For many of us, the 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy was the beginning of the end of garlic prawns, fried hake and chips, sushi, pickled fish and any other favourite way we had of eating seafood. The savage story the documentary told of cynical exploitation of the ocean was gutting. With an estimated 90% of big fish populations depleted, 50% of coral reefs destroyed by carelessness, and evidence of breath-taking inhumanity, it just felt wrong to carry on eating fish.
Around 40% of the world’s population lives within 100km of the coast; and the United Nations estimates that by 2030, as many as 40 million people will be employed by ocean-based industries globally. At around $2,5 trillion, the ocean economy is the seventh largest economic sector globally.
A high percentage of these 40 million people are involved in harvesting and retailing wild or farmed seafood. Small-scale fisheries, which are primarily informal in nature, contribute 50%-60% of the global catch. They directly account for the livelihoods of more than 60 million people; and seafood is a primary food source for millions. If we simply stopped having fish on our plate, that’s a lot of livelihoods down the drain.
At the V&A Waterfront, about a third of our ocean-fronting property is dedicated to ocean-based industries. As an organisation we wrestle with the social, environmental and economic tensions implicit in being a meaningful intersection between city and ocean. At the same time as our Two Oceans Aquarium and its Foundation are doing world-leading conservation work, for instance, we are home to commercial fisheries. At the same time as we seek to grow opportunities relating to the ocean economy, including creating jobs, we seek to develop and exercise best-practice ocean stewardship.
The only way to hold the tension between competing activities is to achieve the kind of sustainability balancing act that is very rare.
The inaugural Sustainable Seafood Festival at the beginning of this month (April 1-2) is one way of doing that.
It kicked off the previous day with a panel discussion which wrestled with the question: how might we fish in such a way that while we’re creating jobs and ensuring small-scale fishers are thriving, we’re also practising good ocean stewardship and increasing customer consciousness and awareness?
The panel was facilitated by Dr Judy Mann of the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, and included:
- Michael Marriot, Programme Manager for the Marine Stewardship Council’s outreach work in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia;
- Shamera Daniels, independent consultant to fishing right holders and (amongst other things) the independent chair of the Rock Lobster Association
- Craig Smith, a senior manager at World Wildlife Fund focused on the sustainability of fisheries (commercial, small-scale and recreational) and supporting marine protected area expansion and management;
- Buyekezwa (Polo) Mamaila, the Chief Marine Conservation Inspector from the government’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment; and
- Chris Kastern, Director of Growth at Abalobi ICT4Fisheries which works towards thriving, equitable and sustainable small-scale fishing communities globally, through the development of tech, data & market platforms.
Judy kicked off by tracking the suppositions that have, over time, informed the world’s view of the human-ocean interaction. It started, she pointed out, with the assumption that “the ocean is too big to fail”. “Do you remember when we used to say, when people disappointed us or opportunities fell away, ‘there are plenty of fish in the sea’?” That’s how we thought of the oceans: a never-ending source of fish. And that’s also why, for generations, we have assumed it is OK to empty sewage and dump other waste into the ocean. The mantra used to be: “the solution to pollution is dilution”.
And then the bad news started to land. Scientists reported that in excess of 70% of the world’s fisheries were either at their limit or over-exploited; we heard about the consequences of dumping what now amounts to over 450 cubic square kilometres of pollution into the oceans every year, we heard about acidification and dead zones, and the new bleak prognosis was: “the ocean is too damaged to save”.
Why should we worry about the sustainability of our seafood?
But giving up is not an option. The ocean, we now understand, is both vulnerable and essential to human life. It buffers the effects of climate change, it’s the source of food for millions. The ocean is too important to human life not to save. And so the ocean-minded decisions we make now, including those about seafood, “will determine the future for our children and grandchildren,” Judy said.
As the ocean’s yield of seafood starts to decrease, Craig stressed, there are implications for both jobs and food security. The socio-economic implications of a collapse of fisheries is profound. Holistically speaking, the challenge is a whole-of-the-environment thing, because species are interrelated: if one species goes, there’s a knock-on effect both above and below it on the food chain.
“Blue foods”, Michael added, are essential to food security globally. “We know the world’s population is rapidly growing, which inherently decreases our ability to feed them. It’s not going to be easy to increase land-based food production.”
Shamera explained how, on the ground, shortages accelerate the collapse of a species. If legal-sized lobster are not available, poachers undercut the legal fishers by catching – and selling to unwary buyers – illegal, smaller lobster, including those which are in berry (carrying eggs), which in turn means the next generation of lobster is cut off, and the fisher communities, which represent around 100 000 indirect jobs all the way along the coast up to the Northern Cape and around to the Eastern Cape – are further compromised.
Why is choosing sustainable seafood so complicated?
For people who enjoy seafood but want to do the right thing by the oceans and its people, this is a fundamental question. How do you know you can trust that what you’re buying in shops or ordering in restaurants is “good” seafood?
“It starts with the fact that we all have different interpretations of what sustainability means,” Michael agreed. “For some people it’s enough that the species population is healthy; others want to understand the social context; while others look beyond both of these to what the externalised implications are, such as carbon miles.”
