The state of our oceans

G Magazine

We've grown up hearing the proverb "plenty more fish in the sea". In reality we're hooked on a rapidly dwindling resource. We take a look at the state of our oceans and the steps being taken to improve the sustainability of the seafood hitting our plate.

Trawl catch

A trawl catch.

Credit: Mike Gerner/AFMA

Scallop dredge

A scallop dredge after being dragged along the bottom of the sea floor.

Credit: Mike Gerner/AFMA

Tuna in tow

A school of Southern bluefin tuna swim in a tuna fishery tow cage.

Credit: Getty images

Japan Tuna Market

Fishmongers check the quality of meat on frozen tuna fish before trading at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

Credit: Getty Images

Hammerhead killed in net

A hammerhead shark is fatally caught in a gill net.

Credit: Getty Images

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We're the first customers through the door of the dockside fish shop and the ocean's bounty of seafood is staring us in the face with its customary dead-eyed gaze.

There are salmon and swordfish steaks, cases of ice-covered whiting and flathead, trays of oysters and squid and a plateful of ambiguously labelled 'mixed coral fillets'. Peering studiously into these display cabinets is former fishing industry executive turned sustainable seafood expert Colin Hunt and two fish in particular are causing his curiosity to twitch like an angler's float.

The first is a display of filleted Atlantic salmon from Australia, which we're told by the shop assistant is "definitely wild caught" - yet Hunt knows this fish is always farmed.

Another tray of fillets is labelled 'coral bream', a species that Hunt, despite decades of experience working and researching in the fishing industry, has never heard of.

In an effort to clear up the confusion, a supervisor in a white smock and gumboots emerges clutching a 60cm-long unfilleted version. "It's just bream,'' he says, "I think it's caught up in the Barrier Reef".

If the fish was indeed bream, then the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) considers this to be a relatively sustainable choice. But according to the seafood industry-backed Approved Fish Names initiative (to which this shop is a signatory) the name coral bream is obsolete and shouldn't be used. The initiative's database reveals seabream (Gymnocranius & Monotaxis spp) and grass emperor (Lethrinus laticaudis) have both been sold as coral bream in the recent past, making it hard for consumers to know for sure what they're buying.

Confused? So were we. The true origin of that glistening silver fish remains in doubt.

Later that same morning, we toured seafood shops and supermarkets (where about 60 per cent of Australian seafood is bought) in the Brisbane area. When we asked about the origins of the cod on the menu of a fish and chip shop, staff could only confirm it had come from a box in the freezer.

Our mini-tour of fish purveyors revealed two inescapable truths. Buying fish is easy, but buying sustainable fish is whole different kettle of, er, fish.

Empty oceans?

Fish and seafood is now the only food consumed on a large scale by the world's population that is essentially hunted in the wild. The environmental impacts of catching that seafood are as diverse and interdependent as the life in the oceans themselves, and as a result questions abound. Is your prospective meal from a sustainably managed fishery? Are you about to eat a fish that's being over-exploited or, worse still, is an endangered species? Were any other animals like seals, sea lions, sharks, dolphins, whales or sea birds sacrificed in the process? (This is known as bycatch.) Is the fish being imported and, if so, from where?

"For the consumer it's tough...very tough,'' says Hunt, a former visiting fellow in the University of Queensland School of Economics who has just finished reviewing hundreds of reports and research papers to provide the backbone of a new version of AMCS's Sustainable Seafood Guide. "If you want to know if it's wild caught or aquaculture or if it's from Australia, then labelling becomes very important.''

Around the world, consumers began waking up to the sustainable seafood quandary after research papers warned fish stocks were collapsing at alarming rates. The most controversial finding of all came in 2006 from a study led by Canadian scientist Boris Worm, which predicted the world's entire fish stocks could collapse by 2048.

Published in the prestigious journal Science, the paper concluded: "Our analyses suggest that business as usual would foreshadow serious threats to global food security, coastal water quality, and ecosystem stability, affecting current and future generations.''

More recently, the idea of an impending global collapse of seafood stocks was examined to even more dramatic effect and communicated to a wider audience in the award-winning documentary film The End of the Line.

So, are we headed for a future in which seafood has become so rare that it's a luxury only the very wealthiest will be able to afford?

"It is true that there are ongoing concerns about fisheries and how they're managed globally and there is no cause for complacency," says senior CSIRO fisheries scientist Tony Smith. "But the idea that we would fish out the oceans and there would be nothing left I don't think was very credible.''

Since Worm's apocalyptic prediction, Smith has led another team to update the research and these new findings paint a more hopeful picture of the world's oceans. After examining 10 ecosystems including the north west and south east of Australia, researchers found that in half of them, fishing rates had dropped. However it's not all good news. "Sixty three per cent of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding," the research concluded, "and even lower exploitation rates are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species."

