High demand for seafood in Singapore

It is 10am on a Saturday morning. The wet market is full of noise and saturated with the overwhelming odour of recently dead fish. The housewives are on a mission to suss out the cheapest, freshest seafood for their family’s dinner that evening.

Orange cuts of salmon, creamy Chilean seabass, pockets of ikan kuning (also known as yellow-banded scad), pomfrets, both the silver and black varieties and rows of shiny grey prawns – the seafood is plentiful and pleasing to the shoppers’ eyes.

She passes a discerning eye over the day’s catch – a large coral trout on display at her usual fishmonger’s stall has her attention.

‘How much?’ she calls out.

$15 per kilo, says the fishmonger. ‘You want it?’

He slides the fish onto the weighing scale and he tells her it’s about 11/2 kilograms.

She says yes, and tells him to clean her buy, prepared the way she prefers. She quickly picks out other items she wants – prawns, some small ikan, a mackerel, before the other women are able to plonk their seafood into the slimy baskets scattered around the table, as an understood sign that they are taken.

The fishmonger works quickly to scale the fish, and pulls out the innards with a couple of sure, sharp tugs. He fillets it before putting it in a plastic bag. He fills the same bag with the other fish she has chosen – cleaned the way she prefers, and hands the lot over. She walks away with her seafood loot. Other customers quickly fill up the vacant slot she has left, alert and  calling out to the fishmonger to select their catch before the supplies run out.

The seafood in local wet markets here boast an abundance in volume and variety. The fish range from tiny to large, with crabs, prawns and on occasion, even sharks and stingrays. It is just a small scale representation of the amount of seafood Singaporeans consume.

In this small island-state, its residents consume 140 million kg of seafood a year. According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), that makes us the biggest seafood consumer in Asia-Pacific.

There is such a diversity of seafood here. In 2014, The Straits Times reported that much of our supply come from neighbouring countries, such as the Philippines, that form the Coral Triangle. It is the world’s most diverse marine environment, but WWF reports that overfishing, and destructive fishing methods have depleted fish population levels from which it can recover.

Singaporeans' love affair with seafood

Unintentional ‘bycatch’ from destructive fishing methods such as using purse seine – the use of large circular nets to catch entire schools of fish, bottom trawling and dynamite fishing, also hurts endangered marine species and strains fish populations.

On the ground, the situation may not be all lost. There is growing awareness as businesses make the switch to sustainable seafood.

In July 2015, The Straits Times reported that the number of seafood suppliers certified to be selling sustainable seafood have more than tripled in the past three years. 10 suppliers have been given the stamp of approval by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – a global non-profit organisation that certifies responsibly caught seafood.

At the Responsible Seafood Festival that ran from Oct 3 to 25 in Singapore, a Japanese restaurant decided not to serve its specialty seafood dishes, including bluefin tuna, in that period.

Owner of Hinoki Japanese Dining, Mr Kevin Cheong, told The Straits Times in a September 17 report that the restaurant will also not serve its ad hoc speciality abalone, whale and shark’s fin dishes during the festival.

While the drive to go sustainable has been picking up steam, the demand is still capped by the cost of using sustainable seafood sources, which are usually 10 to 20 per cent more expensive, say local fish and seafood suppliers.

Meanwhile, international chefs brought in by major hotel chains have driven up demand for such sustainably-sourced seafood.

Most, like Australian celebrity chef and TV host, Peter Kuruvita, have long been passionate about cooking and eating sustainably caught seafood. Chef Peter uses cooking and hosting engagements to educate diners gently by using alternative species of seafood to the usual ones that are overfished.

On a recent visit to W Singapore Sentosa Cove, where he hosted the ‘Seafood from the Heart’ series, he says: “I realised that seafood sources were unsustainable when I received a box of New Zealand snappers – they were all the same in size and perfecly piked. I thought to myself: How much longer can this last?”

Seafood in Singapore – is it sustainable?

Singaporeans’ love affair with food, especially seafood, is well known. A 2014 Electrolux Asia Pacific Food Survey showed that 93 per cent of Singaporeans are passionate about food, even if they are not too enthusiastic about cooking.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), Singaporeans consumed about 54,000 tonnes of live and chilled fish, of which more than 90% were imported from 46 countries in 2013.

Do a search on Google for ‘sushi buffet in Singapore’, and you get back some 1.17m results. And it’s certainly not difficult to get someone to reveal their favourite buffet lines in Singapore. Invariably, these spreads feature a good range of seafood. The abundance of Japanese restaurants attests to diners’ demand for sushi and sashimi.

