Australians love seafood. We love the oceans our seafood comes from. But while the average Australian now eats roughly double the amount of seafood we consumed in 1975, the quantity of fish we can sustainably draw from our oceans for food just has not kept up.
To put the nearly 370,000 tonnes of seafood we now consume every year on the Australian table, we now eat a greater variety of species, sourced from more locations and produced using a growing array of methods. In fact, 70 per cent of our seafood now comes from overseas.
While this has no doubt improved the choices we have, it has also made them more complex.
Australians want to buy seafood that is good for our health, good for our oceans, and good for the livelihoods of the people who provide it for us.
But some of the seafood we might buy this Christmas may not be a healthy choice, could damage our marine environment and may have been produced by people working under unfair conditions.
To add to this problem, current labelling requirements for seafood in Australia can leave us confused and misguided.
A good example is "flathead", which is popular in fish and chip shops, restaurants and retailed as frozen fillets in supermarkets. We naturally think that "flathead" is Aussie flathead. But when we buy "flathead" it may well be an imported South American fish, of a completely different family (Percophis brasiliensis). The imported "flathead" is much cheaper - up to $20 per kilo less. But there's often no labelling on your pub or fast food menu, or packet of frozen "flathead", to indicate you're not buying Aussie flathead, but a cheap imitation caught by destructive bottom trawling in Argentinean waters.
Another fish subject to confusion is barramundi. Australians rate barramundi as their favourite fish in restaurants. While about 90 per cent of us believe the barramundi we are consuming is Australian, over two thirds of the barramundi we eat is actually imported from Asia.
Worryingly, some fish contain high and potentially unsafe levels of mercury. Too much mercury can harm pregnant women and young children. For this reason, government authorities recommend that pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children under six years of age restrict the amount they eat of certain species, including shark (flake), catfish and orange roughy. Yet if we're not told which species we're eating we're unable to act on these health warnings.
Good Choices for Christmas
So what is a good choice when it comes to seafood this Christmas?
Every piece of seafood we eat differs in terms of how sustainable it is, whether it was produced ethically and its impact on our health.
No fishery in the world is perfect, but many Australian fisheries, in particular the Commonwealth, South Australian and Western Australian fisheries, have strong management relative to some of the neighbours from which we source our seafood.
Some of the better choices in sustainability terms are dusky flathead from NSW and Victoria, sardines or mullet from South Australia or New Zealand, wild-caught salmon from Alaska, jig-caught southern calamari and Gould's squid from Australia, whiting, albacore or skipjack tuna from our East Coast, Australian farmed barramundi, farmed prawns (black tiger and banana), oysters (Sydney rock, native and Pacific) and crabs (mud and spanner).
Species to avoid include imported prawns, imported fresh or frozen tuna, wild-caught barramundi from Indonesia, school shark, orange roughy, bluefin tunas, trawled prawns, wild-caught Queensland barramundi and Australian blue warehou.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society produces a Sustainable Seafood Guide, an easy to use resource that can help you figure out what's good to buy if you love seafood but want to tread lightly on our oceans.
The Guide - which you can get online, as an app or a pocket guide - features a simple traffic light system: green-listed species are a 'Better Choice', amber-listed species mean 'Eat Less' and red-listed species means 'Say No'.
Good questions to ask at your supermarket, fish shop or restaurant, before you make your choice are:Is the species overfished?How was it caught or farmed?Is it a deep sea, slow growing or long lived species?
Unfortunately, most of the time when we buy seafood we are not given the information we need.
Australia's labelling laws for seafood are inadequate, especially as they apply to cafes and restaurants.
This is in stark comparison with new laws in the EU which mean over half a billion Europeans now benefit from seafood labelling laws, so they no longer eat their seafood in the dark.
Supporters of the Label My Fish campaign include Australian fishers, chefs, scientists and environmental groups. Members are campaigning for new labelling laws that tell us, whenever we buy seafood:what the species iswhere it was caught; andthe method used to catch or farm it.
Australians deserve to be told exactly what seafood we are buying this Christmas.
With proper, clear labelling we are likely to eat a greater variety of fish, favour more sustainable local catch, improve our health and live in a healthier environment.
For more information on the Label My Fish campaign visit: www.labelmyfish.com
Recipes for your Christmas table
Star of the SBS documentary series What's the Catch? Matthew Evans has provided viewers with a range of recipes using sustainable seafood, such as fried squid with basil using Australian Gould's Squid from Southern fisheries.
Here's Matthew's recipe for
Grilled Lemon Whiting with Crushed Peas,using sustainable Sand or King George whiting. (Serves 4)
A quick dish that shouldn't tax the cook. Start the peas first, as the fish should take less than a minute to cook on each side.300g peas (frozen is just fine)40g buttersalt and freshly milled pepper1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest4 large sand or King George whiting filletsflour for dusting (optional)butter for fryingfresh lemon for squeezing
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Simmer peas until tender and mash gently with the butter, some salt, pepper and the lemon zest. Season the whiting, flour lightly, and fry in hot butter until just changed colour inside. Lay fish over the peas, reheat the whiting pan (add a little more butter if dry) until the butter goes a nut-brown colour. Squeeze in some lemon and tip this over the fish and peas.