National labelling policies have the potential to level the playing field for fisheries that do the right thing
By Bianca Nogrady
Sustainability is built into the regulations that underpin Australia’s fisheries management, much like food safety is built into preparation and processing of food for consumers.
But while food safety and consumer information on packaging is regulated, that is not the case with sustainability information.
This gap in the labelling information puts Australian seafood products at a disadvantage against international seafood, which may not incorporate the same sustainability standards into its harvesting or production.
Given that more than 70 per cent of seafood eaten in Australia is imported, it is a significant issue for Australian producers, says Sonia Garcia Garcia, who has been researching this issue as a PhD candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Where does your seafood come from? Sonia Garcia Garcia has investigated seafood labelling and traceability regulations.
Photo: Chris Elliott
As a native of Spain with a family background in a fishing community, Garcia Garcia says fish and seafood were an integral part of her diet and cooking. She knew what to buy, where it had come from, how it had been kept and what to call it.
But buying fish in Australia was a different story, a whole new world. The fish were different, they were presented and labelled differently, and she found the labels were not really helping her decide what to buy.
“Labels are the primary interface between consumers and retailers,” Garcia Garcia says. “So, if you understand labels, you get insights about the whole chain, all the way back to the fish.”
The regulatory environment behind a label can involve actors across the harvest and the post-harvest space, and variations between countries can reveal much about that country’s or region’s regulation of fishing.
That observation set her on a research quest to understand the regulatory environment that governs the Australian seafood sector, and how those regulations compare to those overseas.
In the late 1990s, Australia introduced ecologically sustainable development principles into the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and into fisheries legislation.
Since then, the Australian seafood sector and fisheries managers have worked together towards sustainable exploitation of its seafood resources to prevent overfishing and depletion of those resources.
“There’s this shared commitment to manage fisheries for environmental and economic sustainability objectives, but these objectives are not pursued beyond the wharf,” Garcia Garcia says.
Australia has done so well that it is internationally recognised for its sustainable fisheries management and as an exporter of quality product.
However, these principles only govern seafood harvested in Australian waters. Australian fisheries management regulations do not extend to the entirety of fish and seafood products that are sold in Australia – including imports. And this, she says, is an issue for the sector.
“In the post-harvest, when fish goes through the food regulatory environment, the objectives are to provide safety and consumer protection, so food safety and information requirements are regulated,” Garcia Garcia says.
“But sustainability is considered a ‘consumer’ value, and it is left to the consumer to demand the private sector to satisfy these values.”
While individual producers or retailers might go the extra step of documenting and advertising the sustainability of all the produce they sell, they are under no regulatory obligation to do this. And Australia has no regulated market obligation to only sell sustainably produced seafood.
This leaves a significant gap in information for consumers who might seek out sustainable seafood – and be happy to pay a higher price for it. It also potentially disadvantages Australian fisheries, who are obliged by regulations to operate in a sustainable fashion.
“Sustainably managed fisheries, in Australia and overseas, are competing against product that is not bearing those costs,” Garcia Garcia says.
The IUU risk
A particular challenge is catch from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries entering the market. IUU fishing is a major global concern. In 1999, the then United Nations secretary-general described it as one of the most severe problems affecting world fisheries.
IUU fishing refers not just to environmentally unsustainable fishing practices, but also to human rights abuses such as trafficking and slavery, which was recently highlighted as a concern in the Thai prawn fishing industry.
Traceability is one way to combat this. The European Union is gradually introducing measures to increase the traceability of all seafood products sold within the EU.
Most recently, the EU voted to adopt regulations that require all fishery and aquaculture products to be traceable through the entire supply chain, even back to the location, date and time of catching, and the type of gear used to catch it.
The US has implemented similar regulations, with a focus on fish and seafood products considered at risk of IUU harvest, such as abalone, snapper, shark, prawns and tuna.
The US traceability program extends from the harvest location to entry into the US market, but not as far as point of sale. Japan also passed a law in January 2021 for similar traceability requirements.
Back in the 1990s, Australia pioneered traceability requirements to prevent IUU fishing for Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and Southern Bluefin
Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii). These are international species and Australia is just one of several countries that has a share of catch quota.
But this international effort has not translated into a similar policy on IUU fishing being incorporated into regulations governing the country’s seafood sector and supply chain.
Garcia Garcia says it is not a straightforward issue to extend traceability requirements to a consumer level.
“Does the consumer need to be making an informed choice on all these parameters, when probably a) the label is a small space, and b) consumer may or may not be reading or caring about the information?” she asks.
Ultimately, it may depend on whether the aim is to assist consumer buying decisions or to inform members of the public as part of a national policy decision about the importance of the source of seafood.
Garcia Garcia suggests a bigger conversation about traceability and measures against IUU fishing generally might be needed, given that more than half of the seafood sold in Australia is imported.
If such a policy is implemented, what might be the end result? One fisheries stakeholder she interviewed for her report raised the prospect of all seafood around the world being traced back to the boat. The latest EU, US and Japanese moves suggest the scenario is not that far-fetched.
But these measures will be effort-intensive and potentially costly, particularly for smaller operators.
“It is important that the playing field is level and equitable,” Garcia Garcia says. “You can disadvantage many actors in the process, for example, small-scale fisheries around the world that may need government support and regulation to prevent inequalities.”
But if those challenges can be overcome, the end result is an industry that is more transparent, accountable and equitable, giving consumers as much information as possible about where their seafood products have come from and ensuring a more sustainable future for fisheries around the world.
Sonia Garcia Garcia