We like to think of ourselves as clean and green, but it seems we don't care much about sustainability when it comes to seafood according to a survey that has alarmed environmentalists and industry alike.

A Ministry for Primary Industries report has found Kiwis ranking sustainability factors as least important when purchasing kaimoana, especially when weighed against quality, price and ease of preparation.

It comes as stocks of one of our favourite fish, tarakihi, have plummeted to 15 per cent of historical levels, prompting calls for consumers to seek alternatives and start a movement demanding sustainable seafood akin to that for free-range eggs.

The MPI survey asked more than 1000 consumers and 16 chefs and restaurateurs across the country to rate 13 factors when purchasing seafood.

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On top came quality, closely followed by flavour and look/smell, all rated as "very important".

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But sustainability factors, such as whether it was ethical, wild/farmed or the capture method, were three of the four least important factors.

Culture/religion was at the bottom.

MPI also surveyed consumers in Japan, United States, Australia and China, and found New Zealand and China were almost identical when it came to making sustainable choices.

Top chef Martin Bosley wants people to treat seafood like free-range eggs, asking more questions about how and where it was caught. Photo / File
Top chef Martin Bosley wants people to treat seafood like free-range eggs, asking more questions about how and where it was caught. Photo / File

A separate MPI report however found Kiwis were increasingly thinking about sustainable seafood, especially when dining out of the house.

Restaurant owners reported customers increasingly asking about where and how their seafood was caught, and for them sustainability factors were more important than price.

Top chef Martin Bosley said the most important question people should be asking is how their seafood was caught.

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Fishing that involved using a line with hooks, such as longline, or pots, were among the most preferred as they were used to target specific species, compared to more indiscriminate methods such as purse seine or trawling.

"They should know the answers, and if they don't, the only way we can change that is the general public asking," Bosley said.

"We saw the change with free-range eggs and chicken, now the attention needs to go on to fish."

MPI also found Kiwis were unlikely to choose outside popular varieties, which included snapper, red gurnard, tarakihi, and John dory in the north, and in the south blue cod, stargazer (also known as monkfish), and rig (lemon fish).

As chief fishmonger for restaurant supply company Yellow Brick Road, Bosley sourced a vast range of seafood, and suggested people become more adventurous in the types they consumed.

Some less-popular options included butterfish - "delicate flavour, bakes beautifully", gemfish - "great in chowder", and ling - "amazing in curry, great replacement for tarakihi".

However, when it came to sustainability Bosley placed his faith in New Zealand's quota management system (QMS), introduced in 1986 to allocate stocks of over 600 species.

MPI's director of fisheries management Stuart Anderson said public faith in the QMS was why Kiwis opted for "best value" when purchasing seafood.

But the QMS has come under fire in recent years with critics saying it focuses too much on individual species and not the wider ecosystem.

Overfishing can tip ecosystems out of balance, leading to issues like kina barrens. Photo / File
Overfishing can tip ecosystems out of balance, leading to issues like kina barrens. Photo / File

Forest & Bird sustainable fisheries expert Kat Goddard said for that reason people needed to continue to be informed and ask questions about their seafood.

"The QMS was world-leading, but now we have tarakihi collapsing, rock lobster in the Hauraki Gulf collapsing - that should not be happening. Each stock has an impact on the wider ecosystem."

In the Hauraki Gulf for example, crayfish had been fished down to less than 20 per cent of historical levels.

Mature crayfish play a crucial role in reef communities, where they prey on kina and keep their populations under control.

Kina eat kelp and other algae, and when they are released from predation - snapper are also a key predator - they multiply and can strip the kelp forests to bare rock resulting in "kina barrens", depriving a diverse range of other kelp-dwelling species of a habitat.

Goddard said the catch method was also important.

"[The QMS] also needs to take into account the method - bottom trawling destroys habitats, long-line can kill seabirds, so we need to look at the wider system and not just the stock itself."

Instead of snapper why not opt for kahawai? Photo / 123rf
Instead of snapper why not opt for kahawai? Photo / 123rf

So where does this leave consumers?

"We are not saying don't eat seafood, nor that there are not commercial operators out there going above and beyond, but that consumers need to be asking questions, and retailers providing answers and greater transparency."

Forest & Bird publishes a Best Fish Guide, which ranks many species from red (avoid) to green (best) based on such factors. The last edition was published in 2017, and Goddard was working on an updated version this year.

"The key questions to be asking are: What type of fish is it? Where was it caught? How was it caught?

"The younger generation are asking more questions, and are more aware of our impacts on the environment.

"But like with free-range eggs, it does not happen overnight, and took a movement to get the mainstream on board."

Recreational fishing group Legasea spokesman Scott Macindoe says we all need to know where our seafood comes from. Photo / File
Recreational fishing group Legasea spokesman Scott Macindoe says we all need to know where our seafood comes from. Photo / File

Legasea spokesman Scott Macindoe said along with asking questions, people needed to be move adventurous with their seafood.

Fish like kahawai were often overlooked. Blue mackerel and jack mackerel were others that New Zealand exported a lot of, but seldom wound up on our dinner plates.

Along with the type, people should also broaden their taste buds from just the fillet.

"With just the fillets you might get one or two meals, but with a whole fish you can get up to five - and it is often a lot cheaper."