Keeping endangered fish off the dinner table

Watchdog wants more seafood certified to prevent overfishing
Grace Chua Straits Times 11 Sep 12;

IN SINGAPORE, seafood is everywhere, from live groupers in restaurant tanks to tinned tuna in supermarkets.

But just a tiny fraction is certified sustainable, meaning it is not overfished or at risk of extinction.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international certification body for wild-caught seafood, is opening its regional headquarters here to change that.

"Singapore is ready for a programme like MSC," said its new Asia director, Singaporean Kelvin Ng, 40, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times last week.

The market is mature and consumers here are discerning, he added. For example, some avoid shark's fin, which is already off the menus of many hotel restaurants. Consumer awareness and demand here and in Hong Kong are "five or six" on a scale of one to 10, he said. Elsewhere in South-east Asia they might be lower. He was speaking on the sidelines of the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong, a conference on sustainable seafood for industry, governments and NGOs.

Elsewhere, the council has certified Alaskan pollock, for example. Tonnes of the white fish are used in McDonald's fish burgers in Europe, as well as supermarket fish fingers. The council is looking to Asia as the Western market is saturated, Mr Ng said.

For example, nine in 10 seafood products in German markets are certified, while Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw sells only certified seafood.

Here, only 32 products are certified, but most are items such as smoked herring, caviar and salmon, not everyday fare. In the next few years, the council wants 200 certified products here. And it wants to give the seal of approval to more fisheries. Certification involves an intensive series of independent audits that takes up to three years to show that fish stocks are not overfished and environmental impact is minimised.

"Right now, 11 per cent of the world's fisheries are on MSC or in the process of certification," Mr Ng said. "We want to hit 15 per cent by 2017 and 20 per cent by 2020."

Much of that is likely to come from Asia. Chinese demand for wild-caught seafood is projected to be 18 million tonnes by 2020, up from 7 million tonnes in 2002.

Singapore's own seafood imports have been dropping, but their value has gone up. Last year, it imported 145,678 tonnes worth more than $800 million, compared to 163,549 tonnes worth $694 million in 2007. But certifying a fishery can cost $18,500 to $148,000, too much for small fishermen to bear.

"A lot of products coming in through wet markets are not ready for certification," Mr Ng said. Restaurants and international food chains, however, might be. In Singapore, the MSC has its sights on "at least one or two international chains" or providers such as army camps.

A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) campaign here has persuaded hotels, including the Shangri-La and Fairmont, to take shark's fin off their menus and retailers such as Cold Storage and NTUC FairPrice to stop carrying it, but Mr Ng thinks more can be done, including cutting back on endangered reef fish.

Last week, the WWF released a report that showed high-value, live food fish such as humphead wrasse (su mei) and leopard coral trout were overfished, often illegally, from coral reefs by up to six times.

But Mr Lee Boon Cheow, 73, the president of the Singapore Fish Merchants' General Association, said much of the seafood sold at wholesale markets is farmed as price-conscious consumers look for bargains. "The price of farmed seafood is more stable," he said in Mandarin.