The importance of sustainable seafood consumption in Malta

fish4tomorrow is an NGO which aims to create a culture of sustainable fishing and seafood consumption in Malta and Gozo. Gourmet Today speaks to the NGO’s director JD Farrugia to find out more

What are some of the major changes that we’re witnessing in the seafood industry?

Over the past few decades, as technology progressed, so did the way we fish. The way we catch our seafood became more industrial which has had a significant impact on the state of the oceans, as well as the livelihood of many small scale fishing operations. 

The situation is particularly bad in the Mediterranean, where 90% of fish stocks are considered to be overfished. This means that they’re being fished for with an intensity that the populations can’t keep up. Over and above all, there are other issues affecting the industry, such as IUU fishing (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) and seafood fraud at a consumer level. This is a situation where in order to increase profits; fish is sold as one species where in a matter of fact it could be something different. 

What does sustainable seafood mean today?

When we at fish4tomorrow rate seafood as sustainable, we firstly look at the state of the stocks of that fish. This means that we check to see if the fish is officially listed as overfished or endangered through an official institution like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We also look at the methods being used to catch the fish. Small scale, hook, and line type fisheries are low impact and very sustainable, while practices like bottom trawling are high impact, non-selective, and therefore not sustainable. 

It is important to look at the biological characteristics of a species. How long does it take to reach reproductive maturity? Does it reproduce in high numbers? This sort of information can help us understand how much it can withstand pressure from fishing. 

We even look at where the fish is coming from. Eating local and seasonal fish has a much smaller impact than eating fish which has been imported from Northern Europe like salmon.

Eating local and seasonal fish has a much smaller impact than eating fish which has been imported from Northern Europe like salmon
Eating local and seasonal fish has a much smaller impact than eating fish which has been imported from Northern Europe like salmon

Can fish be farmed sustainably, and if so, how would we know?

When you think about it, humans have stopped hunting for food on a large scale, with the exception of fish. Fish farming or aquaculture is a growing industry and is seen by some people as an opportunity to take the pressure off wild populations of fish. There has been a lot of debate about the feed used which often consists of wild caught fish anyway. There are also issues with the waste that is generated by farming operations which pollute the sea or the anti-fouling products used on the nets which can also have adverse effects on the surrounding wild life. 

A lot of research and resources are being invested into the industry to tackle these issues. Some operators try harder than others, however, locally we still do not have fish farms which can really be considered sustainable. Outside of Malta, organic aquaculture does exist and such products should be clearly labelled. That being said, buying fish which is local, seasonal, and sustainable is the most environmentally responsible choice for the time being.    

What’s the one thing people should be aware of when they shop for seafood?

EU regulations state that seafood should be labelled clearly with information; such as the local and scientific name of the fish, where the fish was caught, whether it’s fresh or frozen, and the methods used to catch the fish. fish4tomorrow and other organisations have produced guides to help people understand and choose the more sustainable options based on scientific research too. 

How does the food industry work to make sure that that the consumer receives sustainable seafood?

I think we’re still a long way away from this. If we, as consumers, start asking for sustainable, the seafood industry will likely respond. At the moment, the most popular types of seafood we eat in Malta include tuna, swordfish, and salmon, all of which are unsustainable. If we start diversifying what we eat and trying fish which might not be as popular, we enrich our culinary culture, help the state of the sea, and even help small scale fishing operations.  

How are chefs in Malta working to promote sustainability?

Over the past few years we have had the opportunity to work with different chefs and restaurants to organise a series of events called From Our Sea. These are pop up events where people enjoy a multiple course meal consisting only of fish considered sustainable through our Quickfish Guide. This has been a learning experience for everyone involved including the chefs. They saw that people were happy to eat fish which they wouldn’t have thought to be very popular like mackerel or bogue (vopi). We’re hoping that these could be the first steps towards restaurants serving more of this type of seafood. 

How has it been working with some of the stakeholders from the fishing industry? Has there been resistance to your efforts and, if so, how have you dealt with it?

One thing which is immediately evident is that all stakeholders agree that there have been negative changes in the sea around us. Chefs, divers, government officials, and fishermen have all acknowledged this. As a civil society organisation, our sole interest is working in the best interest of society. This is why it is important for us to understand the realities of the fishing industry, base our arguments on scientific data, discuss with policy makers, and communicate constantly with the general public. 

Where is the message of sustainability more important to reach: foodservice or the suppliers, wholesalers and distributors?

In order to bring about real change, every industry or sector needs to work towards sustainability. Effective policy needs to be in place, unsustainable (or illegal) fishing practices need to be curbed, suppliers and the service industry need to make these products available, and the consumer needs to demand local, seasonal, and sustainable seafood.  

About fish4tomorrow

fish4tomorrow aims to create a culture of sustainable fishing and seafood consumption in Malta and Gozo. It aims to raise local consumer, restaurateur and retailer awareness on the importance of acquiring seafood from sustainable sources. To do this, fish4tomorrow will provide the tools necessary for consumers to make responsible choices that will ensure the viability of local fish stocks for generations to come.

Find them on Facebook or visit their website for more information. 

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