Underused species not always sustainable

21st May 2020 | Eativity editors

Eating more under-utilised seafood species is often advertised as the way to more sustainable seafood consumption, but it turns out that – like pretty much everything else we eat – it’s actually moderation and variety that are key.

In a study at the University of Wollongong, researchers challenged the popular message and investigated what eating more under-utilised and less popular seafood species really means and what impact it has on sustainability.

“While there are many potentially positive social, economic and environmental outcomes of consuming currently under-utilised species, consumers should be encouraged to buy a range of seafood, including under-utilised species, which can be traced back to a well-managed fishery, rather than promoting under-utilised species,” says research project leader Dr Anna Farmery, of the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security.

The study drew on findings from research funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. It highlighted how the sustainability of a species is more dependent on the management applied to that fishery, rather than by consumer demand. For this reason, consuming under-utilised species may not be the easy shortcut to sustainability that it’s often advertised to be, if that particular stock isn’t managed well. Conversely, purchasing a well-managed popular species is a sustainable choice.

Australian salmon is under-utilised and therefore lower priced.

Consumers can also find it harder to access some lesser-known species because some simply don’t make it to the marketplace. To investigate this point, the research considered why some species are less known and utilised.

“Popular messages focus on altering consumer demand, assuming this to be the main factor deciding if a species is utilised to its full potential or not,” explains Dr Farmery. “In reality, there are several supply side processes that can cause a species to be under-utilised. This can stem, for instance, from these species not being caught or landed in the first place because of technical issues, vessel storage restrictions, difficulty in catching the fish or high variability of the catch.”

Not much is known about the precise impacts of increasing the consumption of under-utilised species. More information is needed on consumer perceptions, tastes and preferences as well as attitudes to price and availability.

Under-utilised species are often promoted as cheaper to encourage people to choose them, but this could also be the reason why more fishers choose not to land them.

Government incentives for fishers could improve this situation, but Dr Farmery and her team also identified the need for more information on species substitutability and effective management systems, to avoid unintended consequences such as overfishing.