Environment: Do we have a right to eat local seafood?


WHENEVER I write a piece which suggests that it doesn’t really matter where Australian consumers source their seafood there’s inevitably a comment posted about the “right” of people to eat locally caught product.

Local commercial fishing operations and their representatives and associations have been pushing that line for a long time. If a fishery activity is restricted or an estuary or ocean area is listed for closure to commercial fishing, the old consumer “rights” argument gets trotted out.

It’s probably time that it got put to bed for good, because basically it’s nonsense.

“Rights” don’t exist in thin air. They’re based on laws, regulations and constitutions. The US Constitution gives its citizens “the right to bear arms.” There’s no parallel here, although you and I can apply for a restricted gun licence and if we get through the hoops we then have a very limited right to own a gun in a particular category, as long as we conform to all sorts of storage and usage requirements.

Similarly we don’t have an overarching right to fish, either as a pro or an amateur. Pro fishermen have to obtain licences, respect quotas, and handle, store and market their fish in defined ways. Anglers may have to buy a licence, conform to bag and size limits and respect no-fish zones established for conservation or public health reasons. Aboriginal communities seeking to exercise what they consider to be their traditional fishing rights to harvest whatever seafood they want or exclude outsiders from their land and water have to have these claims tested in court.

So the non-fishing public doesn’t really have a “right” to eat locally caught fish, unless some piece of legislation or regulation says it does. It may have a right to eat safe seafood (as defined in health and safety terms), but that’s quite different, and applies equally to locally caught, locally grown or imported product.

So the promoters of buying locally sourced seafood should change their pitch. A coalition of lobbyists from the catering and importing sectors appears to have scuttled their efforts to get country of origin labelling legislation covering all seafood through the Senate. Promoting sustainably caught, ethically handled, independently certified local product to the broad public must now be the better route.

Any more talk of “rights” and I’ll start a campaign for the right of every day Australian consumers to be able to buy local abalone, rock lobsters and southern bluefin tuna at reasonable prices, rather than at the lofty levels that are currently  charged due to competition with continued healthy export demand.

But all this might change anyway over the next couple of decades. If the future analysts looking at population growth and energy costs are correct, it won’t be economical to fly produce all around the world in a global economy as we do now and we’ll all have to rely on locally sourced, seasonal product… Not as a right, but as a necessity.

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