Fish n' Chips: what you're actually eating...
SBS Learn
6 Oct 2014 - 9:33 PM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2015 - 2:17 PM

Q1 Fish n' chips

Typically, in Australia, when you buy fish n’ chips you are often getting shark n’ chips. The shark meat you are consuming is probably called flake. Your serving of flake n’ chips, unless labelled, could be any number of shark species including endangered shark species.

The name flake is commonly used as a name for any type of shark meat. Most fishmongers and fish and chip shops use the word to cover every species of shark that is either caught in Australian waters or has been imported.

Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide advises that all shark meat is code ‘RED’ and that we should say ‘no’ to consuming it. This is because fishing for many species of shark worldwide in recent decades has severely impacted on shark numbers. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nation (IUCN), a quarter of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.


Q2 Why don't I know what I'm getting?

Once cooked – whether battered, crumbed or pan fried – if unlabelled, it’s impossible to know what you are eating from your local fish n’ chips shop.

This is because in Australia we have no legislation to make restaurants, takeaway shops or fishmongers label the cooked seafood they are selling. Without checking what’s under the batter it’s possible you may be unknowingly buying and eating threatened shark species in your fish n’ chips.

The term ‘flake’ is an Australian fish name standard that only applies to two species of gummy shark (one from Australia and one from New Zealand). In reality, the term ‘flake’ is commonly used for any shark meat and this can mean any species of shark including those under threat.

Threatened species of shark are legally caught and sold in Australia. For example, school shark, whilst not a targeted species in Australia, can still be caught and sold as bycatch. We also import shark meat from countries with poorer fisheries management than our own. Trade records do not usually record what species of shark are being imported – the trade codes simply say ‘Shark’.


Q3 Why should I care if I’m eating sharks?

Sharks have inhabited our oceans for more than 400 million years. Australia is home to approximately 180 species of shark ranging from enormous whale sharks to small pygmy sharks. But in recent times worldwide demand for seafood plus the introduction of industrialised fishing methods have had a catastrophic impact on shark population numbers. Each year 73 million sharks are killed around the globe. 

Sharks are at the top of the marine food chain. As carnivores, they play a vital role in maintaining the oceans’ ecologically delicate balance between predators and prey. Removing this apex predator from the system creates an imbalance that could severely alter marine ecosystems. Although there is very little basic information on a lot of shark species (what age they grow to or reach sexual maturity), in general, with their slow growth and reproduction rates, sharks are particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure.

In Australia, due to the decreasing shark numbers worldwide, a number of species are listed as threatened under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Under this act it is an offence to kill, injure, take, trade, keep, or move any member of a listed threatened species on Australian Government land or in Commonwealth waters.


What the big Australian environmental organisations say…

What some of the big Australian environmental organisations say…

Join us in protecting these amazing animals by supporting sustainable fishing, the creation of protected areas at sea and banning practices such as shark finning.

Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS)
Check out the AMCS Sustainable Seafood Guide when buying seafood.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA)
The AFMA has developed a Shark Plan including improved identification measures and bycatch reduction for fishery and conservation managers to improve conservation and management of sharks.

World Wildlife Fund Australia (WWF)
We are working to ensure that conservation and management measures for sharks are implemented by fishery management organisations and by countries participating in multi-lateral trade agreements.


Q4 ACTION What can I do? 

  •  Check under the batter! Next time you buy fish n’ chips asking, ‘What species is it’? or ‘Where did it come from?’ and ‘How was it caught?’. Asking these questions will give you the information you need to make an informed sustainable decision about what you’re eating.
  • Try a sustainable alternative such as whiting or flathead.
  • Keep informed. A senate inquiry into current requirements for labelling of seafood and seafood products will release its report on 27 October 2014. Go to the Parliament of Australia website for the latest information.
  • View our Flake infographic