Sustainable fish guide misleading, says scientist

AS COLES and Woolworths jostle for first place in the seafood sustainability stakes, a former fisheries scientist has slammed a consumer fish guide published by the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Nick Ruello, a consultant with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, says the society's Sustainable Seafood Guide "is seriously flawed, misleading and not really helping consumers find sustainable seafood at all''.

The society, a charity whose patron is the writer Tim Winton, produces the booklet and online guide assessing the relative sustainability of more than 100 Australian species of fish and other seafood.

The guide uses traffic light symbols for ''Better Choice'', ''Think Twice'' and ''Say No'' to advise on what to buy and what to eat. It assesses Australian and imported fish species, including canned seafood, commonly found at fishmongers, supermarkets, fish and chip shops, and restaurants.

But Mr Ruello said its criteria were too general, not objective or quantifiable, and were focused on species rather than an individual fishery or particular aquaculture operation.

''The guide readily accepts all overfished type verdicts but ignores the sustainability of improvements reported in other [fish] stocks. The AMCS doesn't recognise that Australia leads the world in reducing the impact of commercial fishing on the environment," Mr Ruello said.

The society's director, Darren Kindleysides, agreed that some of the species stock had improved.

''As recently as last week we added five or six species to the Better Choice and Think Twice online list,'' he said. ''But we do have fisheries killing large numbers of threatened species."

The society commissioned Dr Colin Hunt, a scientist, economist and lecturer in fisheries management at the University of Queensland, to ascertain the sustainability of the species in the guide. A national panel of six experts then reviewed his results.

John Ford, a marine scientist at Melbourne University, who participated in the review, said: "One of the criticisms of the [society] guide is that it gives a broad overview of species caught in different parts of Australia and doesn't reflect what is going on in the individual states or fisheries.

''You could be potentially brushing over some well-managed fisheries. If it were fishery-specific, you could have more detail.''

Mr Ford said the guide was the only one of its kind and played an important role.

"It gives a lot of good information. It does really well to make people and the industry aware there are problems. The industry is doing good things in response to it and people's awareness has been raised that some fisheries may not be sustainable.''

But Mr Ruello disagreed. ''It's not really a user-friendly book,'' he said. ''Most of it is filled up with what not to buy but they don't tell you what you can buy. If you are really out there to help people buy sustainable seafood, you'd give them a specific product from a specific fishery.

''You wouldn't say buy school prawns or bay prawns because some of them aren't sustainable. You'd say buy school prawns caught in Tuggerah Lakes or bay prawns from Moreton Bay.''

Mr Kindleysides said the guide had more green listings than red listings. "There are 33 red Say No listings and 38 green Better Choice listings, and 41 amber Think Twice listings.''