SINGAPORE: Imagine telling your children stories of marine life that once roamed the seas and of your favourite seafood, which no longer exists. This scenario could come true in about 30 years if current fishing practices continue, according to research.
Consumers are key to stopping or reversing this trend, said WWF Singapore, as their buying choices can influence fishing patterns.
For example, consumers can choose to buy and eat sustainable seafood, which is defined as seafood that is caught with the least impact on the environment.
This means the catch is not from a species that is overfished and it was caught with fishing methods that did not damage marine habitats like corals. Steps must have also been taken to make sure other species like turtles and dolphins were not trapped and killed in the process.
WHAT CONSUMERS CAN DO
Currently, the trade of critically endangered animals, like certain species of sharks and manta rays, is regulated or banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But many species that are at risk – such as like the black pomfret, flower crabs, tiger prawns, and the yellow banded scad (also known as ikan selar kuning) – are not on the CITES list.
Many of these species come from foreign waters like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the South China Sea, and they pass through ports like Senoko.
In addition, many species that are at risk of extinction are widely sold, and most of the consumers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said they did not know that they had been buying seafood that is at risk.
To help the public make more informed choices, WWF Singapore has come up with a Sustainable Seafood Guide.
“At the end of the day, the people who catch the fish, the fishermen, are only going to catch what consumers want. So consumers really have a big role to play by choosing wisely the kinds of species they want to consume,” explained WWF Singapore’s Conservation Resource Manager Karen Sim Clerc.
“If consumers are aware that what they're consuming is good for the environment, maybe more of them will be inclined to pay a bit more."
WWF Singapore will launch an app in June called ‘Fishial Recognition’, which helps consumers identify seafood that is overexploited.
Fish stocks depletion is likely to significantly impact Singapore, which consumes about 120,000 tonnes of seafood a year. This translates to roughly 22 kilograms per person, more than the global average of about 20 kilograms.
In 2015, Singapore imported more than 130,000 tonnes of seafood. Over 50,000 tonnes came through fishery ports operated by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore.
Besides consumers, businesses can also play their part, said the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which sets certification standards for sustainable seafood.
WHAT BUSINESSES CAN DO
Take Hilton Singapore for example. It offers sustainable seafood at all its three restaurants, as well as room dining services. Its supply chain is certified by MSC and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Chain of Custody.
According to Hilton Singapore’s Director of Operations Samuel Peter, 40 per cent of the hotel’s seafood is caught responsibly.
"When the guests arrive, we always explain (that) it's all about sustainability. And also when they ask what it's all about, we tell them, if we continue fishing like what we're doing today, then in 30 years, there won't be any seafood available. They understand quite quickly that yes, we should actually change our habits and go for sustainable seafood," said Mr Peter.
As part of the certification criteria, steps are taken to ensure that sustainable products are kept separate from those that are not, he said. There also needs to be traceability, so the hotel also keeps track of all its suppliers' certificates.
But Hilton Singapore told Channel NewsAsia that one real problem is the limited supply of sustainable seafood in the market. Currently, just over 20 companies and over 60 products on the shelves in Singapore are certified by MSC.
"We've gone from a place of very low engagement… but (there is) still work to do,” said Patrick Caleo, Regional Director, Asia Pacific, Marine Stewardship Council.
“We need fisheries to work towards improving, and we need the markets to improve its traceability and get certified as well. We also want consumers to make positive choices, so we want consumers to look for the MSC eco-label. If they can't find it, we want consumers to ask for the MSC eco-label. This drives demand for certified sustainable products, and rewards those fisheries out there who are doing the right thing."
However, sustainable seafood costs up to 15 per cent more. This means consumers have to pay more, or businesses have to absorb the cost.
Mr Caleo added: "There is a cost to certification and there is a cost to managing fisheries properly, but this is an investment in the future of fisheries and ensuring that we've got fisheries and healthy seafood supply for future generations."
One company that bears the extra cost is Global Oceanlink, which counts 20 per cent of its total inventory as sustainable seafood.
The firm supplies 50,000 kilograms of sustainable seafood – including dory fillets, snow crabs and fresh oysters – to 150 businesses in Singapore every month.
M N Sun, who oversees business development at Global Oceanlink said: "We drive the volume of the product in order to negotiate with our suppliers, and then by doing that, we actually bring down the cost, and we don't want to bring this cost over to our consumers. So, in fact, what we did was to absorb the additional cost, just to promote this sustainable seafood against the non-sustainable ones."
The company hopes to convert the rest of its inventory to sustainable stocks, by encouraging the fisheries it buys from to get certified by MSC.
"We want to convert those non-sustainable at hand to be sustainable in the near future. I think that's the fastest way that we can work towards the publicity of sustainable seafood," he added.
With nearly 3 billion people relying on fish as a major source of protein and some 10 to 12 per cent of the world's population relying on fishing as their livelihood, efforts like these can be crucial to preventing the world's supply of seafood from running out.
According to a report by WWF, at present, 90 per cent of the world's fish stocks are overexploited. Out of that number, 61 per cent are fully exploited, which means that there is no room to fish for these species.