But WWF states that ninety per cent of global fish stocks are overfished and 61 per cent fully fished – meaning there is already no room for more fishing.

The variety of plant and animal life in the ocean has also dropped by 39 per cent since the 1970s and fishermen have also reached the point of fishing from juvenile fish stocks.

Demand for overfished species due to lack of awareness

The plight of sharks is well-known. But seafood suppliers still cite lack of awareness on the part of consumers that leads to overfishing of popular fish stocks, such as red garoupa.How do you know if your seafood items are on overfished list?

The WWF came up with a scientifically developed sustainable seafood guide in 2010 to guide consumers on what seafood is safe to eat and what should be avoided or thought through carefully. This is determined by how fish stocks are managed and how sustainable farming practices are, among other things.

With these guidelines, WWF hopes consumers can be educated on the types of seafood they can safely eat without too much adverse effect on the marine environment.

“If you’ve had bluefin tuna sushi lately, you’ve enjoyed a piece of the last 4 per cent – compared to unfished levels"

This stark statement was made by a WWF spokesperson earlier this year.

What we know as tuna are actually several different types of fish. Species such as bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna, bigeye tuna and skipjack tuna are commercially valuable. The bluefin, yellowfin and bigeye tuna are highly sought after as sushi and sashimi, while others end up being canned.

For the very ardent of environmentalists, their choice is clear – stay away from tuna.

But it is unlikely that others who like their sushi and sashimi are willing to stay away from these treats altogether.

Sustainability is also about fishing methods, with destructive fishing methods. This method efficiently hauls in huge schools of fish, but other marine species such as endangered sea turtles, sharks and rays get accidentally caught. Another unfortunate result is that juvenile fish also get caught and do not get a chance to spawn and replenish fish stock levels.

Mr David Lim, manager of Maguro-Donya Miura-Misaki-Kou, a Japanese restaurant in Singapore that is also a maguro, or blue-fin tuna, wholesaler in Japan, remembers an incident with a diner who decided not to patronise his restaurant after learning that tuna was served at the establishment.

“He turned around and walked off, before we could explain how we catch our fish, which has as much to do with sustainability,” recalls Mr Lim.

Global Blufin Tuna Catches by Stock (‘000 Tonnes)

Source: UN FAO FISHSTAT Database, http://www.fao.org/fi/statist/FISOFT/FISHPLUS.asp

Managing director, Mr Masa Ishibasha, explains that the restaurant only catches its tuna stock by pole or longline, versus the use of nets, or purse seine. The former methods are less destructive as there is less bycatch. Immediately freezing the fish to -60 degrees Celsius helps to maintain the freshness of the fish and deep freezing storage facilities allow the catch to be kept for up to a year.

The restaurant also buys tuna that weigh at least 60kg, favouring the bigger fish for its taste and to allow juvenile fish a chance to spawn.

In addition to yellowfin and big eye tuna, Mr Masa uses Atlantic bluefin tuna, also known as kuro maguro or hon maguro and traditionally favoured by the Japanese for its buttery meat. Sourced from Mediterranean fisheries that are under regulation by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to prevent illegal and overfishing, Mr Masa does not import Atlantic bluefin without Bluefin Tuna Catch Documents. This is also in keeping with Japan’s strict rules prohibiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fish from entering the country.

Gentle Education

The world’s fish stocks are under pressure. A new WWF report finds more than 85% of global fish stocks are at risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

There are multiple approaches at various levels of society that may address this issue, beginning with governments implementing their political will to take a stand against overfishing, to businesses deciding not to purchase and sell overfished stocks.

Beyond legislation, it also starts with education. Requiring consumers to go cold turkey on foods that have become a quintessential thread in their gastronomic culture is not a suggestion that will have short-term uptake. Instead, as Chef Peter Kuruvita advocates, it will take ‘gentle education’ and the passage of time for an awareness of the fragility of the world’s marine eco-system to take root in the consumers’ collective consciousness.  And like Mr Masa and Mr Lim, a willingness of suppliers to reveal where and how they source for their supplies will go a long way to helping consumers take stock of the situation.

Sustainability has as much to do with consuming responsibly as fishing at sustainable levels. When consumers begin to ask for sustainable seafood, suppliers will have more incentive to adopt better fisheries management. Adopting a waste not, want not attitude and buying only what you eat will also help to keep resource wastage to a minimum.