Thinking green, by Caitlin

Thoughts and ideas on environmental topics from Caitlin Howlett, editor of Green Lifestyle.

Is seafood sustainable?


Australia’s largest prawn fishery, the Northern Prawn Fishery is now certified sustainable, so most of the tiger prawns, banana prawns, blue and red endeavour prawns at Coles or Woolies are certified sustainable. Look for trusted certification labels like the Marine Stewardship Council's blue logo to make sure.

Credit: Craig Bohn

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I had the pleasure of meeting Céline Cousteau last week, granddaughter of the legendary Jean-Michel (Jacques) Cousteau, the co-inventor and pioneer of scuba diving. We were enjoying a meal of Palmers Island Mulloway at, a cafe that prides itself on making greener decisions, including everything from the decor to the menu, along with the crew from Contiki who have a great partnership with Céline.

I asked Céline how she justified eating fish when she's such an advocate for protection of our oceans. On a global scale, last year, fish consumption was the highest it's ever been, while 85 per cent of global fish stocks are over-exploited or depleted. Her response was that "the reality is with increasing population and increasing hunger we can't ask people not to eat fish, we can't expect people – those who live on coastlines especially – to replace fish with something like beef instead". She said that many places in the developing world rely on fish as their primary source of protein - about one billion people rely on fish as their primary protein source. I could certainly relate to this in the Phillipines where I lived for nine months, where 80 per cent of their protein comes from fish. Céline said that the issue in her eyes is more about making better purchasing decisions, right through from chefs in Australia and developed countries to the developing world.

The truth is, I've always enjoyed eating seafood, but I have had trouble understanding how it can fit into my food ethics. The short answer to the ethics of eating any meat is a resounding no. I became a weekday vegetarian about a year ago, and I'm slowly learning how to eat a purely vegetarian diet properly, although seafood has definitely been the food I'm most reluctant to give up. I gave up all tuna after a friend who doesn't eat seafood for environmental reasons made me watch the documentary The End of the Line two years ago, but when it comes to salmon, fish and prawns, I find the forbidden fruits too tempting. I've also taken the view to make only sustainable seafood choices, however the information can be difficult to interpret.

A report released last week said that Australia's fisheries are among the most sustainable in the world. Moments later, the South Eastern Trawl Fishing Industry Association (trawling can be one of the most destructive forms of fishing) sent a good news press release heralding that there will be fish for generations to come – just in time for the onset of a productive Christmas and holiday season for the seafood industry. While it's great news, and completely true, that fisheries in Australia are well managed compared to the rest of the world it's crucial that people don't put a blanket across all fisheries in Australia, and that the science is interpreted correctly. There are still - in a view I share with many environment groups - some very unsustainable fishing practices, and even 'take quotas'. The Australian Marine Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund issued a press release soon after the trawlers association, noting that the positive fisheries report only covered a small section of a few select species, and disregarded a lot of the other environmental problems that fishing causes, such as bycatch and a decline in the quality of habitats.

The best way I've found to make truly informed sustainable seafood choices is to do your research. Luckily, there are a couple of great resources that seafood-lovers in Australia can go to get accurate information thanks to the hard work of different environment groups. There's three main trusted sources in Australia:

- The Australian Marine Conservation Society's (AMCS) Australia's Sustainable Seafood Guide: Offers an easy to read online and smart phone resource with fish species labelled as "Ok", "Think Twice" and "Say No".

- Greenpeace Australia's Canned Tuna Ranking: This has created some great competition in the tuna market, with the brands Fish4Eva and Safcol currently topping the ranks.

- The Marine Stewardship Council: One of the most exciting new MSC-certified products is Blackmores eco-krill oil capsules, which give people the option to take eco-certified supplements without heavily impacting our oceans.

That said, the Mulloway species (also called Jew Fish) I shared at the table with Céline is usually considered a "Think Again" choice on the AMCS guide. However, the farm at Palmer's Island is one of the most sustainable fish farms in Australia, so it pays to look at each case individually, much as you would by chatting to a farmer at your local farmer's market.