The ocean has been historically described as bountiful, but research from the likes of Worm suggest there's a long way to go if we're to avoid turning that abundance into a largely empty fish tank.

The Aussie industry

"Australia probably has one of the best management systems in the world and, in many cases, our fish stocks are in good shape,'' says Hunt. "One of the reasons for that is that we have institutions in place to manage the fisheries. But managing a fish stock sustainably is one of the hardest things in the world to do.''

In Australia, the state and Northern Territory governments are responsible for managing fisheries up to three nautical miles off the coast. Beyond there and out to 200 nautical miles, the federal government takes responsibility.

In terms of what we catch, in 2009 fisheries in Australia produced 173,000 tonnes of wild fish, crustaceans (crabs, prawns) and molluscs (abalone, squid, scallops).

The top three states for the commercial wild-caught fishing industry in 2009 were South Australia (38,205 tonnes), Western Australia (25,311) and Queensland (24,891) with Commonwealth fisheries contributing another 51, 416 tonnes to the haul.

The most abundant of Australia's wild fish catch is surprisingly the humble sardine. Some 31,500 tonnes of them were caught last year, accounting for about 13 per cent of all the seafood caught in Australian waters, but almost all are either exported or used as food in fish farms.

In 2008/09, some 193,000 tonnes of seafood was imported with three quarters coming from China, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam. Australia also exported almost 47,000 tonnes of seafood with more than half going to Japan and China.

Even though Australia's fisheries are acknowledged as being managed to ecological principles, a review of reports from federal and state managers still reveals problems. To assess the sustainability of a fishery, researchers look at the population number of each species in the water - known as the biomass - and then compare this to catch rates.

If the species is being fished too quickly for it to recover, it's considered to be subject to overfishing.
Overfished means the stock itself is already over-exploited or "the biomass is inadequate to sustain the stock in the long term".

Fish stocks managed by the Australian Government are placed into six classifications: overfished, not
overfished, uncertain if overfished, subject to overfishing, not subject to overfishing, uncertain if subject
to overfishing.

Of the 101 different types of fish assessed, 15 are overfished and a lack of information means the government is uncertain about a further 30. There are also 10 fish stocks that are currently subject to overfishing with uncertainty surrounding another 18.

States and territories also produce summary reports of their fisheries and how they're managed but comparisons are difficult because they don't all report in the same way and classifications differ.

Wildlife casualties

Fishing boats scouring the oceans for food have an array of ingenious methods to lure and catch the seafood that makes it onto our plate. Sophisticated nets and gears are deployed with many fishing boats equipped with sonar and GPS technology and accompanying helicopters to help them locate seafood. Mobile gears, such as trawlers, drag nets along the sea bottom to chase the fish. Static nets hang in the ocean at different depths and long-lines can stretch several kilometres with hundreds of hooks attached. Then there are the various pots used to catch lobsters and crabs.

"With all forms of fishing there's always going to be incidental catches and that is termed bycatch,'' explains Peter Horvat of the Commonwealth Government Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC). "Anything which is brought up but wasn't targeted is classified as bycatch." The term bycatch can apply to any fish that the boat isn't licensed to catch on a particular day, including undersized species, other fish and animals such as dolphins, seabirds, dugongs, turtles, sharks and even crocodiles.

CSIRO fisheries scientist Tony Smith says that it is unfair to conclude that one method of catch is any better or worse than another. "There are of course some methods we don't allow in Australia, such as dynamite fishing or poisoning that do occur in some parts of the world. But you have to look at what's happening on a case-by-case basis - just because it's caught by a certain method that does not mean consumers should automatically disregard it. Some people will say that anything caught by a trawl net is unsustainable, but I
wouldn't agree.''

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Genevieve Quirk counters: "Bottom trawling can destroy the ecosystem on which fish depend. A fishery with a future does not bottom trawl. Marine reserves are urgently needed to protect biodiversity decimated by trawling and to replenish overfished stocks."

An example that shows just what is at stake is that of the Australian sea-lion. An endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and listed as threatened by the Australian Government, the sea-lion has been particularly affected by gillnet fishing. Sea-lions like to forage for food on the ocean floor, sharing that space with commercial gillnets that are placed to catch shark and other species.

A report to the FRDC earlier this year estimated some 374 Australian sea-lions are killed by gillnets in each 18-month breeding cycle. Sea-lions also drown, the report explained, after getting their heads stuck in lobster pots, although experiments with different designs can reduce the death toll. "These results,'' the report said, "indicate that the majority of Australian sea-lion subpopulations in South Australia are presently exposed to unsustainable levels of bycatch mortality. If current levels and distribution of fishing effort are not modified, further population declines, subpopulation extinctions and reductions in range are likely to occur."

All this talk about tuna

One type of fishing technique has attracted more criticism from conservationists than any other. Purse seine nets, sometimes the size of city-blocks, are hung in the water at shallow depths and are popular in tuna fisheries.

