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A Message from Tim Winton

Tim WintonAustralians are passionate about food and our culture is in the grip of an exciting food revolution. Eating well is no longer the preserve of an elite. Cooking creatively is a mainstream aspiration and Australian cooks have developed an eclectic regional fusion of the old and new worlds. We rely on produce that's not only fresh and local but also clean and green.

For many of us, the centrepiece of Australian cuisine is fish. Whether we're at home or at a restaurant, seafood is the culinary currency of celebration. In previous generations we served roasted meats on special days, but in many homes prawns, rock lobsters, fish and oysters are more commonly served. Seafood is lighter and seems more suited to our climate. And of course in an era when Australians seem to want to eat more and weigh less, fish is sold to us as a panacea to our health problems. We want to give our children the healthiest start in life that we can. And tastes have broadened enormously. We eat species our grandparents might have thought of as bait. Restaurants and cafes offer everything from mussels to marlin.

But as our palates are educated and our curiosity constantly piqued, our expectations grow. And so does demand. With so much good seafood on offer, and with such an abundance of energy and ideas in the business of cooking and promoting it, you could easily get the idea that this incredible plenty extends to the fisheries and oceans themselves. The seas that supply the stuff we hanker for seem to be limitless in their bounty. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Many people have a sense that the world's oceans are in trouble, but fewer seem to understand just how much strife they are in.

Overfishing, pollution and irresponsible coastal development are taking their toll on the marine environment. It's generally agreed that overfishing is the single biggest threat to our oceans. Alarmingly, three quarters of the world's fish stocks are overfished or fished to their limit. Global catches peaked in the late 1980s and have been in precipitous decline ever since. Researchers have estimated that 90% of big predatory fish are lost - species like bluefin tuna, swordfish and sharks. Leading marine scientists are saying that unless we fast-track massive changes to the way we manage our seas, we face a continued crash in fish stocks. What this means is a global collapse, a catastrophe for nature and for humankind. These are not the alarmist predictions of extremists but the modelling of dispassionate scientists. The oceans we once considered inexhaustible are in desperate trouble. It's no surprise to discover that half the world's seafood consumption now has to be serviced by aquaculture.

Australians quarantine themselves from the notion of a global fisheries crisis with the comforting thought that our fisheries are among the best-managed in the world, but we continues to exploit several vulnerable or over-fished species such as southern bluefin tuna, orange roughy, gemfish and many species of shark. It's a confronting analogy, but in the past fifty years Australia has fished its oceans with the same industrial intensity with which we clear-cut our forests - as if there was no tomorrow. On land we pulled back before the brink, but on the high seas we're still kidding ourselves.

So how do we reconcile this grim news with our appetite for fresh, healthy seafood?

Well, first by accepting responsibility for our part in this web of connections. The same science drawing our attention to the problem is offering us a solution. If we act now, we can avoid the global fishing crisis - if we take action now.

This is not someone else's problem; it's about us and our habits and tastes. The oceans are at the mercy of our expectations. Nothing can alter expectations like fresh knowledge. We need plain, well-researched information upon which to make judgements as consumers, a guide without commercial bias. And that's where guides like this come in.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has prepared this excellent guide for the many Australians who love seafood but also love their oceans.

This is a resource for people who want to do the right thing by the seas that sustain us. Here is a tool with which to make informed and responsible choices about the seafood we buy and cook. Buying seafood is always an exciting challenge, but it's not enough to simply buy what is fresh. If we want to keep eating fish we'll have to learn to buy what is sustainable.

In short, the most sustainable species tend to be smaller, faster-growing species. And they're often local produce. A sustainable choice favours quality over quantity. It's important to know where a fish comes from, how it's caught, and how its species is faring so that you can make a responsible and informed decision. A sustainable consumer is a conscious consumer.

Each of us has a role to play in changing expectations and trends and behaviours. It's tempting to shrug in despair at the enormity of many environmental crises. Yet in this instance the consumer has real power. Our buying habits at the market or restaurant can and will shape commercial reality. The choices we make as individuals and groups have tangible and multiplying effects on the market. By making informed decisions, by favouring sustainable fisheries, by voicing our concerns to suppliers and retailers, by voting with our wallets as well as our feet, we are empowered.

So please make use of this guide as a means of making wise choices.

Take seafood and its origins seriously. Make conscious choices, intelligent choices. Why settle for the lazy option when you deserve better? Choose sustainability, treat it with the same importance you give food safety. Consider the legacy we leave to our children and their children. What will be their inheritance - empty seas or sustainable oceans? The choice is ours.

Keep this guide handy. Use it next time you're at the fish market or ordering at a restaurant. Ask questions about your seafood. Make your expectations known. And talk to your friends and family about it.

Knowing that so many of us rely on both canned and imported seafood, these categories are included in the guide by public demand. The guide has been completely revised and updated in line with new trends and research.

As a fisher and a father and a passionate consumer of seafood, I commend this guide to you as an invigorating and empowering resource. We need all the tools we can get in order to make smart decisions and I congratulate the Australian Marine Conservation Society for continuing to provide us with food for thought and food for thinkers.