What are the most ‘sustainable’ fish to eat?

I think it’s our responsibility as anglers, conservationists and consumers of fish to understand how ‘sustainable’ they are to eat. There is a lot of debate on various deepwater and pelagic species, but often these are the species most often seen in fishmongers or in the supermarkets and for many anglers, don’t constitute a significant proportion of what they catch and consume.

It would be worth having a look at some of these deepwater and pelagic species in more detail in the future, but in this post I’ll go through some of the more common species such as flathead (duskies and sandies), Australian salmon, tailor, bream, whiting, mullet, mackerel, garfish, snapper, trout, redfin, carp (yes, you heard it), mulloway, kingfish, tuna and sharks, and give my views on whether or not we should be eating them and in what quantities. I stress that these are my views, and while I guess the point of posting them is to influence others’ opinions, I’m not saying ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that’, just providing some observations I have made over the years to help you make up your own mind.

Flathead

Flathead have a relatively high fecundity, meaning they reach sexual maturity at a fairly young age (around three years) and have high reproductive ability. In the absence of pressure, they can breed prolifically and are opportunistic hunters that can benefit from a wide range of food sources. As such, line caught dusky and sand flathead are high on my list of ‘sustainable’ species. Filling the esky with 20 sand flathead might seem excessive, but you have to weigh up whether the impact of the equivalent amount of fish caught by the ocean trawl sector is more ‘damaging’ to the environment and fish stocks. While the ocean trawl sector is far more efficient (i.e. one commercial boat uses a certain amount of effort [i.e. fuel etc.] to catch tonnes of fish compared with tens or hundreds of recreational boats), I would argue that there are numerous other gains from catching them yourself that offset this difference in efficiency. Some of these gains include line caught fish not damaging the fragile benthic ecosystems on the ocean floor, the selective nature of the catch (i.e. you will only ever catch a few of the fish in an area instead of everything) and the ability and option to throw undersized fish back. This argument is also compounded by the complex socio-cultural benefits and economic value of a healthy recreational fishery.

Coming back to earth, line caught sand flathead get my tick. Most duskies you catch should be released to fight another day, but due to the fact that you can usually catch a few, this shouldn’t be too difficult. There is heaps of literature on releasing big duskies and some smart laws in some states that have a size bracket. Throwing back the big girls is a no-brainer. Despite the advances in understanding of fish conservation and sustainability, it still amazes me how many photos I see of 5kg+ flathead back at the cleaning table or caravan park. I guess the message you can take home from this is that the bogans who keep the big ones have never caught one before, as they’ve kept it to enlarge the size of their appendages and have absolutely no intention of eating it, let alone any idea that big flatties are dry and tasteless! Anyway, enough of this rant, for now…

Australian salmon

Salmon are another fish high on my list of sustainable species. However, in recent years commercial catch rates have returned to historically high levels and the next few years will be interesting. The difference between the commercial and recreational pressure is huge. While the pros can surround a school with a net and get tonnes at a time, the bag limit of 5 fish for a reccie, if reached, only provides a few kilos of fish that will only comprise a tiny proportion of the school. Salmon are packed with healthy omega oils and are a beautifully textured fish suited to a range of uses that some of our preferred white-fish are no good for.

Salmon also have a relatively high fecundity, but I learnt recently that the big fish can be up to 15 years old and more. These fish are generally not as good to eat as the small ones, so it makes sense to throw them back.

Tailor

Tailor are an interesting one, because a number of sources (i.e. the MCS) don’t give them the tick of approval. I have had great success in catching large numbers of ‘chopper’ tailor, which are delicious to eat and fun to target. I think much of the concern for tailor comes from their spawning habits. Each year, tailor migrate north to spawn in the warmer waters off northern NSW and southern Queensland. Many anglers have seen the photos of hundreds of rods lined up along a beach, at least 10 of them bent over at any one time, harvesting large amounts of the aggressive fish. What I don’t get about this is that these anglers surely can’t catch that many fish, because it’s a widely known fact that freezing tailor turns the flesh to mush (you can do it in brine but that’s another idea for a blog). The commercial guys don’t seem to catch many as you never see them in fish shops, so I can’t understand where all the pressure is coming from. Maybe they’re getting used for catfood?

