Being fish-friendly

Green Lifestyle

Many supermarkets are now offering an array of ‘sustainably sourced’ seafood but are they as fish-friendly as you think?


Supermarket labelling of some fresh and tinned fish note how the fish were caught and whether sustainable fishing practices were used – but not all give the full picture. Here, a turtle swims around a fish aggregating device (FAD) from which around 10% of the catch is usually unwanted by-catch.

Credit: Paul Hilton, Greenpeace

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It’s coming up to that festive time of year when us Aussies love to celebrate the warm summer days with a generous spread of seafood. The majority of that seafood will be bought from conveniently located supermarkets where seafood is supposedly more sustainable than ever.

We’re a nation of supermarket-aholics – we have one of the highest dependencies on supermarkets in the developed world, with 80% of our grocery market owned by Woolworths and Coles. An Australian Consumer survey in 2012 found that more than 70% of Australian consumers believe that retailers should sell sustainably sourced seafood, and in an effort to stay ahead of the market, over the last few years there have been moves by all the supermarket chains (not just the ‘big two’) towards meeting that demand. But are these changes promising a genuine shift in practice, or are they empty ‘bluewashing’ promises? Are the commitments long-term and viable?

The commitments

The competitive nature of the big supermarkets in Australia has led to a fish war, with surprisingly positive outcomes for many of our finned friends. Within the same week early in 2012, both Woolworths and Coles launched partnerships, with Taronga Zoo and the World Wide Fund respectively, to ensure all seafood will be sustainably sourced by 2015. While Coles promises that this will apply to all of its seafood, Woolworths’ commitment is to the wild-caught fish only. IGA, part of the Metcash conglomerate, has made comparable promises for its own ‘Black & Gold’ and ‘IGA Signature’ brands of canned fish, to happen by 2015.

In March this year, ALDI announced its engagement with a buying policy for all seafood products, including fresh, frozen, canned, wild-caught or farmed. While there is room for improvement in ALDI’s policy, a big positive is that unlike the other supermarkets, the policy is already in place, and it’s also quite comprehensive with guidelines covering fish range, traceability which ensures supplier obligations, and labelling.

All these big transitions to better seafood sourcing in our supermarkets have included plans for sourcing more products from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). An independent study of seafood ecolabelling programs ranked the MSC as ‘best in class’ in 2010 and 2012, with a score almost double that of its nearest competitor. Worldwide, there are more than 20,000 MSC-labelled products, and 200 of those are on the shelves in Australia.

Patrick Caleo, MSC’s Country Manager for Australia and New Zealand, commends Woolworths and Coles for their “great leadership” in supporting sustainable fishing. “Our mission is to use our ecolabel and fishery certification program to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans,” Caleo explains. “And this can only be possible with the support of the industry, retailers, governments and fishermen alike.”

In Australian supermarkets, the seafood area that has seen the biggest and most positive improvement so far is the tinned tuna isle. Despite being a popular choice of fish, many species or populations of tuna are threatened or even endangered. But there’s a growing consumer awareness of the host of environmental problems from tuna fishing, putting pressure on the supermarkets to provide ‘pole and line caught’ tuna options. This process selectively catches non-endangered target species such as albacore or skipjack tuna, rather than using nets and fish aggregating devices (FADs) which tend to catch young bigeye and yellowfin tuna, and also turtles, sharks and other non-tuna species that don’t get sold or eaten.

“In the UK, all the big supermarket chains and the two big canned tuna brands have committed to go either pole and line, or FAD-free,” says Dr Cat Dorey, the International Sustainable Seafood Programme Coordinator for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific. “We’ve got that commitment now from all the major supermarkets and brands in Australia and New Zealand. And with that pressure, a couple of brands have already completely changed their sourcing. Safcol, for instance, had switched to 100% pole and line, and now they have a small amount of the FAD-free as well,” says Dorey.

These improvements need to be celebrated. Despite disagreement about the sustainability of various fisheries, there is consensus that if you consume fish it’s better to support good fisheries. Thomas Kraft, Managing Director of Norpac Fisheries, and an active participant in fishery improvement projects, says, “We will all disagree to an extent upon the exact look of sustainability, but we can all agree that movement in the right direction is easier to identify and should be supported… Your purchasing power applied to support such efforts will be heard much louder, and create more movement toward sustainability, than will an outright boycott on some species, which only shifts supply to other markets, and doesn’t necessarily communicate your message as fully as does selective support for products that do meet your standards for sustainability.”

The criticisms

In 2011, when both Woolies and Coles made commitments to sustainable fisheries, Choice caught them out for lack of progress with their seafood credentials because the vast majority of their ranges were still uncertified. Currently, the question remains as to whether these commitments are really genuine and effective, when only 24 to 39% of the major supermarkets’ ranges are currently sustainably certified.

Nathaniel Pelle, Ocean Campaigner from Greenpeace, doesn’t think the supermarkets’ current commitments are strong or specific enough. “Because in most cases they don’t define what ‘sustainably sourced’ seafood is, it’s open to the supermarkets to make their own incremental changes without actually going the full distance,” says Pelle. He also sees that there’s “some ambition, but no firm commitments”. For example, he criticises the fine print tactics of Coles with its thawed fish. “It was a little misleading to consumers when [Coles] said all of their ‘fresh’ fish had been assessed when much of that sold at the fresh fish counter is unassessed thawed fish that doesn’t have to meet the same standards.”

