Photo: Will sustainable seafood programs succeed without Asian countries participating?

Haenyo diver gathering shellfish (Credit: Scott Wallace)

By Dr. Scott Wallace, Sustainable Fisheries Analyst

As I stood in the middle of an all you-can-eat buffet in Seoul last week and laid my eyes on a platter of Bluefin tuna, I had to ask myself: Can sustainable seafood programs really succeed without the participation of Asian countries?

While in Korea for a symposium, I was taken to some of the best restaurants in Seoul by my generous hosts. Seafood was the dominant choice on the menu almost everywhere I went. In one week I ate a wider diversity of marine species (including kelps) than I had in my entire life. As a sustainable fisheries analyst, this was a professionally uncomfortable situation but also an opportunity to immerse myself in Korea's seafood culture. Korea has doubled its import of seafood products in less than a decade and per capita consumption is amongst the highest in the world. Despite the growing size of its economy, some of Korea's most traditional sustainable fisheries are still in operation.

Like on Jeju Island, which is home to the Haenyo, women skin divers who have been harvesting the frigid nearshore waters for nearly 2,000 years. Just before sunset one evening, I watched six of these women, whose average age is around 60, emerge from the ocean each carrying 30 kg of shellfish. I quickly calculated that they would probably have needed to dive several hundred times during their six hours in the water in order to gather that volume of shellfish.

The most eye-opening experience was a 5 a.m. trip to the Noryangjin fish market in Seoul, which is amongst the largest in the world in terms of volume of fish moved and their physical size. The market featured an enormous 66,000-square-metre warehouse operating 24 hours a day, with 700 vendors, an auction floor and a mind-boggling array of fish species caught and farmed mostly in Asia.

During my trip, I met many government scientists, academics, business leaders, students and educators. None of them were aware of any environmental organizations or programs that promoted sustainable seafood. By contrast, there are several in Canada, including SeaChoice, which the David Suzuki Foundation supports. In Korea, known red-list species were on menus everywhere, but so were some of the most sustainable seafood products on the planet. One of my favourite dishes was raw mackerel caught individually by hook and line and prepared directly from the holding tank in the restaurant.

Despite some of my obvious conservation concerns with the Koreans' approach to seafood, I was also inspired by their knowledge of and passion for marine fish, invertebrates and plants. There was no fish too big, too small, too bony or too unusual looking to eat. Often, no part of the fish is wasted — fish heads go into soup and bones can be added to broth or battered and fried.

On my last night, I was served a small fish similar to a rockfish. Others like it in Canada are usually considered bycatch and discarded by the millions due to their being 'undersized'. Korean fisheries, however, have no waste from bycatch and would never consider using species like herring, mackerel or sardines as bait or animal feed. Koreans use marine resources incredibly efficiently, a trait that is driven by their culture and we can learn a lot from. By the time a piece of Canadian caught fish is in our jaws, it was likely caught in a fishery where about 30 per cent of the catch has been discarded as bycatch, another 30 per cent of the fish has been removed in the form of head, bones and guts, another 30 per cent has been lost as spoilage in processing, transport, fish cases, and our refrigerators. This means our actual direct consumption of the marine resources is around 35 per cent for seafood caught in the wild (as opposed to reared in a farm).

There is little doubt in my mind that the rapidly growing economies of Asia will drive the international seafood market. This means that sustainable seafood programs in North America won't be effective as they could be unless Korea and other Asian countries get involved. But can a successful sustainable seafood program be developed in Korea or elsewhere? I believe the answer is a definite yes. The passion for seafood in Korea combined with a highly educated (82 per cent of high school students go on to attend university) and motivated country gives me the sense that everything is possible in Korea. North Americans, meanwhile, could learn a lot about how to better utilize marine resources.

Scott Wallace is a sustainable fisheries analyst. He was invited to Korea to participate in a symposium focused on the development of a new Korean program called the International School for Environmental Education (ISEE). The goal of ISEE is to send Korean undergraduate students to other countries to improve environmental literacy in their home country. The program is being overseen and supported by a highly influential board of academic and business leaders, including Yuhan-Kimberly, one of the largest paper companies in Asia. Last summer ISEE ran its first pilot program on Vancouver Island and they will carryout the program again in 2011.

December 6, 2010

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Dec 13, 2010
9:06 AM

Excellent post. As an aside, I know of at least one major frozen Asian seafood importer here that is trying to encourage suppliers to go sustainable (to sell into the North American “white market”. This could be the educational lever.

The frustration? Plants are saying: OK tell us what you need, how to do it. He cannot answer that. The is a connection gap between affordable professional resources and the Asian supply.

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