The state of our oceans

G Magazine

We've grown up hearing the proverb "plenty more fish in the sea". In reality we're hooked on a rapidly dwindling resource. We take a look at the state of our oceans and the steps being taken to improve the sustainability of the seafood hitting our plate.

Trawl catch

A trawl catch.

Credit: Mike Gerner/AFMA

Scallop dredge

A scallop dredge after being dragged along the bottom of the sea floor.

Credit: Mike Gerner/AFMA

Tuna in tow

A school of Southern bluefin tuna swim in a tuna fishery tow cage.

Credit: Getty images

Japan Tuna Market

Fishmongers check the quality of meat on frozen tuna fish before trading at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

Credit: Getty Images

Hammerhead killed in net

A hammerhead shark is fatally caught in a gill net.

Credit: Getty Images

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We're the first customers through the door of the dockside fish shop and the ocean's bounty of seafood is staring us in the face with its customary dead-eyed gaze.

There are salmon and swordfish steaks, cases of ice-covered whiting and flathead, trays of oysters and squid and a plateful of ambiguously labelled 'mixed coral fillets'. Peering studiously into these display cabinets is former fishing industry executive turned sustainable seafood expert Colin Hunt and two fish in particular are causing his curiosity to twitch like an angler's float.

The first is a display of filleted Atlantic salmon from Australia, which we're told by the shop assistant is "definitely wild caught" - yet Hunt knows this fish is always farmed.

Another tray of fillets is labelled 'coral bream', a species that Hunt, despite decades of experience working and researching in the fishing industry, has never heard of.

In an effort to clear up the confusion, a supervisor in a white smock and gumboots emerges clutching a 60cm-long unfilleted version. "It's just bream,'' he says, "I think it's caught up in the Barrier Reef".

If the fish was indeed bream, then the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) considers this to be a relatively sustainable choice. But according to the seafood industry-backed Approved Fish Names initiative (to which this shop is a signatory) the name coral bream is obsolete and shouldn't be used. The initiative's database reveals seabream (Gymnocranius & Monotaxis spp) and grass emperor (Lethrinus laticaudis) have both been sold as coral bream in the recent past, making it hard for consumers to know for sure what they're buying.

Confused? So were we. The true origin of that glistening silver fish remains in doubt.

Later that same morning, we toured seafood shops and supermarkets (where about 60 per cent of Australian seafood is bought) in the Brisbane area. When we asked about the origins of the cod on the menu of a fish and chip shop, staff could only confirm it had come from a box in the freezer.

Our mini-tour of fish purveyors revealed two inescapable truths. Buying fish is easy, but buying sustainable fish is whole different kettle of, er, fish.

Empty oceans?

Fish and seafood is now the only food consumed on a large scale by the world's population that is essentially hunted in the wild. The environmental impacts of catching that seafood are as diverse and interdependent as the life in the oceans themselves, and as a result questions abound. Is your prospective meal from a sustainably managed fishery? Are you about to eat a fish that's being over-exploited or, worse still, is an endangered species? Were any other animals like seals, sea lions, sharks, dolphins, whales or sea birds sacrificed in the process? (This is known as bycatch.) Is the fish being imported and, if so, from where?

"For the consumer it's tough...very tough,'' says Hunt, a former visiting fellow in the University of Queensland School of Economics who has just finished reviewing hundreds of reports and research papers to provide the backbone of a new version of AMCS's Sustainable Seafood Guide. "If you want to know if it's wild caught or aquaculture or if it's from Australia, then labelling becomes very important.''

Around the world, consumers began waking up to the sustainable seafood quandary after research papers warned fish stocks were collapsing at alarming rates. The most controversial finding of all came in 2006 from a study led by Canadian scientist Boris Worm, which predicted the world's entire fish stocks could collapse by 2048.

Published in the prestigious journal Science, the paper concluded: "Our analyses suggest that business as usual would foreshadow serious threats to global food security, coastal water quality, and ecosystem stability, affecting current and future generations.''

More recently, the idea of an impending global collapse of seafood stocks was examined to even more dramatic effect and communicated to a wider audience in the award-winning documentary film The End of the Line.

So, are we headed for a future in which seafood has become so rare that it's a luxury only the very wealthiest will be able to afford?

"It is true that there are ongoing concerns about fisheries and how they're managed globally and there is no cause for complacency," says senior CSIRO fisheries scientist Tony Smith. "But the idea that we would fish out the oceans and there would be nothing left I don't think was very credible.''

Since Worm's apocalyptic prediction, Smith has led another team to update the research and these new findings paint a more hopeful picture of the world's oceans. After examining 10 ecosystems including the north west and south east of Australia, researchers found that in half of them, fishing rates had dropped. However it's not all good news. "Sixty three per cent of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding," the research concluded, "and even lower exploitation rates are needed to reverse the collapse of vulnerable species."

The ocean has been historically described as bountiful, but research from the likes of Worm suggest there's a long way to go if we're to avoid turning that abundance into a largely empty fish tank.

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