications of antibiotics, development of resistance to antibiotics is of concern. For this reason, antibiotics of importance in human health are generally not registered for use in livestock and use…

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    8. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Roger Crook

      Dont know why it, my reply, coughed, double apology. Be nice to be able to edit.
      R

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  8. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Anything is sustainable if hardly anybody does it and the ocean problem is that hardly anybody gives a toss and providing guides for the people who do is just a feel good gesture of no consequences because the bulk of fish used in Australia will continue to be imported while demand so massively exceeds supply. Latest FAO data is 2009 but its easy to understand the ratios, we produce 239,000 tonnes of fish and seafood, we feed 200,000 tonnes to livestock (mainly other fish) and we consume 544,000…

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  9. Nathaniel Pelle

    logged in via Facebook

    Unfortunately, Coles' sustainability labelling doesn't apply to thawed fish, crustaceans, farmed fish, frozen fish, or preserved (tinned) fish. Tinned tuna, salmon and prawns are our most popular seafood products, so a meaningful system would be applied to them as well. Tinned salmon is mostly OK, coming from pretty well managed Alaskan fisheries mostly, prawns much less so, and tuna - the biggest selling product - is far from sustainably managed, with only a few pole and line products really being acceptable.

    And as Carissa points out, sustainability claims are meaningless unless the criteria are defined.

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    1. Carissa Klein

      Postdoctoral research fellow in conservation biology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Nathaniel Pelle

      Actually Nathaniel, some farmed fish are included in the Coles program. For example, farmed atlantic salmon from Tasmania are labeled as a sustainable choice by Coles (and not by the AMCS), which are farmed. You are correct that Coles only includes fresh fish in their sustainability labelling program, but I was told on the phone that they plan to expand the program in the future.

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    2. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Carissa Klein

      Carissa,
      It's a pity these facts were not brought out in your article, as well as the fact that Coles couldn't provide you with the criteria for their classifications.

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    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Carissa Klein

      The problematic nature of Coles' claims to market only sustainable fish is illustrated by the fact that Coles at Stockland Shopping Centre, Cairns still sells "flake": flake being shark.
      So we have both mislabelling of fish and the sale of fish that should be 'say no', and indeed are 'say no' in the Australian Marine Conservation fish guide.
      Many species of sharks are legally caught in Queensland waters, at least two of which are listed under the commonwealth's EPBC Act of 1999, such as the scalloped hammerhead and the shortfin mako.

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  10. Bob Milne

    logged in via Facebook

    Hello Colin Hunt, could you explain the relevance of the first research article listed in your references for classifications. Specifically the Ford Myers
    paper of 2008. You are aware that it is largely based on mathematical models
    subsequently proven to be false and misleading. Also you are certainly aware that there are no wild salmonids in Australian waters.

    What gives?

    regards

    Bob Milne

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  11. Kimberly Selkoe

    logged in via Facebook

    One topic that is relevant but wasn't mentioned is traceability - there is so much seafood fraud or deception, at least here in the US. I wonder what is done about it in Australia and if the supply chains are less susceptible to it (i.e., shorter). If you aren't sure what you are buying is what the label says, your buying guide isn't going to do any good!

    I prefer quick, simple rules of thumb as opposed to buying guides like Seafood Watch because most consumers find them confusing or troublesome…

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