Anyway, to cut a long rant short, tailor are still fairly high on my list of sustainable fish to eat, despite what the MSC says. I let the big ones go as their flesh can sometimes be soft and tainted with a weedy flavour.

Bream

Bream are a tough one. The main species encountered in our southern estuaries, rocky headlands and beaches are yellowfin and black bream, with the latter of these being predominantly confined to estuaries. Both of these fish have a relatively low fecundity, meaning they take a long time to reach sexual maturity. They can also live to very old ages, with many fish over 35 cm being 20 to 25 years old. Yellowfin bream reach sexual maturity at about 22 cm, and at this size they are around 5 years old. Because of this, bream are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Yellowfin bream are higher on my list of sustainable fish that black bream. All of the blacks I catch go back. Most of the yellowfin bream I catch go back; certainly anything over 35cm. I stress that this is a strongly personal view and I understand that a deep-fried bream with asian sauce is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, but I think the reasons I’ve discussed above as well as their value as a recreational sportfishing target place them fairly low on the list of keepers for me.

While researching this I learnt that there are a large number of yellowfin and black bream hybrids, so if you’re ever confused again, this might be the reason!

Sand whiting

I know that whiting are targeted heavily by the pros, but NSW fisheries states the recreational catch is likely to be 2-3 times bigger than the commercial catch. Given the numbers of fish I see around, I think taking a few for the table here and there is probably ok. It’s better to eat line caught whiting than commercial caught whiting, which are taken using hauling and mesh nets. Given the techniques most sportfishermen apply when trying to catch whiting (i.e. poppers and stickbaits), catch rates for these fishermen are likely to be fairly low and keeping one or two here and there for the table is ok. They’re pretty delicious too…

Mullet

In 2006-07 mullet were, in tonnes, the top caught commercial species in NSW waters and are currently classified as ‘fully fished’. Much of the mullet caught is actually used for roe, which is exported to south-east Asia. Once again I don’t know a huge amount about their reproductive habits, but most estuaries seem to hold healthy populations of both sand and bully (sea) mullet. I think line fishing for mullet is a sustainable method of procuring a feed. If you do catch one with roe, give it a try as it’s always good to try and get the most out of whatever animal you’re eating.

Slimy mackerel

While not the most appealing sounding of the regularly caught fish, I believe that slimy (also known as blue) mackerel are one of the more sustainable and underutilised fish. We see our European counterparts doing wonderful things with their blue mackerel, yet the furthest we seem to go here is to use them as bait. I have tried them a few times, and admittedly, if cooked incorrectly, can be pretty terrible. But filleted and boned and fried in lots of butter, spices and herbs, they are a treat. The other really good way to eat them is smoked. Soak them in brine for at least an hour before smoking. I’m going to make a real effort to eat more slimy mackerel. In addition to their sustainability, they contain high levels of healthy omega oils, which as we know are excellent for brain, heart and eye health. With a recreational bag limit of 50, you’ll be in mackerel heaven. Smoked mackerel pasta, mackerel on toast, grilled mackerel, smoked mackerel, fried mackerel, mackerel pie, mackerel sashimi…

Garfish

Garfish (Eastern Sea Gar) are classified as overfished by NSW fisheries with a reported lack of older fish in the population. Despite maturing quickly (at around 1 year and 21cm) it looks like they’ve been hit pretty hard by the pros. Catch rates declined from about 200 tonnes in the early 90s to around 40 tonnes in recent years. Recent catches have been dominated by fish less than 2 years old, which is a pretty good indicator of the state of this commercial fishery. I think a few fish caught using conventional line fishing methods is ok, and I do keep a few garfish as they’re delicious, but would avoid them in the markets.

Whiting

I don’t know enough about whiting to make a decent judgement on the sustainability of line caught fish. I know that they are targeted heavily by the pros. Given the numbers of fish I see around, and the fact that they’re not targeted intensely by reccies in my part of the world, I think taking a few for the table here and there is definitely ok. It’s better to eat line caught whiting than commercial caught whiting, which are trawl caught.