A 2003 report from the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry found that when Fish Aggregating Devices (floating shades which encourage schools of fish to gather) were used with these nets, bycatch rates in tuna fisheries were as high as 10 per cent.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace released a report entitled Out of Stock, Out of Excuses, documenting a litany of environmental disasters related to the tuna fishing industry in the Pacific, where at least half the world's tuna is produced. Of the region's seven tuna species, big-eye, yellowfin and albacore were already overfished and stocks of Southern bluefin tuna had collapsed. Only the region's skipjack stocks were sustainable.

If this wasn't bad enough, the report cites evidence that purse seine and longline tuna fishing are having an unacceptable impact on other species. Boats using longlines, some more than 100 km in length with as many as 3,000 baited hooks, were recording bycatch rates as high as 35 per cent, with sharks and seabirds being affected. Some 250,000 loggerhead turtles and 60,000 leatherback turtles are caught this way every year, with thousands killed.

Southern bluefin tuna, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, continues to be fished in South Australia at a rate of 5,000 tonnes of mainly juvenile fish a year.

Last year the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, which sets global catch limits, announced that stocks of adult fish were down to between three and eight per cent of their original state, well below the 20 per cent considered safe by the commission. A reduction to the global quota from 11,810 tonnes to 9,449 tonnes has since been introduced.

These juvenile Southern bluefin tuna caught in South Australia are placed into pens in the Port Lincoln area and fed mainly fish meal before being exported to the lucrative Japanese sashimi market.

"It's the most extravagant example of unsustainable fishing practices,'' claims Greenpeace's Quirk. "It takes about 10 kg of sardines to make one kg of tuna."

Quirk says Australians eat more canned tuna than any other fish, all of which is imported. "The majority - about 60 per cent - of that tuna comes from the western Central Pacific where you have between 21 and 46 per cent pirate fishing. Even the legal operations have fished big-eye tuna down to 17 per cent of their original biomass.''

Greenpeace Australia Pacific has produced a guide to buying canned tuna that ranks different brands. "Some brands couldn't even tell us where their tuna came from,'' says Quirk. The guide currently has the Fish4Ever brand leading the way, with Aldi and IGA making positive moves to change their buying practices and label their own-brand tuna more clearly.

Keith Symington, bycatch strategy leader for the WWF Coral Triangle Program, says major canning operations tend to group together tuna catches before exporting it across the globe, making it hard to know just what's in each can.

He says: "It's difficult for a consumer to know if a fishery is doing something that's positive and more responsible."

Old King Neptune had a farm

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines aquaculture as "the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants with some sort of intervention in the rearing process to enhance production, such as regular stocking, feeding, protection from predators, etc". According to the FAO, fish farming provides about half of all the fish eaten on the planet.

Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, is critical of marine aquaculture.

"Sea cage aquaculture is a concern - they are the marine equivalent of battery chicken farms," she says. But considering the world has ever more people to feed, Meeuwig says we'll have to get more of our fish from aquaculture.

"When we ask if aquaculture is sustainable, the question to ask is what is being farmed," says Meeuwig. Because fish farming tends to focus on larger, more valuable species, this increases pressure on wild stocks of smaller fish that are used as feed.

Preferred aquaculture methods, according to Meeuwig, are land-based farms where it is easier to stop chemicals, disease and waste from affecting the environment, although these tend to be more expensive to run. Farmed seafood, including mussels, oysters and abalone, are in general better choices, she adds.

Seafood you can feel good about

The success of conservation groups in making the public aware of issues like sustainability and bycatch, Symington argues, has created a new challenge for conservation groups and retailers.

"We have almost become a victim of our own success,'' he says. "The more consumers get informed, the more detail we have to give them yet it isn't easy to simply say things are black or white."

Even though the issue of buying sustainable seafood is complicated, all hope is not lost for the fish-loving consumer. Some 94 fisheries around the world are accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council, which checks that products are from sustainable sources and that fisheries minimise environmental impact and have effective management structures in place.

Australia has three fisheries certified under the scheme; the Australia mackerel icefish, the Lakes and Coorong fishery in South Australia and the Western Australia rock lobster fishery. All together, 67 products available in Australia now carry the organisation's label, including imported New Zealand hoki, North Sea herring and South African hake.

Alongside the Greenpeace canned tuna guide, the most comprehensive tool for anyone buying fresh or frozen seafood is the AMCS's latest Sustainable Seafood Guide. More than 100 species are graded to advise shoppers if their seafood is a 'better choice' or whether they should 'think twice' or simply 'say no'.

"Some people are giving up fish completely because the issue is so complicated. They see the simplest way to go is to stop eating it altogether. But our guide shows there are fish which are safe and sustainable," says AMCS marine campaigner Ben Birt.

"Given that fish is a finite resource, I think we should see it almost as a bit of a luxury. The world's population can't keep eating fish every day. If we did, there'd be none left."