Australian seafood consumers urged to stop buying flake to protect sharks
A new campaign highlights there is no legal obligation to label flake – a common term for shark meat – by species or where it’s from
Australian consumers will be encouraged not to purchase flake when they shop for seafood and to instead try sustainable alternatives in a new campaign that aims to put a spotlight on laws that permit the harvest of endangered sharks.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is asking consumers to “give flake a break” because there is no legal obligation in Australia for retailers to label flake – a common term used for shark meat – by its species or where it’s from.
Guardian Australia reported last year that a loophole in Australia’s national environmental laws allows for the continued commercial harvest of endangered sharks such as the school shark or hammerhead, meaning their meat can be routinely sold in shops, restaurants or exported overseas.
Leonardo Guida, a shark scientist with the AMCS, said the organisation was launching its campaign to try to make consumers more aware of the need for shark conservation.
He said sustainable alternatives to flake included King George whiting, farmed barramundi, mullet, wild caught Australian salmon and luderick.
Research by the AMCS found there was an average $2 difference between these options and the cost of flake. In some cases the sustainable alternatives were cheaper.
“Australia legally permits the harvest of endangered sharks, which can end up on people’s plates and they wouldn’t even know it because it’s often called flake,” Guida said.
“There’s no legal requirement to call a shark for what it is.”
Guida said the system was broken “somewhere between the boat and the plate” because fishers routinely recorded what species they caught but by the time the meat ended up with a consumer that information could be lost or difficult to obtain.
Guida surveyed 10 fish and chips shops in each state and territory and found less than a third of the shark meat on sale referred to a specific species.
He said promisingly, however, at least 40% of retailers offered a sustainable alternative.
Consumers can use GoodFish, a website and app developed by AMCS, to research sustainable seafood options, or ask their fishmonger or retailer.
The loophole in Australia’s environment laws applies to certain marine species that are given a special status known as “conservation dependent” that allows for their continued commercial harvest.
Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, marine species that are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered are classified as “no take” species, meaning they cannot be sold or exported.
But the eight marine species listed as conservation dependent – including the blue warehou, eastern gemfish, the scalloped hammerhead and the school shark – do not receive this protection.
Marine conservationists have long argued for the removal of this category from Australia’s national environment laws where it applies to threatened species but its existence continues to fly beneath the radar of most seafood consumers.
During last year’s review of the EPBC Act, led by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, the AMCS called for the species listed as conservation dependent to be given the threatened status they were eligible for.
The Humane Society International is the main organisation in Australia that nominates species for a listing under national environmental laws. It put forward several of the marine animals that were ultimately listed as conservation dependent.
One of those was the scalloped hammerhead, which qualified for an endangered listing but was given a conservation dependent status in 2018 after a six-year effort by the HSI to have it listed for protection.
“What we ask is that species be put in their rightful category because species that are endangered or critically endangered should be listed as that and protected from commercial utilisation,” said Nicola Beynon, the HSI’s Australian head of campaigns.
Samuel’s interim report, handed down last July, found Australia’s environment was in unsustainable decline. The report made several recommendations, but none in relation to the conservation dependent category.
He delivered his final report to the Morrison government at the end of October last year but it has not yet been released. The government is required to release the report sometime in February.
A spokesperson for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, would not say when the government planned to release the report but it would be within the statutory timeframe.
The spokesman said sharks were listed as conservation dependent based on advice from the threatened species scientific committee.
“Species listed as conservation dependent are subject to a scientifically determined and annually reviewed rebuilding strategy,” the spokesperson said.
In a submission to the Samuel review last year, the scientific committee said the conservation dependent category needed urgent reform and this was partly because it masked the actual conservation status of species.