Australia's demand for seafood currently exceeds, by more than double, the production capacity of our wild catch fisheries and our aquaculture industries combined. In fact, in edible weight terms (ie. what actually goes in the mouth) 72% of the seafood currently consumed here comes from overseas.
This is because most of Australia’s wild fish resources, despite our vast continental coastline, have already reached sustainable levels, and because the development of aquaculture (fish farming) here has been constrained by the cost of regulation and lack of community support in some regions.
As a result, we need to import about 200,000 tonnes of seafood annually to enable all Australians to maintain even a modest component of seafood in their diet. This is not a new development - Australia has been importing much of its seafood for over 50 years.
Some of this is to replace the seafood we export (about 40,000 tonnes annually - worth $1.2 billion to our economy) and the rest is to sustain rising growth in per capita seafood consumption driven by new information about the many significant health benefits associated with eating seafood regularly. It is estimated that, within 15 years, we will need to import about 500,000 tonnes of seafood annually to ensure all Australians have a seafood component relative to optimum dietary health.
Why Seafood Is So Important
About 600 million years ago the human brain and nervous system evolved in a marine environment. Our human ancestors later became land-dwelling, but our requirement for specific marine nutrients remains. Around the world, populations that consume higher levels of seafood live longer and healthier lives than those that rely mainly on land-based foods.
According to many credible experts, a diet rich in seafood reduces cardiovascular disease, aids pregnancy and early child development, contributes to the prevention of obesity and related diseases, and delays the onset of age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's. Indeed, seafood's vital contribution to aged care and the prevention of brain disease (rapidly becoming the world's biggest health problem) is only now being understood.
Seafood's role as a healthy food however is universally recognized, and organizations such as the Australian Heart Foundation recommend two or more seafood meals per week. To achieve that, the majority will have to be imported.
Australia's Food Security
In recent decades, many nations have realized the importance of seafood to the health and longevity of their populations and, as they become more affluent, compete on world markets for the available supply.
All this can be quickly verified by the Federal Government agency responsible for food safety - Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) which assesses the food safety risk presented by all foods in Australia and New Zealand, and recommends appropriate action where needed. Information about imported food can be found on the FSANZ website.
Information about food safety requirements specifically for imported seafood, and regular summaries of compliance testing, can be found on the AQIS website.
The AQIS testing regime in regard to imported seafood was reviewed by the CSIRO in 2009 (Moir 2009) and found to be satisfactory. Food safety was also reviewed by Ruello & Associates in 2010 and found to be excellent; that report can be downloaded from our home page.
In short, imported seafood presents no greater risk to consumers than local seafood - and probably less (due to the higher production standards required, and compulsory compliance testing).
Employees of SIAA member companies, most of which are Australian-owned, travel the world daily to investigate new fishing or fish farming ventures - often in very remote regions. Their task is to assess the sustainable potential of these ventures; the suitability of the products for Australian consumers; the quality and food safety standards of the industries; the capabilities of the processing factories; the logistics options; and the official procedures and documentation required to bring seafood to Australia. Often, this requires training of local personnel, and even investment by Australian companies.
Australia's edible seafood imports of one billion dollars annually provide employment in Australia for thousands of people in manufacturing, distribution, retail and food service industries, generating about 4.5 billion dollars for Australian businesses within the local economy.