Everyone knows that eating seafood two or three times a week is good for you. It’s a low
calorie, high protein wonder food that is proven to be beneficial to longevity, that promotes
cognitive (brain) development and general wellbeing, and even helps fight some diseases
associated with aging and cancers.
Unfortunately, whilst Australia has one of the world’s largest exclusive fishing zones, it is also
one of the least productive. That’s because we have a narrow continental shelf; an absence
of large, fertile rivers to deliver nutrients into our oceans; and a lack of upwelling currents to
bring what nutrients there are, nearer to the surface where most fish live.
The result is that our wild fisheries have generally reached their sustainable catch limit, and
our emerging aquaculture industries provide only a fraction of what we need. Even NZ
produces twice as much seafood as Australia. In addition, much of Australia’s catch / harvest
(about a third) is exported to countries that pay higher prices - notably China.
For these reasons, around 70% of the seafood consumed in Australia has to be imported to
meet our demand for affordable seafood. (Even so, our NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research
Council) says the average Australian adult consumes 40% less seafood than recommended in
its dietary guidelines for Australians.) This is not a new situation. We have been importing
much of our seafood for over 50 years.
Today, imported seafood is one of the safest foods consumed by Australians, as well as one
of the healthiest.
Production standards for internationally traded seafood, especially from regions such as
Southeast Asia, are now among the highest in the world.
Environmental sustainability, for both wild catch and farmed seafood, can now be verified by
independent certification to internationally benchmarked standards.
Worker welfare is being increasingly addressed by governments, NGOs and buyers, and can
also be verified to acceptable international standards by independent certifiers.
Here in Australia, about five billion dollars is generated every year from the sale of imported
seafood by local retail and foodservice businesses, underpinning some 30,000 Australian jobs.
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 the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, 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 macular degeneration, 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 a least two or more seafood meals per week.
The National Health & Medical Research Council’s 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines says:
- Consumption of at least 2 serves a week of fish is associated with reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, and with reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease.
- Consumption of fish at least twice a week is associated with a reduced risk of stroke.
- Consumption of fish 2 or more times per week is associated with reduced risk of age-related macular (eye) degeneration.
The bad news from the NHMRC is that the average Australian adult is consuming 40% less than the recommended intake.
What species should I buy?
There are hundreds of species of edible seafood available in Australia, which can make selection difficult for many people. However, most frequent buyers choose from the top 20 or so, and those are generally well known. Surprisingly, prawns are the species most consumed in Australia (as in the USA). In terms of volume sold, they are followed by Atlantic Salmon, Basa, Blue Grenadier (Hoki) and Barramundi - all of which may be local or imported (except Basa, which is always imported). These species are available all year round and regardless of the country of origin, the level of nutrition (although varying between species) and standard of food safety, are the same.
Of course, the region you live in, and the season, may give you access to a much broader range of species from time to time - although this is often less noticeable for city and suburban consumers.
For most people affordability, especially for regular weekly purchases, is an essential consideration. Fortunately, there are species and seafood products to suit every budget so there is no reason for any consumer to think seafood is unattainable due to price, suitability or availability.
Fresh versus Frozen
This is probably the most common debate in the world of seafood, and perhaps the least understood.
The old rule that local seafood is always fresh and that imported seafood is always frozen, no longer applies. Every day, a significant proportion of our total fresh seafood is flown in to Australia from New Zealand and from even more distant nations such as Thailand, and sold genuinely fresh. On the other hand, many species of local seafood are snap-frozen after harvest, at sea or in shore facilities, and sold as ‘thawed for your convenience’.
Fresh seafood can be exceptionally good, and it is highly sought after by top restaurants and specialist fishmongers. This, of course, can make it expensive, as can the limited supply of many species. The difficulty faced by industry is that most local seafood is produced in the remote coastal regions of Australia - many hours (if not days) transport away from the major city markets. Seafood is highly perishable and the quality, including texture and flavor, deteriorates rapidly after harvest. Only seafood that is extremely well handled and transported as fast as possible (both adding to the cost) can really justify the title ‘fresh’ even if it is unfrozen. For that reason, the industry in recent decades has turned to snap-freezing as the prime method of preserving quality. Seafood that is snap-frozen just a few hours after harvest retains most of its original eating qualities and preserves them for months, and even years, providing the temperature is kept low enough.
Most seafood available in Australia has been frozen at some point in the distribution chain, even if it is presented as ‘thawed for your convenience’. This is particularly the case with prawns and fish fillets and is by no means a bad thing. Just as frozen peas are now regarded as a premium product, so too can most frozen seafood be considered a premium product provide it is handled carefully - especially by you.
Buying frozen seafood gives consumers control over availability (eg. the ability to produce a prawn salad in the middle of winter) and over the important process of thawing. As thawing can be product specific our advice is to follow the instructions on the product packaging.
FRDC (Fisheries Research and Development Corporation) has released a new frozen seafood cookbook and the results of some research into fresh vs frozen seafood.
The FRDC tested if there were any sensory or culinary differences between fresh and frozen product of the same species. Two evaluation groups were used: chefs from high-end restaurants (with a focus on seafood) and experienced seafood panellists. Both groups tasted raw sashimi cuts of the selected fish as well as cooked samples of the fish.
As it turned out, both groups could not readily identify which sample of the fish species was frozen and which was chilled.
