SINGAPORE: Netflix documentary Seaspiracy sparked a discussion about the evils of the global seafood industry.
Although it has been criticized for its sensationalism and out of context studies, the film shined the spotlight on issues such as overfishing and plastic pollution, convincing many viewers to forgo seafood.
But is abstaining from seafood really the solution?
READ: ‘Much confusion’ for traders and fishmongers as stalls remain closed with COVID-19 tests underway
It doesn’t seem like an easy task when Singaporeans love seafood. Each person consumes an average of 22 kg of seafood per year, above the world average of around 20 kg.
In 2020, Singapore imported 134,000 tonnes of seafood worth S $ 760 million, mostly from countries in the region such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
But this rate of seafood imports could give a pause given the limited number of fish in the oceans and Singapore’s food security goals.
READ: Commentary: The excitement over sea creatures is great, but do we love Singapore’s shores to death?
A NATION LOVING SEAFOOD
A 2016 WWF report found that 75% of the seafood consumed in Singapore is unsustainable, meaning it is fished or grown irresponsibly.
A notorious industrial fishing method is bottom trawling, in which a large fishing net is used to comb the seabed. The net collects everything in its path, including juvenile fish, turtles, and marine mammals, and destroys coral reefs in the process.
Trawled species include Ikan kuning (the fish typically served in nasi lemak), silver pomfret, and sword-tipped squid.
Yet Singapore is heavily dependent on these imports. More than 90 percent of the food we eat is imported, with just 9 percent of the fish produced on local farms, according to the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).
This makes Singapore vulnerable to temporary shocks in supply chains. Jurong fishing port, the source of a growing cluster of COVID-19, was closed for deep cleaning until July 31, causing short-term disruptions in the supply of chilled seafood. The health ministry noted on July 17 that there was a scramble to buy fish and urged visitors to avoid crowds when marketing.
It is therefore not surprising that Singapore aims to strengthen its food security with its “30 by 30” goal: to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.
THE OVERALL IMAGE
But the problem goes beyond Singapore. Globally, seafood consumption reaches 156 million tonnes each year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that global per capita fish consumption has more than doubled from 9 kg in 1961 to 20.5 kg in 2018.
The annual growth in seafood consumption has doubled population growth and is greater than the growth in consumption of all other animal proteins.
The world’s insatiable appetite for seafood has led to overfishing and the resulting decline in fish populations. In 1974, 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks were at healthy levels. This figure fell to 65.8% in 2017, according to the FAO.
Fifty years ago in Thailand, 300kg of seafood could be caught per hour. Today, only 18 kg of seafood can be caught per hour.
READ: IN THE HEART: As fishing grows in popularity, concerns grow about overfishing and litter
Agricultural practices such as aquaculture can fill the gap in consumer demand for seafood. But aquaculture has also been linked to environmentally harmful practices, including overfishing, ironically, when a unsustainable numbers of wild fish are caught to feed farmed fish.
There have also been some health issues related to cultivated seafood. For example, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued an import alert in 2016 on shrimp and shrimp from Malaysia, alleging the presence of antibiotics that prevent disease in farmed crustaceans, but are harmful to humans.
The ongoing pandemic has added another layer of complexity. According to a recent FAO backgrounder, slowing consumer demand, disruption of fishing supplies and sanitary measures for crew members have all affected the seafood industry.
In the United States, fishing catches fell 40% at the height of COVID-19.
With all of this pressure on the seafood industry, it’s time to think about the bigger questions on our trips to the supermarket.
SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD LABELS – A GUARANTEE?
One solution to depleted fish stocks is to eat responsibly. The grown-ups know that this trend is on the horizon. Marina Bay Sands, for example, is starting to use more certified sustainable products in its kitchens, with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) being the primary certification body for seafood sustainability.
The MSC considers seafood caught or raised to be sustainable on the basis of three criteria: Use of sustainable fish stocks, minimization of environmental impact and efficient management.
Other certification bodies include the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Practices in Aquaculture (BAP).
Yet there is understandable public skepticism towards sustainable seafood labels, let alone the risk of greenwashing that seafood is falsely claimed to be sustainable or simply mislabeled. In 2018, CNA hired a lab to test eight samples of certified sustainable fish and found that one product did not match its Pacific cod packaging label.
READ: The truth behind the “sustainably caught” and “organic” labels
Nonetheless, seafood labels go a long way in raising awareness of sustainable seafood and guiding consumers to make better choices. In a study by consultancy firm GlobeScan, 75% of Singaporeans believed that consumers should protect fish stocks so that others can benefit in the future.
But sustainable seafood is still by far the exception rather than the norm. Browse the seafood section at a local supermarket and you’ll find that only about one in 10 seafood carries one of the three sustainability labels (MSC, ASC or BAP).
READ: Commentary: Trying to live more sustainably? It’s impossible to tell the difference alone
TAKING BUSINESS IN HAND
How should we as consumers prepare now for the future when we are aware of the global threats to the availability of seafood?
We could educate ourselves, to begin with. WWF Singapore published a guide to sustainable seafood in 2016, identifying which species are sustainable and which should be avoided.
But the industry must also intensify. Food vendors today may not know if their fish is sustainable and where it came from, or even what’s in a product like fish balls.
READ: Handcrafted Fishballs Sold Every Day? Meet one of the rare breeds of hawkers
The good news is that aquaculture using sustainable technology is working and gaining support under Singapore’s 30 by 30 plan.
Consumers can now choose from a growing range of seafood sourced from local farms (such as fish, shrimp and crab). Operated and controlled in accordance with SFA sustainability guidelines, consumers have less to worry about with MSC and other labels.
The food safety of new local aquaculture products will also be enhanced by NTU’s recently launched Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), which uses data analytics to reduce the risk of food fraud so Singaporeans can feel more confident in these products.
READ: Commentary: Is lab-grown meat a new frontier or a passing fad?
Innovations in food science and technology have produced higher nutritional values in familiar seafood like sea bass, groupers, and soon shank.
For example, St John’s sea bass, a new breed developed by SFA and Temasek Life Science Laboratory, is healthier for consumers and easier to produce for farmers.
READ: Singapore, Brunei Consider Increased Cooperation in Food Industry
It is true that Singapore’s current aquaculture production scale and output is not yet comparable to those of the economies on which we depend on seafood exports.
This is why local innovations must be shared with neighboring countries, in the hope that regional collaboration can tackle threats to the seafood supply. Already, local aquaculture companies Barramundi Asia and Apollo Aquaculture are expanding their activities in Brunei.
In the meantime, consuming seafood responsibly – like eating less stingray sambal and steamed red grouper – may be a small way to ensure that we can continue to enjoy these dishes for years to come.
How could climate change reshape your dinner? Hear an expert break it down on The Climate Conversations podcast:
Professor William Chen is Michael Fam Professor of Food Science and Technology and Host Principal Investigator of the Future Ready Food Safety Hub.