Another criticism of the supermarket’s approach to going fish-friendly is the heavy reliance on MSC certification. While the MSC is a good tool for consumers, a study published in Biological Conservation this year claimed that the MSC label is skewed towards big fisheries, and is misleading. To date, formal objections to MSC certifications have been lodged for 14% of the 141 certified fisheries, representing 35% of the total product by weight. Many of these fisheries are certified on the basis of recommendations on how to become more sustainable. And so, the uninformed consumer may actually be buying a product that is not actually guilt-free, but just has the potential to become guilt-free. While it is good to encourage fisheries to move to more sustainable practices, and to support them in their move, it does not make sense to certify them on the same level as fisheries that are already doing everything they can to reduce their impact.

“If you look around the world, most of the supermarkets’ commitments are to go 100% MSC. But I don’t agree with that as their goal, because MSC is not the gold standard,” says Dr Dorey. “It’s certainly a useful path through, but I also don’t think that just a flat MSC commitment is enough. They actually have to have a close look at what those particular fisheries are. For example, in the UK one of the top retailers do stock but haven’t solely committed to MSC, because they have taken a closer look and decided, for example, not to buy the certified deep-sea bottom-trawled certified products because it’s not good enough for their standard.

“MSC does some good work, but the problem is that they have certified some bad stuff too. At Greenpeace Australia, we have been involved in objections for New Zealand hoki, Antarctic krill, and Ross Sea toothfish fishery certifications… The Canadian swordfish fishery is one of the best examples of the problem with relying on MSC certification as a measure of sustainability. There are two swordfish fisheries in Canada that have been MSC certified; one of them is a harpoon fishery that only ever hits swordfish, with no by-catch, and it’s about as sustainable as you can get for a fishing method, and the other one is a longline fishery. They both got certified. But how on earth do you say that both those are sustainable fisheries when one of them kills twice as many sharks as it does swordfish? It’s more like a shark fishery with a by-catch of swordfish.”

One suggested solution is to create a rating system for the MSC, perhaps with stars, similar to how the energy appliance ratings are ranked in Australia. Both Woolies and Coles have their own star-rating systems – the Woolworths one set up through the independent Sustainable Fisheries Partnership – but these are not fully functional as yet.

What you can do

“Telling people not to eat fish isn’t going to work, but we can make sure there are the better options out there that are clearly labelled,” says Dorey. “It’s that demand that is hopefully going to allow the development of the more sustainable fisheries.

“We need to create a demand for more sustainable options; especially for developing nations which don’t have many resources except fish, and also for people at the supermarket.

“In the Pacific Island countries, where essentially most of the tuna is caught, they’re getting a very small return for allowing other people to fish in their waters. So it’s great to encourage them to develop their own sustainable pole and line and FAD-free fisheries so that that’s where the market will head instead.” The MSC has certified a number of albacore fisheries and a FAD-free skipjack fishery in the Pacific which, despite certain shortcomings, would currently be a good choice for consumers in Australia to support.

But buying local is also important, says Dorey. “The Australian whiting fisheries are pretty good, but I’ve seen whiting on fish and chips menus next to MSC-certified fish that comes from overseas. So if something is certified and it’s putting people off supporting good local fisheries then that’s a worry.”

If you’re a fan of tuna in a can, regularly keep an eye on the Greenpeace Canned Tuna ranking. “We did the Canned Tuna Guide because if we show everybody who is doing good work on tuna and who is not, potentially it rewards good players and damages the reputation of the bad ones,” Dorey explains. “Whether or not we get all the consumers to switch to another option is another issue altogether, but people are interested in seeing the ranking and having that choice... We’ve certainly seen that Safcol has increased their sales since they’ve been right up the top, at second on our ranking.”

A new Canned Tuna ranking will likely be released in November. Only two brands were in the green ranking last time, but others may have done enough to move into that section. The Fish4Ever brand (available through First Ray) is one of the greenest.

Image on right: Fishermen in the Pacific Island countries
are expanding their ‘pole and line’ tuna fisheries, which are much more sustainable than other methods.
Credit: Paul Hilton, Greenpeace

Which fish to choose

“We are seeing a positive shift in supermarkets in the way they are selling fish that should help consumers easily choose what to have for dinner,” says Pam Allen, a Marine Campaigner at the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), an organisation with a practical solution to choose fish wisely through their Sustainable Seafood Guide. The simple traffic light concept of their guide lists species by green for ‘better choice’, orange for ‘think twice’ and red for ‘say no‘. For example, it’s suggested that you ‘think twice’ before choosing yellowfin tuna or imported prawns, and bluefin tuna and orange roughy are not recommended. “It is an easy tool for people to use in supermarkets, as they can check and see which fish match up.

“Consumers should be finding more ‘green’ list species on the shelves and less ‘red’ listed species,” says Allen. “Species to avoid are those that are long lived, have low reproductive rates and are slow to bounce back from fishing pressure. Better choices include Australian bonito, blue threadfin, mud crab, calamari, and some farmed oysters, mussels and scallops.”

So, the best option if you want to be a well-informed consumer of fish is to stick to your local fishmongers for fish, and to take a wallet copy of the AMCS Guide with you (available as a free smart phone app.). If a species isn’t listed or you’re unsure, it’s often best to play it safe and opt for local and wild caught.

“Don’t feel like you can’t eat anything,” Pelle advises, “but some species should only be eaten in moderation.” Pelle remembers when prawns were only eaten on special occasions in Australia. “We should remember that all these [seafood] products have to come from the wild; even farmed seafood has an impact on wild ecosystems, and as more and more people want to eat them, it just doesn’t work that everyone can get what they want. There needs to be some compromise.”