South Africa’s False Bay was once known as one of the world’s great white shark ‘hot spots’ thanks to its famous “Air Jaws” residents that would launch themselves from the watery depths in hopes of catching a delicious marine mammal meal. But since the disappearance of great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) – which was initially attributed to the presence of two orcas (Orcinus orca) – many have wondered if the ongoing absence had something to do with us.
Some scientists pointed the finger at demersal longline fisheries operating in False Bay area, saying they were fishing the primary food source of these predators (small sharks), and causing them to vanish. But who was buying all of these sharks? Supposedly Australia, to fill up their appetite for “fish and chips” (which sells shark flesh as ‘flake’ that is pretty much a staple), since this fishery exports most of its catch to the oceanic country. In fact, the link between the disappearance of South Africa’s white sharks and flake in Australia has led to notable outcry and even a campaign for “shark free” fish and chips!
But is it really Australia’s fault?
There are a few things to clear up first.
Australia has several domestic fisheries to help fuel the ‘fish and chips market,’ much of it being the gummy shark (Mustelus antarcticus) which is considered sustainable based on national assessments. (Yes, there are such things are sustainable shark fisheries.) While the country’s shark fisheries do have their own sustainability concerns (such as trying to rebuild the biomass of the overfished school shark, Galeorhinus galeus), Australian fisheries are among the few ‘bright spots’ globally regarding effective governance systems and sustainable levels of exploitation.
But the demand for “fish and chips” in Australia is great and often is often helped out by a range of countries, including South Africa (apparently an average of 86 tonnes imported over the last three years). In a recent study, scientists from Western Australian Fisheries/Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development outline that ending flake consumption in Australia may help South African great white sharks is “theoretically possible.” However, they point out that this assumes that “the False Bay shark catch would not be extracted, should the Australian consumer demand disappear.”
“The notion that ceasing shark consumption in Australia will lead to the recovery of white sharks in South Africa assumes that no South African sharks will be caught if the demand in Australia disappears. This is unrealistic and the catch would simply be sold elsewhere given the high connectivity in the world’s food supply. It also punishes a legitimate Australian industry where there has been a long-term investment in research, monitoring and compliance to ensure the sustainability of the fishery,” said Dr. Matias Braccini.
Co-author Dr. Alastair Harry agreed, saying: “Encouraging Australians to stop consuming ‘fish and chips’ isn’t dealing with the source of the problem, and would simply shift it somewhere else. In fact, it risks creating an even a bigger problem; ceasing flake consumption in Australia could have a negative net environmental effect if Australia consumers shift their preference to other seafood choices.”
Most of Australia’s imported shark flesh is from primarily New Zealand (86%), followed by South Africa in recent years (4.9%), and some fear that if Australian consumption goes down it may ‘directly impact a supplier that has no sustainability issues.’ Based on the Australian Fish Names Standard, only gummy shark and rig (M. lenticulatus) should be sold as ‘flake.’ Yet seafood mislabeling has been increasingly documented, the Australian Fish Names Standards are voluntary, and seafood labeling regulations only apply to fresh or frozen seafood.
“Seafood mislabelling, being ‘flake’ or any other product, is a worldwide issue across the supply chain. This prevents consumers from making informed choices on what to consume and what to avoid, particularly for seafood derived from sustainable fisheries. Fish supply chain traceability is being examined and implemented across a range of fisheries. Mislabelling is certainly part of the problem here, and it’s something that both governments and industry need to work together to continue to improve,” said Dr. Stephen J. Newman.
“Ceasing flake consumption in Australia could have a negative net environmental effect if Australia consumers shift their preference to other seafood choices. Australia already imports 70% of its seafood, much of this from developing countries, so a redirection of demand away from flake will likely be met by an increase in alternative imports. Replacing domestic flake with imports effectively shifts the regulatory and management burden to other jurisdictions, placing greater pressure on fisheries in countries that have less capacity and resources than Australia for sustainable management” said Dr Harry.
“The campaign against flake consumption is ultimately symptomatic of weak seafood labelling regulations,” the authors state in their study. “The Australian government [should] legislate and enforce the accurate labelling of all types of seafood at each stage of consumption (raw and/or cooked). This would allow Australian consumers to make more informed decisions on what to consume and what to avoid, particularly for those types of seafood that are derived from sustainable fisheries. As this example shows, it is in the best interests of governments of developed nations like Australia to take decisive action to mitigate the trade of unsustainable seafood, lest their own fishing industries fall victim to conservation campaigns that, while well-intentioned, may trade one problem for another.”
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