Are there enough fish in the sea?

Beaches, BBQs and seafood are all a part of Australia’s holiday pastime. Protecting it means learning to think sustainably about the seafood choices we make, writes Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Craig Bohm.

First published in Kindred magazine, issue 24, Dec 07. Taken from

Australia’s wondrous and diverse marine environment is an important source of seafood, but it is also a source of beauty, wilderness and wildlife. In addition, it is a source of tremendous national pride.

In a world beneath the waves, seagrass beds, tropical reefs and sponge gardens bask in the sunlight.

Deeper down, seamount ranges, submerged mountains and deep sea canyons house a menagerie of ancient and long-lived fish.

Endearing marine mammals, such as dolphins, seals and whales move between these underwater worlds in search of food, love, and the good life.

And although we derive our seafood from these remarkable places, we must learn how to do so with care.

Australians eat over 206,000 tonnes of seafood each year and our appetite is growing. Today, an incredible 75 per cent of the world’s oceans are officially over fished or fished right up to their limit and Australia’s oceans are not faring much better.

Locally, the list of overfished species continues to grow and governments are srcambling madly to reduce fishing pressure on our small, local fish populations.

Today, more than 500 species of marine finfish and shellfish are caught or farmed in Australia and sold locally and overseas each year.

Yet on a global scale, although diverse and unique, Australia’s oceans are not particularly productive.

Australia ranks low on a global scale in terms of fisheries productivity, even though our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers an area greater than 16 million square kilometres!

For over a century we have allowed trawling, longlining, gillnetting, trapping, seine netting and numerous other methods of fishing to exploit our relatively small fisheries and supply us, and the world, with seafood.

The charge for accessing our marine commons has been small compared to the economic returns for industry.

The environmental costs, however, have been high and include a growing list of overfished species, habitat damage and loss of productive fisheries habitats, particularly inshore, plus impacts on non-target species and lost opportunities to other user groups in the community.

To date, the cost of fishing has been grossly under-estimated in our society. A legacy of fishing impacts is beginning to unfold in Australia and this and future generations must now bear the legacy.

Are things changing?

On a positive note, stewardship for our precious oceans is growing. Some restaurants and seafood retailers no longer sell overfished species and environmental accreditation for commercial fishing operations is inspiring some fisheries to improve their environmental performance.

Increasingly, society expects commercial fisheries to change their practices and conserve the ocean ecosystems that support them.

We expect the fishing industry to stop overfishing, eliminate bycatch and stop damaging our oceans’ habitats.

It is fair to say that the environmental ethic within Australia’s fishing industry is evolving. The catch-cry ‘Everyone’s a greenie these days’ is increasingly heard from fishers.

Although this personal ethical growth is welcome, the harsh economic drivers which dictate fishing behaviour at sea still conflict with the desire to adopt more sustainable fishing practices and so the overfishing continues.

It’s time to take control

Follow these main guidelines when making your next fish purchase:

  • Avoid long-lived or slow growing species (eg orange roughy, commonly labelled as deep sea perch);
  • Avoid deep sea species (caught below 500m)—they generally grow slowly and can take decades to reach breeding age (eg oreo, commonly labelled as dory and gemfish);
  • Avoid sharks and rays, (commonly labelled as flake; and
  • Avoid imported seafood as we have no control over their management.
What about imported seafood?

It is virtually impossible for Australians to make sustainable seafood choices from imports.

We are given very little information about where the imports come from and no information about how they were caught or farmed.

We know nothing about the sustainability of imported species and can do little or nothing to influence fisheries management in their countries of origin.

It is almost as if imported seafood arrives in Australia in disguise.

As informed seafood shoppers we Australians can direct what seafood is caught, how it is caught or farmed and determine where it comes from.

Through our purchasing power and questioning at the seafood counter and at the restaurants, we can contribute to building a more sustainable seafood future for Australia and ensure that our oceans remain resilient and healthy for future generations.

