Australia's take on sustainability trends

How does Australia fare when it comes to global trends shaping the sustainable production and supply of seafood?

By Josh Fielding

In November 2014 Seafood International magazine produced an article on the 10 leading trends that are shaping the future of sustainable seafood. Sustainability underpins seafood production, harvest and supply – ensuring adequate research, policy and legislation are in place so that seafood can be enjoyed and maintained into the future.

The following outlines the international trends identified by Seafood International, and how these trends are shaping the industry in Australia.

1. Corporate oversight

High-level corporate positions to oversee sustainability, sometimes termed Chief Sustainability Officers. These positions exist within seafood production and supply businesses, but also within companies that retail seafood, and this trend is indeed seen here in Australia.

Major aquaculture companies, such as salmon producers Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna and wildcatch fisheries such as Austral Fisheries, all have staff dedicated to improving and publicly reporting on sustainability. In addition, the two major supermarket chains (Coles and Woolworths) have people employed to monitor and understand the sustainability credentials of seafood, which in turn influences which seafood the companies purchase and sell.

2. Improvements for small fisheries

Fisheries managers are initiating projects to provide support for fisheries unable to afford their own improvement projects or unable to organise certification through typical channels.

In Australia the Western Australian Government is helping to put all of its state-based fisheries through the pre-assessment process for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation.

There is also research and development underway to ascertain how small fisheries can demonstrate their sustainability and display this through improvement processes. In early 2014, the FRDC funded a project that brought together a range of fisheries managers from across Australia to discuss the management of small-scale fisheries and share information.

Outputs from the workshop include the development of guidelines for the management of small-scale fisheries.

3. Boutique aquaculture

Much of Australia’s seafood can be described as low-volume and high-quality. Some international companies have found benefit from changing their farming methods and creating a more ‘hand-crafted’ product that taps into the popular notion of food provenance.

Australian aquaculture already uses some of the lowest stocking densities in the world and achieves some of the best feed conversion rates (food input to harvestable product). The low-volume, high-quality aspects of Australian seafood production are key selling points.

There are also several ‘boutique’ aquaculture ventures in Australia. These include some small aquaculture-farm-based Barramundi (Lates calcarifer), Mud Crab and Redclaw (Cherax quadricarinatus) ventures in northern Australia, marron ventures in WA and even some aquaponic ventures producing small volumes of Barramundi.

4. Consumer awareness

Thanks to organisations such as the MSC and their certification program, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide and the Australian Government’s Status of Key Australian Fish Stocks Reports, consumers have information on the sustainability of the fish they are buying.

Terms such as ‘social licence’ and ‘public acceptability’ are common in discussions about Australian fisheries and aquaculture. As such, one of the highest national research priorities for fishing and aquaculture is to ensure that Australian product is both managed and acknowledged as sustainable. Work in this area includes developing standards for the science that is used to evaluate fishing and aquaculture.

5. Better use of bycatch

There is a push worldwide to do more with the ‘underutilised’ components of catch in fisheries, and Australia is no different. In some fisheries, catch that does not have a high economic return or is difficult and expensive to process is discarded or wasted.

There have been initiatives from the retailing and food service sectors to use species that have historically been underutilised. In addition, there is research underway in Australian fisheries to devise ways to better use traditionally discarded fish, whether this be processing for human consumption or for some other use, such as fish meal.

6. Traceability

The ability to trace fish from the point of catch, harvest or production has always been an important component of sustainability. Worldwide the ability to trace seafood has been enhanced by the use of DNA traceability services. On a local scale the provenance of seafood has become an important component of sustainability and social licence for consumers.

As such, Australian fisheries and aquaculture have been doing a lot of work in this area and are continuing to seek ways to better market product.

7. Genetic modification

Aquaculture species that grow faster with less food and other resources play an obvious role in the sustainability arena and genetic modification is technology that could help to achieve this. In the US some salmon aquaculture companies are seeking government approval to sell genetically modified product which, unsurprisingly, is being met with resistance from several groups.

Within Australian aquaculture there are selective breeding programs that are working to improve growth rates, breeding for certain physical traits and to improve disease resistance. There has not been a push into genetic modification in Australia and it is unlikely there would be strong interest in this in the near future.   

8. Occupational health and safety and workers’ rights

Sustainability is no longer simply about the environmental impacts of fishing and aquaculture. It also includes the conditions under which women and men work in these industries.

Recently there have been issues with workers’ rights, namely in some South-East Asian countries. Occupational health and safety is very high on the agenda of all Australian workplaces; the fishing and aquaculture industries are no exception.

Recent changes to Federal legislation have only served to strengthen this. Working conditions are well-maintained and workers’ rights are strongly protected in Australia, factors which continue to attract international workers, particularly for Australian aquaculture ventures.

9. Product integrity and seafood labelling

Correct labelling of seafood is an important component of sustainability. If it is not accurately labelled, how can it be ascertained to be sustainable or not?

This has become an issue for many countries and has attracted significant media coverage in Australia. The recent SBS television program What’s the Catch? investigated the issue and was followed by an Australian Government Senate inquiry into seafood labelling laws.

Australian law requires the accurate labelling of uncooked seafood, but there are no such laws for seafood once it has been cooked or further processed. The outcomes of the Senate inquiry were published on 18 December 2014 and recommended that country-of-origin labelling on cooked or pre-prepared seafood should be required.

10. Benchmarking

An organisation called the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) is developing a benchmarking tool for eco-labels. This tool would provide a consistent benchmark for all seafood certification and labelling programs, to compare the performance of existing programs. The GSSI relies on collaboration and knowledge exchange with seafood experts on sustainability.

Australia is working with the GSSI to ensure continued involvement in this initiative. Further information about the GSSI can be found on the FRDC website.

More information

Seafood International