Shrinking supply of seafood

Posted on January 11, 2011. Filed under: Bio-diversity, Environment and Livelihoods |

-The Star-

Here’s a way to help replenish depleted fish stocks: avoid eating the over-fished ones.

IT is easy to think of the sea as an eternal source of sustenance. After all, humans have been getting food from the ocean since about 10,000 years ago.

As the world’s population steadily rises, however, the demand for seafood has increased to the point where our marine ecosystems are under threat. This results not just in grave damage to marine life, but also, ironically, a depletion of the very fish stock that we require, as seafood is extracted faster than it can be naturally replenished.

Of course, it isn’t the consumption of seafood that is to blame, but rather, environmentally damaging fishing practices and over-fishing. What consumers can do, though, is make a difference by choosing wisely when it comes to seafood, and purchasing only the kind that has been fished sustainably.

“Our marine sources need to be preserved for the future,” WWF peninsular Malaysia seas programme manager Gangaram Pursumal explains. “It is demand that drives supply, and if more consumers take a stand, the industry will slowly shift (to become more sustainable). If the situation continues, eventually there will be no more fish.”

The Save Our Seafood pamphlet recommends which seafood to consume and which to avoid due to unsustainable practices.

But exactly what is sustainable seafood?

Gangaram describes it as seafood sourced from well-managed fisheries that farm their fish in an environment-friendly manner. Fisheries deemed as unsustainable include those that over-fish, damage marine habitats or ecosystems, use methods such as trawling (where the net is swept across the seabed, taking in anything there, including coral, juvenile fishes and seabed creatures), and produce a high amount of bycatch (fish or marine life caught unintentionally while targeting other species).

Sustainable seafood also refers to species that are still relatively abundant, as opposed to those that have been depleted or are under threat.

Sadly, despite being the highest consumers of seafood in South-East Asia – 1.4 billion kg a year – Malaysians remain largely ignorant on the importance of consuming sustainable seafood.

Gangaram shares that many of our fisheries are over-exploited and cause significant environmental damage, with some even collapsing due to dwindling fish stocks. Our bottom-dwelling fish-stock, he points out, has seen a decrease of about 90% since the 1970s.

Yet, the average Malaysian consumer is usually unable to differentiate which types of seafood are sustainable and which aren’t. This involves not only knowing where our seafood comes from, but also knowing which species we should avoid so as to allow time for them to replenish.

To help consumers choose wisely, WWF, together with the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), launched the Save Our Seafood pocket guide last year, a handy pamphlet that recommends which popular local seafood to consume and which to avoid due to unsustainable practices.

Gangaram admits that some of the seafood to be avoided, like pomfret (bawal) and tiger prawns, may be favourites on our dinner tables.

Over-fished: Our bottom-dwelling fish stock has declined by about 90% since the 1970s.

“It is about making choices, and sometimes that choice can be painful. But we all have to go through a little bit of change. By avoiding high-risk species, you will indirectly be helping the sea replenish itself, and perhaps sometime in the future, it will become sustainable to consume them again.”

Consumers, he adds, can also ask questions when purchasing seafood, such as where it came from, and how it was caught. “As more and more consumers ask these questions, the whole chain (of the seafood industry) will be made aware.”

Read the label

One organisation that helps bridge the consumer knowledge gap is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which provides certification and eco-labelling for sustainable seafood. A MSC eco-label demonstrates a fishery’s sustainability to seafood markets around the world. It is the most widely-recognised certification programme for marine produce in the world. Fisheries seeking to be certified enter the council’s assessment process voluntarily, and go through an extensive on-site assessment.

According to Patrick Caleo, MSC’s Australia and New Zealand manager, a fishery must prove that it meets three principles in order to be certified. These are: sustainable fish stocks, where fishing activities are maintained at a level that does not deplete the seafood population; minimal environmental impact, so that operations maintain the function and diversity of the ecosystem; and effective management, where the fishery meets local, national and international laws and has a system in place to maintain sustainability.

Caleo asserts that the consumer plays an essential role in maintaining sustainable seafood sources.

“By consuming seafood that is certified as sustainable, you are rewarding those fishing sustainably. This provides incentives for other fishers to then make the necessary improvements. If everyone insist on sustainably sourced seafood, the problem of over-fishing would no longer exist,” he points out.

The effectiveness of eco-labelling and consumer awareness is obvious from fisheries’ and retailers’ responses from around the world: currently, 12% of the world’s wild caught seafood are from MSC-certified fisheries. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, for instance, has committed to selling only MSC-certified seafood, while other leading retailers like Tesco and Carrefour have recognised the importance of stocking MSC-certified products.

Sustainable option

These three Golden Fresh frozen seafood products are made from MSC-certified Alaskan pollock.

Recognising this shift in consumer demands, a Malaysian company decided to lead the way. Golden Fresh, the brand owner of the Pacific West frozen seafood line, is the first – and only – Malaysian company to market MSC-certified products.

After entering the certified seafood market in 2008 with their Deep Sea Frosty Fish Fillets, Golden Fresh recently launched three more products, all made from MSC-certified Alaskan pollock.

“We see the challenges faced by Asian seafood companies in complying with European standards,” says Golden Fresh brand/corporate affairs manager Tang Cho Sun. “Certain retailers in Britain, for example, will only purchase MSC-certified seafood from any part of the world. For an Asian company to manufacture and export to the European market, MSC certification is essential.”

It is not all about the business opportunities. Golden Fresh also considers raising awareness on sustainable seafood an important corporate social responsibility activity. As part of this, the company works with NGOs like WWF.

“We must ensure fishery supplies for the future generation is not in jeopardy. It about conserving the environment and its resources,” Tang explains.

As of now, however, there are no fisheries in Malaysia that are MSC-certified. According to Gangaram, this is due partly to the council’s rigorous standards, which most local fisheries cannot meet.

Caleo hopes, however, that this will change in the near future.

“We have been working closely with WWF Malaysia, not only to encourage fisheries to think about MSC certification, but also to engage the market on the importance of sustainable sources of supply,” he says.

He is confident that with awareness, Malaysians can be convinced to make a positive change.

“Seafood is an incredibly important part of the eating culture in Malaysia, and who wouldn’t want this wonderful food source to be available for their children and children’s children? What is missing is the awareness of how big a global problem over-fishing is, and the knowledge of what they can do,” he says.

The Save Our Seafood pocket guide is available at


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