Snapper

Snapper stocks have suffered heavy commercial fishing pressure in recent years and are classified as ‘growth overfished’ by NSW fisheries. Over 95 percent of commercially caught fish are taken using line and trap methods. Snapper are another one of those fish where I think the benefits and value of a healthy recreational fishery far outweigh the commercial fishery. They can be targeted using a variety of methods, grow to large sizes, fight hard, look amazing and taste great. As for where they are placed on my sustainability list, I would put them fairly low. The odd fish kept here and there as part of a mixed bag is ok in my opinion, but given how hard they’ve been hit recently it’s probably time to give them a bit of a break.

Trout

I’m a big fan of trout. They are fun to catch and usually taste fairly good. As for ‘sustainability’, there are a few ways to look at trout. One is from the perspective that they provide a huge tourist dollar for the NSW and Vic high country and that the majority of fish caught in trout streams should be released. I tend to disagree with this mentality and figure that if the fish are getting stocked year after year, you should keep anything that’s legal size for a feed. They’re generally pretty tasty from these rivers due to their diet of crustaceans and other macroinvertebrates. I’ve heard they’re not much good when they’re spawning, but haven’t tried one as this usually coincides with closed season. Long story short, and I might make enemies for saying this: trout are pests, catch them and eat them up and don’t feel an ounce of guilt. Stick to the rules and no one can tell you you’re being greedy or that it’s ‘unsustainable’.

Redfin

We should eat more redfin. They’re great fun to catch and you can often catch them in good numbers. Added to this, they’re delicious, definitely tastier than trout. Some people find them difficult to clean, but all you need to do is take the fillet off as you would a salmon or a tailor, skin (with the scales on) and take the bones out. You’ll be left with a fillet of some of the sweetest, most delicate yet firm white-fleshed fish around.

Carp

Yep, you heard it. Carp. Despised by millions of Aussies, the stigma and hatred surrounding carp is often deep seated and strongly ingrained. They are one of Australia’s worst pests, providing competition for our freshwater native species and contributing to reduced water quality in many areas. However, while it’s obvious the carp are doing some damage, they have often been used as a scapegoat (scapefish) to explain decades of poor catchment management and degrading farming practices. There are a lot of popular misconceptions about carp. One of these is that they can’t be eaten. In fact, carp are one of the most widely consumed fish in the world in terms of volume and distribution. They grow quickly, are resilient, and prepared and cooked correctly, can be pretty decent to eat.

The trick to carp is to catch them in cooler, faster flowing water, where there is less turbidity and better water quality. They need to be deep skinned, which involves taking off the layer of fattier flesh between the main fillet and the skin. Carp have some fine bones, but these are easily removed. Deep fried with a strong Asian-style sauce (try soy sauce, chili, garlic and honey), you may be pleasantly surprised. Another Asian delicacy is deep-fried carp swim bladders. I tried these once when I was a kid and they were delicious. Not sure of the recipe, couldn’t find it easily. It was a Singaporean woman who cooked it, so this might provide a lead.

Many people will think this is crazy, disgusting, cook it with a brick and then eat the brick, etcetera, etcetera, hardy ha ha, but if you’re interested in sustainability and can approach your procurement of protein objectively and scientifically, you might be onto a winner. Most people’s experience of carp is trying it cooked whole, guts, scales and all on a dirty bbq at the age of 13…no wonder it tasted like shit.

Murray cod

Murray cod are another one of Australia’s iconic fish species. Unfortunately, their stocks have suffered after decades of poor catchment management which was recently exacerbated by the long drought. As such, cod are in a fairly vulnerable place at the moment, and while some areas hold good numbers of fish, they are scarce in other areas. I’m not too sure about how ‘sustainable’ they are, but I let all of mine go as for me, their value as a sportfishing target seems to outweigh their value as food.

Yellowbelly or golden perch

Yellobelly, like cod, are in reasonable numbers in some places and seem to be absent in others. I think keeping the odd yellowbelly for the table is fine, but I don’t really fancy them as an eating fish so don’t keep many. Given the choice between them and redfin, I’d take the latter any day. I’d rather keep yellobelly from stocked impoundments and dams as opposed to smaller rivers.

Mulloway

Mulloway, or jewfish, are one of our iconic estuary species. They are at the top of the estuary food chain and fill an important and majestic niche in our estuarine ecosystems. NSW fisheries classifies them as overfished, and they’re certainly not around in huge numbers for recreational fishos. Given this recent research, I’d be inclined to take a few photos and let it go and make more mulloway.

