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Get seafood savvy with SASSI

Yes? No? Maybe?


Green, orange and red. If you’re into seafood, this may mean more to you than mere traffic symbols. But maybe you haven’t quite got what the seafood sustainability rating means. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that green gives you the go ahead to happily guzzle away (for now anyway), but just how guilty should you feel if you go for an orange, and why are some fish red? If you’re serious about a sustainable diet, then you may be wondering just how straight-forward the seemingly simple code is, really?

Yesterday I attended a SASSI training course (Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative). The group was made up mainly of restaurateurs, which gave me some fresh insight into the industry – including the sobering finding that most of these people have themselves noticed a significant decrease in availability and size of the most popular fish species in the last few years alone. This problem is real.

The seafood party hangover

At the turn of the 20th century, Cape Salmon (Geelbek) was being caught at a rate of 35 000 per boat per year. One hundred years later (2000), this figure had dropped to 1 000. A similar pattern is evident with Silver Kob. A commonly described case in point is that of Cod in Newfoundland, Canada. They used to be so predominant that people could wade into the ocean with a bucket and scoop them out. Until the 1950s 100- to 300-thousand tons were being landed a year. Industrialisation pushed that up to 800-thousand in the 1960s, and by the 1990s the fisheries had to be closed because so few cod were left. The species is unlikely to ever recover.

And if that’s not enough to get you squirming, here’s some more:

•    85% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited, or worse (FAO, 2010).
•    25% of removed fish are unwanted bycatch.
•    300 000 seabirds and 250 000 sea turtles are killed by fisheries every year.

SASSI steps up

This is where SASSI comes in. SASSI is a WWF initiative that aims to conscientise the entire seafood supply-chain, from fisherman to family man, on the impacts of the industry on our oceans. Their philosophy is that “we all own our oceans” and are therefore are all responsible for its health. As a consumer, your seafood choices are the biggest way you can make a difference, so knowing which fish are endangered is critical.

It’s not only over-fishing of our wild stocks that’s the problem. It’s also fish farming. While some farming methods are pretty benign and possibly even healthy for the environment (mussel and oyster farming, depending on the setup) other types can be highly destructive, compromising genetics of wild fish populations and spreading disease more easily, and further exacerbating the problem of overfishing. Did you know that it takes 4kg of wild fish (as feed) to produce 1kg of farmed fish? I didn’t until yesterday...

SASSI are making a highly complex set of information easy for us to access. They have an extensive online database profiling 136 species of our cold-blooded friends, which includes important information such as how exploited they are, what fishing or farming methods are used and how damaging these methods are to the environment.

NB! What SASSI is not

But let’s make sure we understand this: SASSI is not an accreditation. Suppliers and retailers choose to participate in the SASSI process. It’s a pledge to say that they are aware that there are problems and that they are committed to taking steps towards a more sustainable fishing industry. So, just because a restaurant or fishmonger has a SASSI poster up in their shop it does not mean that they are only supplying sustainably sourced seafood. We still need to ask them the right questions:

•    What species is it?
•    Where does it come from?
•    How was it produced?
•    Is it the right time of year to buy this fish?

And always request or carry a SASSI pocket guide. This will give you the short list of green (“best choice”), orange (“think twice”) and red (“don’t buy”) classified species.

Build relationships

If you have any doubts, err on the side of caution. My best advice would be to find a fishmonger/restaurant/retailer you trust. Then develop a relationship with them so that they’ll do the hard work for you. After all, it’s a producer’s aim to keep their customers happy.

Only by working together can we protect the future of our oceans (and the economies that are supported by it) so that we will always be able to enjoy its bounty.

You can find out more on, or on mobile wed at And follow them on twitter @wwfsassi.

Use FishMS – a free sms number that sends a profile of the species when you text the name: 0794998795

Look out for the gold standard of sustainable seafood: Marine Stewardship Council certified products

Thanks to Julie Carter for arranging my attendance to the course

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