Gourmet Farmer campaigns for sustainable fishing with new doco

Matthew Evans hosts the new SBS show 'Watch the Cacth, that starts on October 30.
October 19, 2014

What's The Catch is a new three-part documentary series that will premiere on SBS on October 30. The series follows Gourmet Farmer star Matthew Evans as he uncovers the state of Australia's seafood industry and begins a campaign for labelling laws.

About 80% of the world's oceans are over-exploited. In 2012, fish farming outstripped cattle farming as a source of protein for human consumption. In Australia, 70% of our seafood is imported and 43% is farmed. Green Left Weekly's Duncan Roden spoke to Evans about the issues raised in What's The Catch. The show premiers on SBS One at 8:30pm.

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What made you interested in making this series?

I've been interested in land-based food, that's what I do. But the oceans are a mystery and when you read stories from overseas about fisheries collapsing, I was afraid that what I was doing when I eat fish was having a negative impact.

What is the Australian fishing industry like regarding sustainability?

The Australian industry has cleaned itself up enormously over the past 20 years. The bad times were probably in the 1970s when we did overfish a lot of places. A lot of licences were bought back by the government. It caused a lot of heartache in rural communities, it was a real difficult time for the industry.

But I think the end result is we actually have one of the world's better-managed fisheries.

People generally have a good perception of the Australian fishing industry but what are the issues here?

It gets really complicated here because we have a state-based system, a federal system, and also international fishing that happens in our waters that's governed by international committees.

I guess the overriding thing we should be ashamed of is what we have done to the southern bluefin tuna. Some studies say we have fished it down to 3% of its original level. We let that happen.

A lot of it was due to lack of regulation. As we were overfishing ourselves, we had other nations coming down and also overfishing.

The cumulative effect of this idea that “If I don't catch them, someone else will” is that omeone was eventually going to take the last fish from the water. And we were party to that.

Does a culture of questioning the origins of fish exist among Australian consumers?

I think it's in its infancy. A lot of people have vague question marks in their head, but I don't think people are asking the questions they ask like where does my pork come from, or chicken or eggs.

With fish, most people think “I hope what I'm doing isn't destroying the world, but I just don't know”. The reason I made this documentary is I want people to be able to make conscious decisions to make change.

How are you trying to make change?

I've done it a few ways. We've done it from the top. Through meeting some politicians last year, we managed to get a Senate committee into seafood labelling. It held its first hearing about two weeks ago.

We want the legislators to mandate that we have to know what we're eating. At the moment, if you buy it ready to eat, they don't have to tell you what it is, where it's from or how it was farmed. You can't make an informed decision unless you have that information.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've partnered with Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and a couple others to have a campaign for the public to join, chefs and restaurants, to say those bits of information are really important. Even if we don't get legislative change, we want cultural change. We need to know what's on the plate.

I've gone to restaurants, got them to take off Chinese-imported shark and got them to buy fish from the bloke down the road. I've been to a fast food joint with prawns on the menu and told them I've been to the farms where these prawns came from, these are not sustainable, try a sustainable Australian prawn.

They've done that and discovered the customers like the taste better. Its not breaking the bank and its guaranteed sustainable.

Have you met resistance from industry groups?

There's always a general resistance. The resistance comes from those that want to obscure the origins. If you don't want to tell people where your seafood comes from, it helps if you don't have to say. But local fishermen, they want their stuff labelled as coming from Australia.

What I got from big corporations was a dead end. When we went to Pizza Hut and asked if sustainability is an issue, they said not really, and anyway the pizzas are too highly engineered to change prawns.

We went to Sumo Salad, Sizzler, Dominos and pretty much they all closed the door and said “not interested, not our responsibility.
I disagree, it's everyone's responsibility”.

In reality, they've got more power than you or I because they have the buying power to make their supply chains meet certain standards. We're buying one pizza at a time, they're buying 400 tonnes of prawns at at time.

Are there any examples good labelling laws for seafood?

Yes, the European Union has legislation that insists you have to say where the product is from, the gear type used in the fishing and they do it in multiple languages in multiple fisheries. It would seem a shame that we should accept a system that's not as good as the one they have in Europe.

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