As you’re chomping down on that delicious prawn laksa, that beautiful ginger-infused grouper, that mackerel curry, do you ever give a thought to where that seafood has come from?
The most traded food category in the world, seafood often travels long distances, wending its way to your dinner plate via various lengthy supply chains from fishing ports and fish farms around the world.
So how sustainable are your choices? How many food miles are you racking up? And how environmentally-friendly and socially responsible is its production method?
Although a relatively small country, on a per capita basis, Malaysia is one of the biggest consumers of seafood in the world, guzzling down more than 50kg per person per year. This puts it on a similar footing to South Korea, Myanmar and European nations like Norway and Greenland. Malaysia also ranks 11th in terms of seafood production globally, although compared to some of its Asian neighbours – China, Thailand, Vietnam – its production is a mere drop in the ocean.
However, it can claim to be one of the few seafood-consuming countries in the world that, theoretically, breaks even on consumption and production. I say “theoretically” because in Malaysia, as in most other parts of the world, local tastes for seafood don’t necessarily match what is produced on your doorstep.
Indeed, Malaysian tastes for shrimp and marine fish, for example, are in no way sated by domestic production. As such, a substantial share of the seafood on the local dinner plate is imported, adding to the complexity of sustainability choices. The ABC of fish productionSo how do you judge whether seafood is sustainable or not?
Some would have you believe it is as simple as choosing local, but there is a bit more to it than that. On the most basic level, seafood production falls into two categories – wild and farmed.
It is generally agreed that – give or take some ups and downs – wild caught fisheries have reached capacity, and the proportion of seafood which we source from them will remain static going forward, making up a smaller and smaller percentage of our total seafood consumption as the population grows and more protein is in demand.
Aquaculture will therefore need to make up the shortfall, but aquaculture itself encompasses a vast array of species and the systems in which these species are produced range from simple ponds or fallowed rice paddies hand-fed a mass-produced feed each day; to complex land-based production systems employing state-of-the-art monitoring, feeding and harvesting.
Pond-grown fish and shrimp in Asia can contribute to mangrove destruction, but hi-tech land-based farms tend to employ vast amounts of energy in temperature regulation and monitoring. On the plus side, your shrimp likely started out on a small-scale Thai or Indian shrimp farm supporting a family, and your salmon or barramundi is helping build industry and job opportunities in perhaps more remote areas.
So, as with all things “sustainability”, it is a complex landscape to navigate and a million shades of grey to sift through before you make what turns out to be a slightly subjective decision.
How to make sensible choices
There are some international certification standards out there that in some cases, will make your life easier.
The Marine Stewardship Council (look for the blue MSC tick on labelling or at the fish counter) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (green tick) both incorporate standards around environment and social responsibility and today cover a substantial proportion of the world’s seafood.
WWF Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society have also published a traffic light guide to making sustainable seafood choices that will help you understand the status of certain stocks or production methods.
Seafood crucial for a growing world
But also know that eating seafood, in and of itself, is generally a more sustainable and earth-healthy choice than eating meat, particularly if we think longer term.
The environmental footprint of seafood is generally far lower than that of other proteins, particularly beef. Seafood production tends to require no fresh water, does not take up space on valuable arable land needed for farming vegetables and produces very little carbon dioxide.
As the obvious choice for future world protein production, it is also being held to higher and higher environmental and social standards, forcing a technological revolution in the way it is being produced. The industry is heavily invested, for example, in producing more sustainable feed, and commercially viable novel ingredients are coming to the fore to replace some of the fishmeal and oil traditionally used in fish feed.
Fish – particularly certain species – need specific Omega 3 fatty acids to grow and to produce a nutritious protein. And until recently they have got this pretty much entirely from being fed small oily fish, in the form of fishmeal and oil in their manufactured feed.
But now, algae, yeast and even flies are proving viable long-term sources of these fatty acids, to complement and help sustain fishmeal fisheries around the world.
So, while it is important to have an understanding of how sustainable your seafood is, it is also important to support the parts of the sector working towards that goal. They will form a crucial industry going forward in ensuring food security for a burgeoning world population.
So hold your fishmonger, stall holder or supermarket to account on where they are sourcing from and fully understanding the production methods and supply chain of their products.
If enough customers demand it, they will have to deliver. And in the meantime, do your research on the species you have available and how they are being brought to your plate and make smart choices around what fish you put in that curry and where that shrimp is coming from that you put in your laksa. In doing so, you will help contribute to a sustainable food future for Malaysia and beyond.