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Australian Seafood Consumers Misled by Prophets of Doom and Gloom

Australia's fisheries are amongst the best managed in the world and they are without doubt sustainable, according to a report by Dr Ray Hilborn, Professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences,University of Washington and Dr Bob Kearney, Emeritus Professor in Fisheries Management,University of Canberra.

Summary

Fishing, as managed in Australia, can be demonstrated to be an extremely environmentally friendly source of an essential food, particularly in comparison with other forms of animal protein production.

However, public perception has been distorted, primarily by numerous NGOs and others who benefit from creating apprehension in seafood consumers. The resulting anti-fishing rhetoric has falsely demonised fishing and led to ill-directed calls for more restrictions, particularly in areas that are closed to fishing and then called 'protected'.

Australians have been told by health professionals and authorities to eat more seafood, yet the country has a serious and growing shortage of locally produced product and no obvious policies for food security or increasing domestic supply of fish.

Australians should demand food security policies that embrace the excellent outcomes of ongoing fisheries management and support the development of more similarly well-managed fisheries in those parts of Australia's oceans that remain under-utilised.

Overview - Main Issues Addressed

Conclusion Australia

Australia was recently subjected to extreme unscientific pessimism about the state of the world's fisheries by Sylvia Earle, who in December last year claimed, 'On land we are maintaining the wildlife - by the mid-century we will see extinction of fish and seafood'.

The truth is to the contrary. According to the List of Threatened Species under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (20/2/2012), Australia already has 27 species of terrestrial mammals, 23 birds and four frogs extinct but not a single extinction of a species of marine fish.

There have been some very serious problems with overfishing around the world, and some of them are continuing. But the global picture provides three fundamental messages; the problems are not universal, they are not uniformly distributed and the overly pessimistic view is simply not relevant to Australia.

In Australia most fisheries must be considered sustainable in accordance with three separate pieces of legislation; a State Fisheries Act, a State Environmental Act and the EPBC Act (1999).

Threats to oceans - what the biggest concerns are

The major accepted threats to the world's oceans are pollution, including ocean acidification, inappropriate development, destructive fishing practices and overfishing and introduced and trans-located organisms.

In Australia episodic pollution events continue to devastate rivers, estuaries and numerous coastal areas, particularly near-shore areas and those with obviously vulnerable biota, notably coral reefs. More insidious and longer-lasting impacts of pollution continue to directly diminish stocks of many marine organisms and increase the vulnerability of even more to disease or other invasive vectors. Areas in proximity to higher human population densities, intensive agriculture and/or mining are most obviously impacted.

While there is little doubt Australians are increasingly aware of the problems that coastal development may cause, infrastructure development and less than perfect regulation of routine developments, such as marinas, are still a significant issue. The 'reclaiming' of very large swathes of sea grass beds and fish nurseries in Botany Bay, one of Australia's most productive and culturally significant estuaries, for airport runways and more recently a container terminal, is one obvious example.

Fishing levels

Where there are well managed fisheries the densities and sizes of fished species are maintained at levels that are conservative and optimise the yields that can be taken. The maintenance of densities of species at levels that result in optimum productivity has also been suggested to provide an intermediate level of disturbance that is beneficial not only for some individual species but for overall biodiversity (Connell 1978, Krohne 2001).

Australian fisheries management

Fishing, as managed in Australia, has not been shown to irreversibly threaten the survival of species. To the contrary, it can be demonstrated to be an environmentally friendly source of essential food, particularly in comparison with other forms of animal protein production.

Australians should embrace the success of their fisheries management and consume Australian seafood with extreme confidence.

Community perception and NGO behaviour

The perception of the majority of Australians of the sustainability of Australian seafood is not aligned with reality. Public perception has been distorted, primarily by numerous NGOs and others who benefit from creating apprehension in seafood consumers. These NGOs are out of touch with recent global developments and in denial of fisheries management outcomes in Australia. Their distortion of reality has been based on misrepresentation of overseas examples of inadequate fisheries management to falsely claim gloom and doom for Australia's fisheries and their impacts. The resulting anti-fishing rhetoric has falsely demonised fishing and led to ill-directed calls for more restrictions, particularly in areas that are closed to fishing and then called 'protected'.

Certification schemes on what Australians should buy

The process of certification and periodic review of each individual fishery and/or species is not necessary in a country like Australia that has collectively well managed, sustainable fisheries. Most of the 'guides' to which fish Australians should and should not eat list many species for which assessments are given that are highly questionable, at best.

