Science of seafood sustainability surfaces as trawler nears

LONGSNOUT boarfish, Ray's bream and redbait are not fish that most people eat. Yet, they are exactly the fish that people should eat if they care about seafood sustainability.

The problem is Australians are not interested in buying them.

"Australians only want to eat fillet steak when it comes to seafood. They want snapper, whiting and flathead,' says Patrick Hone, the executive director of the federal government's Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC).

"They think of redbait and mullet as rissoles. They don't appreciate them. Redbait is a high-value protein, has good lipids and is good for human health. And there is an abundance of it," says Mr Hone.

Redbait is one of the species at the heart of the controversy surrounding the super trawler, Margiris, which is heading to Australian waters.

A "National Day of Action" of public events opposing the Margiris's fishing permit is starting this morning in Launceston, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Fremantle.

The coordinator of the National Day of Action, Rebecca Hubbard, who is also the marine coordinator at Environment Tasmania, said: "People are opposing the super trawler because of concerns ranging from localised depletion [of fish] to ecosystem impacts on species such as tuna and game fish that feed on the small pelagic [creatures]."

Mr Hone believes scientists have failed to clearly explain the science linked to the Margiris. "The biomass of the fishery will still be more than 80 per cent," says Mr Hone. "And as scientists, we are incredibly conservative about pelagic biomass because small pelagic fish such as redbait are very important to the food chain."

He says neither the type of fishing nor the quantity of fish being caught is a problem. "This is a mid-water trawler and it does not go near the bottom. The deepest the net will go is 200 metres. It also has high-tech sonar that can actually determine the species and see if other species are in the mix."

Assessing what fishers catch is a way for marine scientists to measure marine life sustainability.

The Dutch-owned boat is in a joint venture with Seafish Tasmania to fish off the coast of Tasmania. The 9600-tonne boat has a permit to catch an 18,000-tonnes quota of redbait and mackerel.

"Part of the Margiris's permit is the requirement that it has to have a permanent scientific observer who will take samples of the catch and look at the age, class and distribution of the fish," says Mr Hone. "You fish, you collect data, and you use the data to inform the next form of fishing."

Mr Hone, a marine scientist who loves to talk about the sex life of green-lip abalone, says his profession struggles to explain how science informs sustainable fish management.

"We haven't communicated well in laymen's terms. Even conservation groups can sometimes not appreciate fully the science of the issue. We have to have a common language discussion."

To help people understand which fish they should buy, the FRDC will launch an online guide listing 50 species at fish.gov.au and an app in late October.

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