Why do we need to import seafood ?

Australians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. This includes ample, affordable and healthy food – which contributes not only to our enjoyment and lifestyle, but also to our daily well-being, and even our longevity. Seafood, as everyone knows, plays an important part in a healthy diet. In fact, the unique nutrients and oils (such as Omega 3) in seafood play a more significant role than most. Regular seafood consumption is now positively linked to a reduction in heart disease (the major cause of death in Australia); to improvements in many other diseases such as asthma and arthritis; and to improved neural development (even greater intelligence) in children.

With this knowledge, and a growing appreciation of its many culinary delights, our consumption of seafood has grown considerably – from about nine kilograms per person each year in the 1950s, to about 20 kilograms per person each year in 2010. During that time, Australia’s population has risen from nine million to over 22 million people. That’s a huge increase in the demand for seafood.

Not surprisingly, this has put a huge strain on our natural (wild) fisheries resources. In the 1970s, production of seafood from Australian waters peaked at about 250,000 tonnes per annum, but was simply not sustainable at that level. The depletion of some fish stocks, and the potential for long-term damage from over-fishing, has forced significant reductions in effort in the past thirty years, towards more sustainable catches. In 2007/08, Australia’s fisheries production had fallen to 236,000 tonnes per annum, but some of our fish stocks are still rated as “over-fished” (although not endangered). Our long-term sustainable production is probably about 180,000 to 200,000 tonnes per annum (source – CSIRO). Moreover, not all our fisheries production is for human consumption. In 2008, our biggest fishery was Australian sardines (almost 34,000 tonnes) most of which were used for fish feed or bait.

All these statistics refer to whole weight. On average, the yield is much less (about half) after processing to edible form.

Catch constraints are not the only problem facing Australian fishermen. High costs (eg. large modern boats, fuel, resource management fees,) means much of our seafood has to be sold to high-priced export markets such as Japan and China, to be economically viable. Australia currently exports about 44,000 tonnes of our best seafood, every year.

The future supply of fish for our diet – for Australians and for most of the world – relies on aquaculture (fish farming). Australia’s aquaculture industries, whilst showing great promise, currently produce about 54,000 tonnes per annum. However, the cost of production is also a major constraint. Investment in fish farms, and the cost of rearing and feeding fish (often for several years until they reach market size) means farmers must choose high value species many of which are aimed at export markets (eg. tuna).

So with a natural shortfall in supply to start with, and a necessity to export what we catch and grow, there is a huge shortfall in meeting our own domestic market requirements.

Even back in the 1950s, Australia needed to import almost as much fish as it produced to keep up with demand. So Australians have been consuming imported fish for well over 50 years. In 2010, we will need to import at least 200,000 tonnes of seafood (mostly in edible weight form – worth almost a billion dollars) to maintain our current per capita consumption level and provide an affordable and healthy diet for everyone. The CSIRO predicts that within 20 years our demand for seafood will have risen so much that we will need to import half a million tonnes per year.

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