His organisation, MSC, defines sustainability as the ability of the resource to provide into the future – for the fish species themselves, but also the ecological context. Abalobi’s focus is on celebrating local seafood – elevating fish that comes from the seas around us, and which are caught by near-shore fishers. WWF wrestles with the two.
“We have a magnitude of species,” Craig said. “There are about 40 linefish in our waters. Some are heavily depleted, some are in recovery, some are still quite robust. But environmental issues are sometimes in conflict with socio-economic issues. Lobster, for instance, used to be a mainstay, but the resource is now less than 2% of what it was. From a fisheries management perspective, lobster fishing should be closed. It’s not, because of the socio-economic issues – but we are not addressing the rebuilding of this resource, which remains vulnerable to the point that it may soon be closed because there are none left, with huge socio-economic consequences.”
Like Shamera, Craig stressed the need for members of the public and for the hospitality industry to make an effort to understand what it is we are procuring, where is it coming from, and how it was caught: different fishing techniques have radically different implications for the environment.
The South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) red-amber-green app is WWF’s effort to help laypeople improve their understanding.
Judy’s next question to the panel was:
What is your organisation doing to help the public find their way through this?
WWF has a retail supply participation scheme which also provides programmes for chefs and restauranteurs. Michael noted that the MSC blue label tells the buyer that the fish is certifiable all the way back to who caught it; and Chris spoke to the usefulness of the Abalobi app. “All you need to do is download our app, connect with a local fisher, celebrate their stories, give them a voice,” he said.
Polo stressed that her government department’s interest, too, is local communities who are participating (legally or illegally) in fishing. The questions they navigate, she said, include whether the right people are fully beneficiaries of the law – does the law, in other words, achieve what it sets out to? When confronted with those who catch illegally, her department is there to enforce the law, “but we also need to sit down and discuss accessibility. Did we really redress and simplify things for (for example) the Hout Bay communities?”
The department travels around tocoastal communities to raise awareness in schools about fishing and seafood sustainability. As part of the government’s Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) which starts at Grade 10 level, “wehave ‘adopted’ 500 youth along the coast to study to be fishery control officers,” Polo said, which involves an environmental degree or diploma. The intention is that the children growing up in the fisher communities will become gamekeepers rather than poachers. But it’s a hard and complex world they live in – “sometimes it is their brothers, their fathers who are poaching or robbing fish”.
Shamera echoed the pain point of scarcity for fisher people. “The rock lobster Total Allowable Catch in 1996 was 5000 tons, now it’s on 550 tons,” she said, “which has to be distributed to people who generationally have been rock lobster families.” So although she’s been called an idealist for mooting this, she is working with others towards setting up a Fisheries Conservation Project which will implore and enlist members of the public and communities to stop poaching or supporting poachers for five years. “If they did that, we could rebuild the sector,” she said.
The final question from Judy was what you and I, members of the public or those who work in hospitality, can do to change the sad trajectory of the assault on the sustainability of seafood resources:
What is the one thing you’d want everyone to do?
Shamera: “Ask the hard questions. As businesspeople and citizens, we have a broader responsibility to the next generation and the generation beyond that. What is the legacy we want to leave? Do we want to leave lots of money and no fish in the ocean? It’s not either MSC or Abalobi – it’s an “and” conversation and we need to engage in it. I’m asking restaurants and the public to ask questions about where their seafood comes from.
“Supporting the door-to-door purveyor of poached food is not supporting poor people trying to put food on their own table. Lobster poaching has become professionalised. Buying it means you’re linking into theft and gangs, and all the savagery they bring – the drugs, the random shootings. Just don’t do it.”
Chris: “Support coastal communities, and the small-scale fishers that thrive in these communities, buy from them and celebrate their stories.”
Michael: “Be conscious of who you are listening to. It’s an emotive issue. Look at the available tools and what is behind them. Also, move beyond seeing sustainability as a market advantage: see it as a bigger movement.”
Polo: “I’d like to encourage big businesses to adopt communities that are heavily impacted with illegal poaching. We need to equip these communities. I want to encourage the big guys to adopt communities and give small fishers open access to fair trade.”
Craig: “The supply chain must be knowledgeable about sustainability, and socio-economic impact. Get involved in the conversation, and ask the questions.”
With this panel discussion, we have opened an important conversation among our Maker’s Landing food makers, and the V&A Waterfront’s hospitality sector, and people who are interested in being part of the solution. We all have the responsibility to think about it, to communicate about it, to ask those questions.
Find out more:
ABALOBI is a sustainable seafood activist organisation. Their goal is to contribute towards thriving, equitable, climate change resilient and sustainable small-scale fishing communities globally. Download their Abalobi Marketplace app.
WWF’s SASSI app The South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) app has a red-amber-green system to help consumers assess in real time the sustainability of the fish they’re buying, including considerations of where it was caught and how it was caught. Avoid altogether, think twice – or tuck in!
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international NPO which recognises and rewards efforts to protect oceans and safeguard seafood supplies for the future. Look out for their blue logo which is applied to wild-caught fish or seafood from fisheries that have been certified to have met a set of standards for sustainable fishing. Like ”organic”, certification is an expensive process, so small fisheries won’t carry this – but it’s an added security when buying fish from large-scale fisheries.