Kingfish

Kingfish are another interesting and somewhat contentious one. They reach catchable size (65cm in NSW) at around 2-3 years of age, and an observation by many recreational fisherman is that there are a huge number of 64 cm fish being caught. They are classified as growth overfished by NSW fisheries, indicating that the larger fish are getting hit fairly hard by reccies and pros (the latter of which are mostly confined to using the same techniques as reccies). This brings us to a difficult question – do we keep two 65cm fish or one 90cm fish? Or no fish at all? Kingfish are a really grey area for me, but I think it’s safe to say that the banning of commercial trapping techniques, which were incredibly deadly on kingies, should help the stocks recover slowly. Once again, I think the value of a well-managed recreational fishery outweighs the value of the commercial fishery, so if you were going to have the choice at the fishmonger between a kingy fillet and some flathead, I’d take the latter.

Tuna

Tuna tuna tuna. Highly complex given that they range far and wide, meaning populations of Yellowfin in Australia likely spend time in the pacific in the waters of other countries, populations of Bluefin likely range all the way across the southern pacific. It makes “what to do” fairly complicated. In all likelihood, recreational pressure is likely to be minor in all cases, so the pressure put on these stocks by recreational fishermen is likely to be negligible. The health of the stocks really relies on effective national and international regulation of commercial fishing pressure. At this stage, I would view Yellowfin, Bluefin and Bigeye as “unsustainable”. There is hope though and the regulation of the fisheries has improved significantly over the years, so hopefully the future is bright (I’m actually quite optimistic). In relation to recreational catch, I wouldn’t have a problem keeping the odd fish from either species, given that I don’t view the recreational take as a huge threat to their stocks and unlikely to be in the near future. That said my opinion may change if the recreational catch is shown to be significant, there is big survey being done in Victoria into recreational Bluefin catch by Vic fisheries. If the recreational take turns out to be significant, I would probably think twice about keeping one (if I ever get the chance). Although, if take is significant, with Australia’s obligation to include recreational catch in our quota under the international agreements, the whole game will change in relation to recreational fishing for Bluefin tuna. Either recreational quota will be taken from the pros (who wouldn’t be happy) or who knows. No point speculating at this early stage. If you want to read more, check out the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna’s site.

Sharks

Given that most sharks are long lived, relatively slow growing and only produce limited numbers of young each pupping, my bias is to view all sharks as “unsustainable” unless the evidence says otherwise given that those life history traits make their populations more prone to collapse. That said, for many species the recreational catch is minimal and the major pressures come from commercial fishermen and I have no problem with other people keeping the odd shark, its just not something I do myself. There are of course exceptions such as Mako’s where the recreational catch is likely to be as high if not higher than the commercial catch. Added to that, Mako’s are long lived, females only reach sexual maturity at ~18 years of age and after than only pup once every three years, making them particularly susceptible to over fishing. A debate rages about whether they are over fished and how much stress Mako populations are under, that I don’t really want to weigh into. All I’ll say is that, if you are thinking about keeping a Mako, please think long and hard about it. Do you really need to? Is all that flake really worth potentially putting the species and eventually our ability to target them recreational at risk? If you catch a big female, think especially hard. But in the end thats a moral decision for each individual fisherman until the laws change, so I’ll hop off the soapbox.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think there are a few species that we should be eating more of and a few we could probably give a rest, at least for a while. High on the list of my ok fish are flathead, salmon and mackerel in our saltwater environments and trout and redfin in our freshwater environments. It also makes sense to try for a mixed bag when you’re out fishing for food, as the pressure on a particular species, in a particular place, at that point in time will be lessened. I also think it’s smart to let anything really big go as these are the breeders. Obviously undersized fish are released by responsible recreational anglers, but consider the arguments for keeping 3 small fish as opposed to one big fish and formulate your own ideas. I think it would be safe to say that one small mullet, tailor and a few garfish would be better than a 70cm flathead, and would be a more enjoyable meal anyway. The difference between fish you caught yourself and fish you buy (either at the markets or at restaurants and takeaways) also adds complexity. I hope this article has given you some food for thought, or some more thought for your food!

Lee, June 2011

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