List of fish to avoid

Please say no to these overfished and vunerable species taken from the wild:

  • Blue Warehou (also called snotty trevally)
  • Broadbill Swordfish (also called swordfish)
  • Commercial Scallop (also called southern scallop)
  • Eastern Gemfish (also called hake)
  • Orange Roughy (also called deep sea perch)
  • Oreo (also called deep sea dory)
  • Redfish (also called nannygai)
  • Sharks and Rays (also called flake or white fillet)
  • Silver Trevally (also called white trevally)
  • Southern Blue-fin Tuna (also called tuna)

Please say no to these species grown in unsustainable seacage aquaculture:

  • Atlantic Salmon (also called Australian salmon)
  • Barramundi (also called giant perch)
  • Mulloway (also called jewfish)
  • Ocean Trout (also called rainbow or sea trout)
  • Snapper (also called red bream)
  • Yellow-tail Kingfish (also called kingfish)

Source: Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide

Things you can do to help save our seas – Become a Sea Guardian today

Sea Guardians (and Sea Guardian families) help create the resources the Australian Marine Conservation Society uses to save our endangered ocean wildlife, create more marine national parks, and make our fisheries sustainable. Join up at

Choose your seafood wisely

Three-quarters of the world’s oceans are considered overfished. Avoid overfished species by getting a copy of  Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide.

It can help you make a sustainable choice.

 Avoid species like flake, orange roughy and other long-lived species.

 Support the creation of many more marine national parks

 Marine national parks are places in the sea where marine life is made safe from human threats such as fishing and mining. Marine national parks help make our marine life resilient to the impacts of climate change and also help keep our fish populations healthy.

 Leave more fish in the sea

 If you are going to fish, fish responsibly. Catch what you need and eat what you catch. Remember that many species of fish are suffering from overfishing.

 Buy organic

Responsible farming can save our seas. Pesticides and fertilisers used in commercial farming inevitably make their way into our oceans through rivers and streams. Make sure your products are certified organic wherever you can.

Don’t let it go down the drain

 Oil, fuel, anti-freeze, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, and toxic household products often enter our waterways through storm drains.

These and other non-point pollution sources are responsible for 60 per cent of the pollution in our nation’s waterways.

Fix leaking cars, and use safe, biodegradable alternatives—it makes a difference.

 Keep it clean

 Use baking soda, vinegar and borax to clean, instead of bleach, detergents and ammonia.

Source: Australian Marine Conservation Society

Seafood labelling

The problem with seafood labelling in Australia is that there isn’t much.

We are told very little about the seafood species we eat, the fishing gear used to catch them or whether they were wild caught or grown in aquaculture farms.

Often we do not know if our seafood was imported, and it is not uncommon for imported seafood to be mixed up and sold with Australian seafood.

So what do we need?

 The exact name of the species must be labelled with the product—eg ‘silver dory’ not just ‘dory’. Most of our seafood is sold under generic or misleading names.

For example, numerous species of shark are commonly sold as ‘shark’ or ‘flake’, and orange roughy (which is severely overfished) is often misleadingly sold as ‘sea perch’.

Further, seafood marketing names, such as ‘coral trout’ or ‘tiger prawns’, could refer to any of several different species that have been lumped together as a management or marketing group.

 The name of the fishing or farming method used to catch or grow the species and where it was caught, eg seabed trawler (Sydney, NSW), surface handline (Ballina, NSW), ponded aquaculture (Ceduna, South Australia).

If we were told what fishing methods were used to catch our seafood, then we would be empowered to choose which we preferred as the supplier.

Of course, if given the choice, we would choose the least impacting methods, that is, those that do not impact on marine habitats, catch lots of by-catch or kill threatened or protected species.

 The name of the company that caught or farmed the species.

This way we can promote those companies trying to do the right thing and help give them an economic advantage over their competitors.

 Ready access to independent information about the sustainability of Australian fisheries and aquaculture farms.

Although general information about Australian fisheries and aquaculture is increasingly available from fisheries management agencies and the internet, reports about their sustainability are generally harder to find and particularly difficult for seafood eaters to decipher.

Source:  Australian Marine Conservation Society

Craig Bohm is the National Campaigns Coordinator with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, a national, not-for-profit organisation dedicated exclusively to protecting the health of Australia’s ocean wildlife.

Craig grew up a keen fisher and spearfisher on Sydney’s northern beaches. Over time he saw the impact of his activities on fish life (and that of others) and decided to get educated and do something about it.

Craig is the principal author of Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide.

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