A friend of mine recently described himself as a 'sustainatarian'. I may have considered this some sort of new age hippy-speak had in not been uttered by a completely sensible and considered individual who is most definitely a man of science. What he was referring to was his choice to eat only food that he believes is produced or farmed in a sustainable manner.

The idea of ethical eating makes a lot of sense to me and I wondered how we might achieve this in terms of seafood. The scale of fishing practices and associated technology has now increased to the point that the UN estimates seventy percent of the world's fisheries are now exploited to their limits, over exploited or depleted.

To eat only sustainable resources from the sea, consideration must be given to species targeted through the Quota Management System (QMS) and the effects of fishing methods used.

The Quota Management System

The Quota Management System (QMS) was introduced to the NZ fishing industry in 1986 and sets the total commercial catch for most species fished in the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Individual fish species are managed across different areas, with the aim of increasing sustainable utilization of each fishery. There is some controversy as to how these quotas are set with most input from the Ministry for Primary Industries and the fishing industry itself. Estimating fish populations is not an exact science which means a more precautionary approach would likely be more appropriate in terms of preserving fish stocks. Recreational fishing has restrictions on the amount and size of fish species taken also, and an estimated amount is taken off the 'Total Allowable Catch' of each commercial species.


Fishing Methods

A variety of fishing methods are employed for different fisheries, with varying impacts on non target species and the physical environment. A detailed description of all fishing methods and their effects on the environment can be found

. Hand collecting, diving, jigging, trapping and trolling all have minimal effects with regard to bycatch and damage to the sea floor.

Seining or dragnetting is a method of fishing using a long net that hangs vertically in the water and encloses fish inside when the ends are pulled together. Environmental damage is relatively low, but bycatch is an issue, with non-target species often crushed inside the net before they can be returned to the sea.

Longlining involves deploying thousands of baited hooks, either in open water (tuna fishing) or dropped down to the sea floor (ling or skates). Bycatch is a major issue with this method, including seabirds and marine mammals.

The most common fishing method used in this country is trawling, using large nets up to sixty metres high and two hundred metres long. These indiscriminate nets take everything in their path including sea lions, fur seals and dolphins. The lines attaching the nets to the boats can cause the death of seabirds such as albatross, flying into them in pursuit of the catch. Bottom trawling causes damage to the seafloor as the net is dragged along.

Gillnets catch fish by tangling them in the net, often by their gill plates. They are unselective and have been responsible for dolphin deaths, which unable to come to the surface for air, are drowned.

A fishing boat drags the dredge along the sea floor in order to collect species such as orange roughy, hoki and dory. Habitat damage is significant as the dredge digs into the sea floor.

What can you do?

The good news is we don't need to stop eating seafood altogether to save our fish stocks and look after the marine habitat. Certainly eating less is better, and when doing so, here are a few ways to make good choices:

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Try different species of fish so as to reduce pressure on those most exploited. It doesn't always have to be snapper.

Be aware of fishing methods and when buying fish ask how it was caught. Don't accept "I don't know" as an answer.

Avoid certain fish altogether, such as many shark species and never order shark fin soup.

Eating responsibly from the sea means to be informed of the issues surrounding the fishing industry and using our collective consumer power to make a difference.

- www.nzherald.co.nz