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Experts work to take threatened species off the seafood menu

A new study from the University of Queensland suggests that jellyfish or sardines could replace fish and chips in an effort to make commercial fishing more sustainable and to protect threatened species. The experts said that when it comes to seafood, you don’t always know what you are actually eating.

After analyzing global industrial fishing records, the researchers found that 92 endangered species are caught for seafood, 11 of which are critically endangered.

Study lead author Leslie Roberson is a PhD candidate in the UQ Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science. She noted that it is legal to fish for species that are threatened with extinction, and that seafood does not have to be labeled according to its species.

“This means that the ‘fish,’ ‘flake’ or ‘cod’ that Australians typically order at the fish and chip shop could be critically endangered,” said Roberson.

“Australian seafood is not as sustainable as consumers would like to think, and it’s definitely not in line with many of the large international conservation agreements that Australia has signed to protect threatened species and ecosystems.”

“We would never consider eating mountain gorillas or elephants, both of which are endangered.”

Study co-author Dr. Carissa Klein was recently awarded an ARC Future Fellowship to research the nation’s seafood consumption and find ways to make the industry more sustainable. Her team will investigate the costs and benefits of embracing different types of seafood that can be caught more sustainably within Australian waters, such as abalone and wild-caught sardines.

Dr. Klein said Australia was just one of many wealthy countries importing and catching threatened seafood species while maintaining its international marine conservation reputation.

“Australia imports around 75 percent of the seafood we consume and is internationally regarded as having effective conservation and fisheries management policies,” said Dr. Klein.

“When importing seafood from other places, we are displacing any social or environmental problems associated with fishing to that place, which is likely to have less capacity to sustainably manage its ocean.”

According to the study authors, the number of threatened species they recorded was a very conservative estimate.

“The seafood industry is difficult to manage from a conservation perspective because it has supply chains that span multiple international waters, without a governing body,” said Roberson.

“A typical situation might look something like – a fishing boat operating in Australian waters, owned by a Chinese company, with a crew of fishermen from the Philippines. Then one part of the fish might get processed in China, and the other can go to Europe.”

“We don’t know what we’re eating, it’s really hard to trace seafood back to its origin and species because the industry is such a mess.”

“Improving the sustainability of Australia’s seafood trade policies could significantly benefit the ocean worldwide, as well as the billions of people that depend on a healthy ocean for their health and livelihoods,” said Dr. Klein.

“It should be illegal to eat something that is threatened by extinction, especially species that are critically endangered – if we can better coordinate fisheries and conservation policies, we can prevent it from happening.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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