Australia has been importing a large proportion of its seafood for over 50 years. That’s because most of our wild catch fisheries are at their sustainable limit, and about a third of our catch is exported to higher-price markets. Australian aquaculture is limited to a few species suitable to Australia’s growing conditions, and there are significant environmental constraints in many of the most suitable locations, limiting business growth and investment.
In 2018, imports provided around 70% of the total seafood consumed by Australians.
Economic and Dietary Benefits
From these imports, five billion dollars was generated by local businesses in food manufacturing, food service and retail - employing about 28,000 people within Australia. Australian seafood is also re-imported after being value-added and packed offshore - an essential service to local producers who do not have the capacity to do this here. In addition to this, imports also provide essential inputs to local aquaculture including feed for prawn and tuna farms.
Without imports, seafood would be unaffordable and unavailable for regular consumption by most Australian families - despite its importance to dietary health.
The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) has detailed information on the health benefits of seafood on this link.
Government Regulations and Product Certifications
No food safety or other clearances can be done on food products arriving in Australia until the Government biosecurity team has completed its assessments and are happy that the goods do not pose a biosecurity risk.
Product is inspected by the governments biosecurity officers following a risk based regime. This often entails multiple officers being present at an inspection and containers not being opened until government inspectors are present, a seals intact inspection.
Only once product is released by Biosecurity can other checks on product be undertaken. Any product that does not meet Biosecurity assessment is re-exported.
Imported seafood is also one of the safest foods consumed by Australians, as well as one of the healthiest.
Whilst domestic food standards in some countries may be low, production standards for export-approved seafood, especially from regions such as Southeast Asia, are now among the highest in the world. This is due to a combination of market pressure from trade buyers (eg supermarkets) and consumers, driving investment in infrastructure and technical capacity in supplier nations, and the growth in internationally recognized third-party certification.
All food imported to Australia must comply with the same standards as locally produced food, as directed by our national food standards agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
At the Australian border, seafood is the most tested food arriving here, under a mandatory food inspection scheme robustly enforced by the Department of Agriculture to ensure compliance with FSANZ food standards.
Any non-compliant food that is a risk to human health is re-exported or destroyed before it enters Australia. Results are published monthly by the department and show that imported seafood has one of the best records of any food commodity.
Post-border monitoring of reportable illnesses and hospitalizations confirms seafood’s low risk status over several decades.
Environmental sustainability, for both wild catch and farmed seafood, has been much improved in recent decades, and can now be verified by independent certification to internationally benchmarked standards. Thousands of different production sources are now certified, enabling importers many options for responsible sourcing to meet the demands of socially responsible consumers.
Worker welfare and modern slavery
The welfare of foreign fishers, farm and factory workers is an issue of concern, and is being addressed through numerous non-government organisations such as the UN ILO (International Labour Organisation). Direct action is being taken by industry to protect workers and this can be verified to acceptable international standards by NGOs and independent certifiers.
From 2019 the Australian Government will require most importers to provide a public annual report on the action they have taken to identify and address potential slavery in their supply chains.
Millions of workers around the world depend on, and benefit from, the jobs created by the production and processing of seafood, as do millions of consumers. Whilst further improvements are needed in many countries, the responsible stewardship of this vital commerce is enabling that improvement.
The improved sustainability, and consequently the improved production capacity, of fishing and farming, as a result of this commerce, enhances the prosperity of these nations and contributes to international food security.
Millions of Australians also benefit: from consumer access to affordable, healthy food; from the business generated in thousands of restaurants and shops that sell imported seafood; and from local producers who depend on offshore processing and imported inputs to keep their Australian businesses viable.