Under-utilised seafood species – not always a sustainability short-cut

20 May 2020

Under-utilised seafood species – not always a sustainability short-cut

Eating more under-utilised seafood species is often advertised as the way to more sustainable seafood consumption, but as it is often the case, moderation and variety are key.

In a study just published on the journal Fish and Fisheries by the University of Wollongong, researchers challenged the popular message and investigated what eating more under-utilised seafood species really means and what impact it has on sustainability.

“While there are many potentially positive social, economic and environmental outcomes of consuming currently under-utilised species, consumers should be encouraged to buy a range of seafood, including under-utilised species, which can be traced back to a well-managed fishery, rather than promoting under-utilised species per se.” Says project leader Dr Anna Farmery.

The study drew on findings from research funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC). It highlighted how the sustainability of a species is more dependent on the management applied to that fishery, rather than by consumer demand. For this reason, consuming under-utilised species may not be the easy shortcut to sustainability that it is often advertised to be, if that particular stock is not managed. Conversely, purchasing a well-managed popular species is a sustainable choice.

Consumers may find it challenging to access some less-known species because some just don’t make it to the marketplace. To investigate this point, the research considered why some species are less known and utilised. 

“Popular messages focus on altering consumer demand, assuming this to be the main factor deciding if a species is utilised to its full potential or not.” Says Dr Farmery. “In reality, there are several supply side processes that can cause a species to be under-utilised. This can stem, for instance, from these species not being caught or landed in the first place because of technical issues, vessel storage restrictions, difficulty in catching the fish, or high variability of the catch.”

Not much is known about the precise impacts of increasing the consumption of under-utilised species. More information is needed on consumer perceptions, tastes and preferences and attitudes to price and availability. 

Under-utilised species are often promoted as cheaper to encourage consumption, but this may also be the reason why more fishers choose not to land them.

Government incentives for fishers could improve this situation, however, Dr Farmery and her team identified the need for more information on species substitutability and
effective management systems, to avoid unintended consequences such as over fishing.

The journal article can be found at https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12467