How do we ensure the supply of seafood for future generations? We talk to Tooni Mahto, a campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society about the environmental impacts of commercial fishing.
6 Nov 2014 - 4:23 PM  UPDATED 24 Sep 2015 - 3:02 PM

Whether it's Atlantic salmon, tuna, shark or the humble prawn - Australia loves eating seafood.

In fact each year we eat 16 kilograms of seafood per person.

But growing populations and increasing demand for protein-rich foods are putting our oceans, and this limited natural resource under pressure.

How do we ensure the supply of seafood for future generations?

This is one of the issues explored in the new SBS documentary series "What's the Catch?"

Wildlife like the dodo and sea cow now belong to history - because humans hunted them to extinction.

Today the majority of food we consume comes from farmed animals and crops.

However, despite the farming of seafood being on the rise, most of the fish we eat is still caught in the wild.

Commercial fishing ranges from local, small-scale fisheries to international corporations.

Overfishing, or where fish stocks are depleted to unacceptable levels, is a serious threat to marine ecosystems.

Tooni Mahto is a campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, AMCS.

She says overfishing can lead to permanent degradation of the environment.

“Marine ecosystems are in a delicate balance. If you remove too much of one species, then that can alter the natural balance of an ecosystem. And that can have quite severe consequences for marine ecosystems in general.”

She advocates fishing that's managed responsibly.

“It's also a finite resource if it's not managed properly. So, if we take too many fish from the ocean, then what that means is there won't be enough fish that remain in the ocean to reproduce, to keep on bolstering that population.”

Australia has the third largest fishing area in the world, however its waters are not as nutrient rich as coastlines elsewhere on the planet.

As a result, Australian marine life is rich in biodiversity, but lower in overall numbers of fish.

With fewer fish to catch, our fisheries have stayed relatively smaller in scale.

Leading Australian fisheries expert and Emeritus Professor at the University of Canberra Doctor Bob Kearney argues that in terms of sustainability, Australian fisheries are in a pretty good shape.

“There are very, very few fisheries in Australia now that are seriously overfished. Unfortunately, a lot of confusing terminology gets used, and people get the impression that overfishing - which can often mean just merely that they've taken too much fish in one year or that they've overcapitalised, that it represents a threat to the survival of the species. Australia has shown - that is not true.”

But our fisheries haven't always been managed so tightly.

Until the 1980's there were few limits on fishing and stocks were depleting rapidly.

Over the past decades improved regulations, quotas and enforcement have seen fast recovery of Commonwealth managed fishing stocks.

In 2004 most fish stocks were classified as overfished with the green light given to only 20 of stocks confirmed as not overfished.

But by 2012 as many as 63 stocks out of almost 100 were considered in good condition, and the trend continues to rise.

Conservation campaigner Tooni Mahto argues that the public need to understand how fishing is regulated.

“There's limited understanding amongst the public on how fisheries are managed, and indeed what species are fished, what the implications of fishing are. So our main goal is encouraging the consumer and the public in the debate about how their fisheries are managed.”

Bryan Skepper is the General Manager of the Sydney Fish Market, one of the largest fresh seafood markets in the world.

He says the rules and regulations governing the daily catch are extensive.

Fishermen are required to take out several licenses and report their takes.

These are deducted from their quota, and once that is reached, they stop fishing.

Skepper also believes that our local fisheries are doing well.

“Australian fisheries are regarded internationally as being amongst the best managed in the world. Our fisheries management system that's in place has rigorous scientific underpinning to it, and internationally we're regarded as being amongst the top four in the world as to our fisheries management programs.”

If Australians ate only local seafood, this would be promising news, however up to 70 per cent of the seafood we eat is imported into Australia.

Bryan Skepper explains.

“The 70 percent relates to seafood in all of its forms, so you're talking about canned products, frozen, processed fish fingers and things like that, as well as your chilled fish fillet.”

Professor Kearney says that it's not enough to have good local standards, because Australia is importing too much seafood, and doing so irresponsibly.

“The sustainability of our fisheries is really very good, but the sustainability of our seafood supply [is] appalling.”

Kearney explains that in Australia imported seafood often comes from countries where sustainability standards are looser.

He says many importers are based in developing countries that need the seafood to feed their own populations, but sell it to Australia because they can get higher market prices.

Professor Kearney believes that the way Australia uses its waters for fishing should be managed more effectively.

We export premium products such as abalone and sashimi-grade tuna, while importing cheaper fare from less sustainable suppliers.

“I'm very optimistic about the sustainability of our fisheries, but unless we take a holistic approach to where seafood is going to come from, and we give it due priority, we will not get our management priorities right.”

Bryan Skepper from the Sydney Fish Markets says local fishermen also want sustainability.

“When you talk to the professional fishermen too, they want to have stocks there for the future. Many of them are family businesses, generations of fishermen, and they want to ensure that they've got an industry that's in healthy condition to pass on to their sons and daughters.”

If you want buy sustainably too, there are consumer guides online, such as the Sustainable Seafood Guide by the Australian Marine Conservation Society, which uses a traffic light system to rate species.

Unfortunately it can be difficult to follow - due to the fact that Australia doesn't have a mandatory labelling system in place.

AMCS' Tooni Mahto explains.

“Labelling is a real issue because a single species is commonly marketed under a number of different names, or many different species are marketed under one name. So it can be incredibly confusing for a consumer that wants to make a real thoughtful choice about what it is they're eating.”

However, there are things that we as consumers can do.

Ask for the species and origin of the seafood you buy and order in restaurants.

Choose local seafood rather than imported.

If a certain fish at the fishmonger is cheap, chances are it is in season, so go for that.

You can also try less commonly eaten species to give the slow-growing tuna and salmon stocks a break.

Barramundi, flathead and silver perch are all good alternatives.

It seems responsible consumption is the key to ensure that future generations get to enjoy the abundance of seafood as much as we do.

SBS' new 3-part series "What's the Catch?" airs Thursdays at 8.30PM from 30th October on SBSONE.