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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Consumers must do more to ensure sustainable fishing

Raising awareness of the dangers of overfishing.
Yesterday's news that the supertrawler scheduled to start operating off southern Australia, the Abel Tasman (named until very recently the Margiris), would not be allowed to operate until further research was done was widely welcomed online. But politicians know that this is just a temporary measure. Independent MP Rob Oakeshott asked for more information on Twitter and there were a fair few replies, mostly to the effect that large boats like the Abel Tasman are not sustainable, and not good for Australia. He asked about both bycatch and about quotas - the two issues that are of most relevance to people like himself. It appears that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority has set an 18,000-tonne quota for the Abel Tasman, but
The Fisheries Minister, Joe Ludwig, announced the federal government would also carry out a ''root and branch review'' of fisheries management law in response to concerns about the 18,000-tonne fish quota given by fisheries authorities to Seafish Tasmania for the trawler.
There are other details that will be introduced into the debate via the media from all sides. It's a complex issue and there are many players, including the owners of the vessel, the federal government, and environmental lobby groups such as Greenpeace. Greenpease began its campaign in a typically hard-hitting style a couple of weeks ago with an op-ed piece that covered some of the more striking points within the debate. For those who know something about this debate from watching activities associated with other fisheries around the world, the main issue is the poor record, generally, of industrial fishing. Writes David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific:
The basic problem is that there is too much capacity in the global fishing fleet. According to the World Bank, the global fleet is 2½ times what the oceans can sustain. The situation in Europe is even worse. And, with European stocks of fishing running out, the biggest and worst of Europe's fleet - boats like the Margiris - have gone in search of other fishing grounds.
So enterprising businessmen have got hold of the Margiris, sailed it the whole way around the world to the antipodes, reflagged and renamed it, and applied for permission to use it here. Opponents such as Greenpeace worry that what has happened in European seas will happen here: viable stocks of fish will be depleted due to overfishing. It has happened, most notably in the Canadian cod fishery.

But I worry that talk like this at the very top end of the value chain will merely gyrate around arcane points that only scientists will be able to understand, and that the courts will be the final arbiters. To avoid this, there needs to be more awareness among consumers about where their fish comes from. If consumers ask for fish that is caught sustainably then retailers will force their suppliers to provide certified assurances that it is so. And this is possible now. In the UK, major retailers like Sainsbury's sell a lot of fish that is certified sustainable because UK shoppers demand these assurances. UK shoppers are worried about the care of the seas, and with good reason. It's a shame to think that Australian shoppers will only start caring when overfishing becomes a problem here, too.

The Marine Stewardship Council, a body made up of both scientists and representatives from the seafood industries, has started certifying types of fish sold in Australia, but this is still only an embryonic initiative here. Aldi, for example, has taken the lead by selling tuna certified sustainable by the MSC. More types of fish, in more fisheries, need to be assessed by the MSC so that consumers can be sure that annual takes can be supported by the ability of the fish in the sea to replenish lost numbers. 

Having worked on stories in this area in the past, I think that such certification, and the consumer demand that requires it, is the only way to ensure sustainable fishing in Australia. The MSC is not a pressure group; in fact Greenpeace will no doubt question many of the decisions that MSC people take in respect of fisheries around the world. But it's better than flying blind, which is why Rob Oakeshott tweeted his question. Other politicians would, I'm sure, feel more secure if there was more popular demand for MSC certification because that pressure from the community would serve as a guide to them when they make decisions that will affect us, both now and in the future.

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