This testing has shown that fish handled well and frozen rapidly, soon after harvest and processing, cannot be differentiated by eating quality from chilled (‘fresh’) fish. Additional testing showed the same results for a range of well-known Australian species used up to a 6-month frozen storage period.
The results open the ‘freezer’ door for both producers and consumers to reduce reliance on short-shelf-life fresh fish by offering greater flexibility and stability for what can be eaten and when it is available. Ultimately, using frozen seafood can help to improve sustainability because it lasts longer and reduces wastage.
Find the cookbook here:
And a full write up of the R&D here:
Farmed versus Wild
This is another debate that has engaged consumers and the seafood industry in recent decades due to the rapid expansion of fish farming around the world. The main arguments focus on food safety and environmental sustainability.
Concern about the use of antibiotics and other chemicals alarmed consumer groups in the 1990s leading to a dramatic shift in the way fish (and prawns) are farmed. Today, better farming techniques around the world have dramatically reduced the need for chemical inputs, most of which are universally banned, and the extensive testing for antibiotic, fungicide, pesticide and heavy metal residues before sale, ensures consumers are at no greater risk from eating farmed seafood than from eating most other healthy foods (and at much less risk than from eating ‘unhealthy’ foods).
The potential overfishing of wild fish to make fish feed, and the destruction of foreshore environments to build farms (among other issues), also led to concern about the sustainability of fish farming in recent decades. However, marvelous advances in the composition of fish diets (using more protein-rich crops such as soy and legumes, and less fish - only 15% in some cases), and stronger rules about the location of farms, along with the remediation of habitats, such as the replanting of mangrove forests in some countries, has gone a long way towards turning fish farming into one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly industries of the 21st century.
Species names are often confusing due to the large number of them, and occasionally because similar fish seem to have different names (or vice versa). Most local and imported species have a unique marketing name (in addition to a Latin or scientific name) and these names are chosen by a national committee under an Australian Standard. To use different names could be a fraud offence and, as a result, the incidence of such fraud (or species substitution) has improved considerably. However some operators continue to use traditional but obsolete names because they are better known.
Want to check a fish name?
Look it up on the fish names website
Is Imported Fish Just As Healthy As Local Fish?
Almost all edible fish, and most other seafood, is extremely good for you, regardless of its country of origin. (People with specific allergies, and pregnant women, should seek medical advice about the level of consumption of some species, including Australian fish.) In general, all fish is high in protein, and low in carbohydrates and 'bad' fats, making it ideal for a healthy diet. Some species of fish have slightly higher levels of 'good' fats/oils (such as Omega 3) but all fish have a beneficial level of nutrients. The regular consumption of fish is universally recommended by the medical profession and nutritionists.
Is Imported Fish Safe?
International trade regulations mean food products destined for the import/export trade are subject to much more rigorous standards than products traded in local markets - even in Australia.
For instance, the standard for exported food processed in Asia is in general much higher than the standard of domestic food processing in Australia.
Food processing and packaging factories exporting seafood to Australia must operate to independently audited, international standards of hygiene and quality control.
Before being released in Australia, imported seafood (and other food) is also subject to inspection by the Department of Agriculture's inspectors, including laboratory tests. About 5,000 such tests are carried out on shipments of seafood every year under Government supervision, making seafood the most tested food commodity imported to Australia. The results show that imported seafood is also one of the safest foods we consume.
Are We Depleting The World's Oceans By Importing Fish?
In terms of volume, the four most popular species of frozen fish imported to Australia are Hoki, Hake, Barramundi and Basa. South Africa's hake fishery and New Zealand's hoki fishery - two main sources of these species - have both been certified as sustainable by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. (MSC endorsement is probably the highest accreditation of its type in the world.)
Basa is a farmed fish (grown mainly in Vietnam) and its rapid expansion in recent years is contributing significantly to the world's food supply. Rather than threaten the world's ocean resources, Basa production (like most aquaculture) lessens economic pressure on our remaining wild fish stocks.
(The USA also has a major fish farming industry, utilising a similar species to Basa that is providing affordable seafood to its population. Sadly, Australia has no such species in the pipeline.)
Some NGO sustainability / dining guides give Basa a sustainability red light because some small farmers use wild fish as feed (even though Basa are plant eaters). However, this doesn’t take into account that Basa exported to Australia comes largely from well-run export farms operating to certified standards of sustainability.
As a general rule, the fish farms seen by many tourists in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand supply their local domestic markets and are not permitted to export to Australia.
Do Imports Offer Opportunities For Local Producers
Clearly they do. Without imported seafood, Australia's domestic market would remain largely undeveloped (with low per capita consumption). The number of outlets would be vastly reduced with few shops being able to survive on local seafood alone. This weakened distribution infra-structure would be unable to cope with even minor fluctuations in supply - as was the case 20 years ago and before, when 'glut' markets and price collapses were common.
Prices would remain chronically high for consumers, subsidising on-going (but unsustainable) inefficiencies in the production sector. Economic pressure on our wild catch fisheries would be unrelenting (and unsustainable) and management costs would further increase.
On the other hand, imported seafood has created new marketing opportunities in the domestic market, through which local producers will be able to channel increasing volumes of product (hopefully from improved aquaculture production, or as yet undiscovered wild catch resources) when their marketing systems and skills are further developed or upgraded.
It should be noted that many seafood importing companies are also local producers (ie. they catch/grow and import) and that they will be happy to procure and sell more seafood from local producers (if local volumes increase) as overseas products become increasingly difficult to source due to global competition.