5 tips for a sustainable seafood feast

22nd December 2021 | Carissa Klein

Summer in Australia is synonymous with seafood, from fish and chips at the beach to prawns on the barbie. But how do you know if your seafood is sustainable? This means seafood that comes from healthy stocks and has minimal negative environmental impacts. Conservation scientist Carrisa Klein from the University of Queensland shares her top tips for choosing sustainable seafood this holiday season.

More than one third of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable levels according to the latest figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Research shows public awareness of the problem is growing. But according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 62 percent of the seafood Australians eat is imported. This can make it hard to determine the food’s provenance.

While comprehensive sustainable seafood guides like the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish are readily available, we know some people find them daunting and time-consuming to use. To make it simpler, we’ve put together five tips for better seafood-buying, focusing on holiday season favourites.

Christmas catch: you can get premium Aussie rock lobster for a great price right now.

5 ways to ensure you’re buying sustainable seafood

1. Eat farmed Australian prawns

Much intensive prawn farming overseas has been linked to the destruction of coastal habitats. Further, some Australian wild-caught prawns have bycatch issues. Trawling accidentally catches rare species such as dugongs and turtles. In contrast, Australian prawn farming takes place on land in tanks. This can make it a more sustainable industry.

2. Eat wild-caught Australian rock lobster

This year, lobster prices are much lower than usual due to export issues with China. Unlike imported lobster, Australia’s rock lobster fisheries are generally sustainable.

3. Eat farmed Australian oysters and mussels

It’s hard to go wrong here. Fresh local oysters and mussels are widely available in stores and restaurants and are usually sustainable. Most imported oysters come in tins.

4. Eat farmed Australian barramundi

Locally farmed barramundi is the most commonly available sustainable fish species. Some wild-caught Australian barramundi fisheries have issues with bycatch; imported farmed barramundi have recurring issues with disease.

5. When in doubt, pick fresh Australian seafood

Australian fisheries are better managed than most others around the world. This means that opting for locally caught fish is usually the better choice. Buying Australian seafood also helps to support our local industry. Foodservice closures and disruptions in supply chains made the seafood industry one of the hardest hit by COVID.

Picking sustainable seafood this Christmas
Data taken from The GoodFish Guide.

What to watch out for

My team and I recently examined more than 50,000 seafood products from southeast Queensland supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets. In our analysis, only five percent of these products could be classified as sustainable.

If you’re buying seafood to cook at home, you’re most likely to find sustainable options at speciality seafood outlets. We found these were more likely to stock Australian products. While some sustainable options are available in major supermarkets, they skew much more heavily to imported seafood. So your best bet is to shop at your local fishmongers. And always ask where the seafood is from before buying.

We know there are a lot of salmon lovers out there. Among the seafood products we surveyed, it was the most common. Almost all salmon sold in Australia is farmed Atlantic salmon produced in Tasmania. Unfortunately, this salmon is currently classified as “Say No” by the Good Fish guide due to significant environmental impacts.

On a positive note, the Tasmanian salmon industry is working to address these well-documented problems and the potential for improvement is high. It’s worth checking sustainable seafood guidelines frequently, as sustainability changes over time.

The Good Fish guide also lists more options such as sustainable abalone (wild caught and farmed), mullet, mud crabs and whiting. You can also opt for more underutilised species. By diversifying the seafood you eat, you’re taking pressure off fully fished species in Australia.

Picking sustainable seafood this Christmas: oyster farms like this one in Merimbula, NSW, are often classed as sustainable
Oyster farms like this one in Merimbula, NSW, are often classed as sustainable.

What about eating out?

Unfortunately, Australia has no regulations requiring Country of Origin and species labels on cooked seafood. This means that when you buy flake, you could actually be purchasing a critically endangered species such as the hammerhead or school shark.

This isn’t a problem we can solve as consumers. A senate inquiry in 2014 recommended removing the exemption for cooked seafood, but it did not become law. To fix this, the government should introduce laws to improve seafood transparency and sustainability, especially in restaurants and cafes. This would make Australia world leaders in this area, given many countries don’t have mandated Country of Origin labelling for cooked seafood.

While we work towards a national solution, it’s important we continue to vote with our wallets to buy sustainable seafood wherever possible. This will encourage the industry we want to see and avoid unnecessarily trashing our oceans.

Professor Carissa Klein is an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, working in the field of conservation science. The Conversation originally published this article. It has been edited for style and length.