Why is it so hard to ‘eat local’ when it comes to seafood?

Next time you are browsing the seafood section of your local supermarket, take a minute to think about this: more than 70% of seafood consumed in Australia, is imported.

So – why is this happening? And if not here, where is the seafood coming from?

In the face of a rising population, increased demand and necessary regulations to fishing practices, Australian fisheries and aquaculture industries are finding they are unable to produce enough stock to meet demand.

Although reduced fishing effort and increased management contributes to the sustainability of fisheries, Professor Anthony Richardson says “it opens the way for a lot of imports.”

“It’s all part of the bigger picture of why there is a demand for imported seafood,”

“Our production costs here for prawns, for example, would be around $12 per kilo, whereas, if you were farming in Ecuador, if you weren’t below $5 per kilo you wouldn’t be in business”

As part of their “Fish, Fisheries and Aquaculture” course, University of Queensland students were sent to their local supermarket to see what they could find out about the seafood available on supermarket shelves.

In response to consumer demand for clear and meaningful origin labels on food, new labelling requirement laws were introduced in July 2016.

Under Australian Consumer Law, the country of origin labelling requirements should outline not only the country of origin but also list the location it was packed.

Although not yet mandatory, the students found the country of origin labels were not common. Despite this, they did find that some of the products were travelling astonishing distances to reach our shelves.

Total kilotonnes (kt) of seafood from import and export industries in Australia from 2011 – 2016

With Atlantic salmon on our doorstep off the coast of New Zealand, the students found plenty had actually being caught off the coast of Norway, then packed in Poland before been sent to Australia to be sold.

In the local supermarket or even at your local monger, it is very likely you will find fillets of Barramundi on offer, an iconic Australian fish. Typically sourced from Vietnam, it will most likely have been farmed then frozen. Barramundi is an Australian word which causes confusion for the consumer, offshore they are better known as Giant Perch, Nairfish or Seabass.

As the students did, you will almost always find Atlantic Salmon is available to buy too. If caught in New Zealand, it is typically sent to China for packing before it arrives on Australian shelves.

Director of the Centre for Marine Science at The University of Queensland and Associate Professor Ian Tibbetts received a similar shock recently when preparing a meal for his grandchildren.

“This [packet of fish] was European cod. It had come from the Atlantic ocean, half a world away.”

“Not only that – it had been via China on its way to the freezer from where I bought it,” he said

“We’ve got this globe-trotting fish that ends up on the shelves for half the price of what I can buy [locally], and we don’t know how or why,”

“Looking at the label and what I paid for it, $14.99 per kilo. Less than local fishers here in Brisbane can get for their fish”

“How does this make sense?” Associate Professor Tibbetts asked.

In 2016, the family-owned Australian seafood company Kailis Bros sold 90 per cent of its seafood processing, wholesale and export business to a Chinese conglomerate.

The packaging industry in China receives government subsidies that reduce the cost to their customers and draws a global market to their shore. The cost of living is also a lot less in China than in most western societies which supports income viability for the individual.

Total tonne (t) produced from Aquaculture and Wild Caught seafood industry in Australia from 2006 – 2016

Early last year, the outbreak of white spot disease decimated prawn farms in southeast Queensland.

One of those farms was Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture, which lost ~25 million black tiger prawns when it was forced to purge stock when contamination was confirmed.

General manager Alistair Dick has said the outbreak cost his company around $14 million and forced a 12-month shutdown upon them.

He has no doubt that raw, imported prawns carrying the virus and used as bait were to blame.

However, he doesn’t think disrupting the seafood supply chain by banning the import / export trade is feasible.

“It’s really about making those trades safe,”

“Valid control mechanisms need to be applied to make sure we don’t import exotic diseases,” he said.

The flow of fish goes both ways, or rather, multiple ways.

“A lot of the high value, good quality products leave the country and a lot of that pre-packaged, ready to eat stuff, which is low value, low standard, is what people in Australia are getting used to”

“It’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Does it matter that Australian’s eat so much imported seafood while sending our best quality delicacies to foreign buyers?

The answers vary, and there are a great many considerations to be made before trying to answer that.

In 2009, members of the UN General Assembly revealed that food production would need to double by 2050 “to meet the demand of the world’s growing population”.

The import trade helps meet supply demand in Australia while simultaneously reducing the impact on Australian marine environments. However, it only exports the environmental degradation to other countries who may not have the resources to police the standard of fisheries or aquaculture farms.

Export trade is a steady source of income for local producers who may struggle to make a profit from Australian retail with limited retail supply opportunities and a high cost of living driven by property prices. However, labour conditions and end-user treatment of the product is not guaranteed.

Associate Professor Tibbetts recently returned from working with local communities in the western provinces of the Solomon Islands.

In contrasting the two countries, he reflected upon the “relationship with nature, the intimacy, the belonging to land” and wonders whether we should be taking their lead in engaging with our environment.

“If we want to protect the future, if we want to look after responsibly, our part of this planet, we have to start understanding things.”

“You have to get an understanding of nature and you have to get an understanding of where the food comes from and if you don’t have those things, we’ve lost,” he said.

The greenhouse gas emissions associated with these globe-trotting marine resources cannot be ignored either. How can we hope to offset those emissions while scientists continue to research a more effective application of marine protected areas when eutrophication (nutrient pollution), disease management, excess nitrogen and environmental restoration remain issues within both fisheries and aquaculture industries?

Another major challenge is that a lot of aquaculture feed is made from fish meal and oil derived from what’s called “trash fish” – bycatch from deep-sea trawling.

On top of this, our oceans are becoming hotter and more acidic in the face of global warming, and an extensive plastic pollution problem chokes its inhabitants. These few considerations barely begin to unpack what is an incredibly complex issue that has a myriad of parties invested in its ongoing sustainability and success.

One thing is clear, however, there is plenty of fish in the sea – until there isn’t.


Data sourced from:
The University of Queensland, with thanks to Associate Professor Ian Tibbetts, Associate Professor Andy Barnes and their student cohort and;

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (ABARES) – Fisheries Statistics 2016

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