There are sixteen or more different organisations in Australia that produce 'guides' of various forms that are intended to influence public opinion on the environmental responsibility of consuming different seafood species. There are no standards or government regulation of the efficacy of these guides or their impact on the seafood industry they are designed to influence. There are no minimum qualifications or standards of experience required of the people who do the assessments of individual seafood species on which these guides are based.

Agricultural standards

The Marine Stewardship Council, often considered the "gold standard" in fisheries certification, is an exacting standard that no form of agriculture could meet. Yet environmental NGOs are putting fish on red lists and retailers are taking these species off their shelves while at the same time selling agricultural products that have a far greater cost to biodiversity and other aspects of the environment.

Marine Parks

It's difficult to understand why Australians believe they need to implement additional, alternative restrictions on fishing, such as more fishing closures in marine parks.

Pertinent to the debate over restricting fishing in predetermined areas, are the comments by Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a major international NGO based in the USA. He argues for a new conservation ethic that depends on maintaining biodiversity in the places humans use, rather than relying on 'protected' areas as the primary conservation tool. "For this (a new conservation ethic) to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness - ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science - and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision".

Trawling

Trawling is one form of fishing that has been particularly demonised globally and in Australia. Some forms of trawling can be seriously problematic and need careful management.

Trawling on soft bottoms, particularly in high energy areas where the effects of currents or wave action dominate, may have little, if any, short-term impacts and no detectable, long-term negative consequences.

Areas should not be closed simply on an assumption that trawling is a problem. Each trawl fishery should be considered on individual merit and only closed following assessments that confirm that is a reasonable response to environmental concerns.

Introduced organisms

Introduced organisms species and pathogens are major and growing problems in Australia. By 2008, 429 exotic species had already been detected (Hewitt and Campbell 2010) and introduced pathogens,are well documented such as the herpes virus that devastated pilchard populations throughout southern Australian waters and several serious Oyster diseases. Fouling on ships' hulls and ballast water have been identified as the most common vectors for introductions and with accelerating increases in shipping, particularly in association with the mineral export boom,the problems can only be expected to worsen.

Food security

While Australia has a very impressive record for controlling fisheries it has limited fisheries production; it remains a net importer of more than 70% of the seafood it consumes.

Australians have been told by health professionals and authorities to eat more seafood, yet the country has a serious and growing shortage of locally produced product and no obvious policies for food security or increasing domestic supply of fish. Australians should demand food security policies that embrace the excellent outcomes of ongoing fisheries management and support the development of more similarly well-managed fisheries in those parts of Australia's oceans that remain underutilised.

By continuing to import the bulk of its seafood Australia is effectively exporting responsibility for the sustainable management of the world's fish stocks to countries with a far inferior record for sustainability (Kearney and Farebrother 2012).

Environmental impact compared to other forms of agriculture

Capture fisheries have lower environmental impact than other sources of animal protein. They have lower greenhouse gas output and use no fresh-water, fertilisers, pesticides or antibiotics. Rather than closing areas to fishing because of their environmental consequences, countries with good fisheries management, such as Australia, should be utilising fisheries fully.

International fishing

The prediction that all commercial fish stocks could be collapsed by 2048 (Worm et al. 2006) has been shown to be wrong; exposed by a subsequent paper that even included the same senior author (Worm et al. 2009). It showed that trends in fish abundance indicated stability not decline and that many countries were sustainably managing their resources.

All of the key aspects of "fishing down food chains" have been shown to be wrong; large fish are not all more valuable than small fish, we do not begin catching large fish and move down the food chain, and the mean trophic level of the world catch is rising, not falling (Branch et al. 2010, Sethi etal. 2010).

References

Branch, T. A., Watson, R., E. A., Jennings, S., McGillard, C. R., Pablico, G. T., Ricard, D. & Tracey, S. R. 2010. The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries. Nature, 468, 431 - 435.

Connell, J. H. 1978. Diversity in Tropical Rain Forests and Coral Reefs. Science, 199, 1302-10.

Hewitt C, Campbell M. The relative contribution of vectors to the introduction and translocation of invasive marine species: keeping marine pests out of Australian waters. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; 2010.

Kearney, R. & Farebrother, G. 2012. Expand Australia's sustainable fisheries. Nature, 482, 162.

March 2012

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