If you have been buying fish at Aeon, you may have seen fish with a tag that says: Friend of the Sea.
It's trying to tell you that the fish is safe to eat as it has been farmed in a way that didn't harm the sea habitat. Cooking it will not lead to the depletion of any fish species in the sea. The eco-label makes it easy to identify which fish is sustainably farmed or caught.
What you may not know is that the little tag happens to mark a big breakthrough in the campaign for sustainable seafood retailing and consumption.
For years, Greenpeace International has been lobbying in Japan - one of the world's biggest consumers of seafood - to change the way big corporations, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants buy their seafood.
When supermarket giant Aeon became the first major retailer in Japan to introduce sustainably sourced seafood products in March last year, it was a major triumph for the NGO.
"They said it couldn't be done. They said you couldn't change Japanese attitudes to eating seafood. Last week, we proved the doubters wrong," it says in a news release.
The good news to consumers is that we now have a choice to buy sustainable seafood at the supermarket - there are 53 Aeon outlets throughout Malaysia and four Aeon MaxValu outlets, so the potential outreach is great.
Aeon's "Sustainable Procurement Principle" was inked in February 2014 and lay out the company's pledge for biodiversity conservation and resource depletion prevention. It was done to "more actively provide ASC (Agriculture Stewardship Council) certified products and other sustainable seafood," the company says in a press statement.
Under this policy, being implemented across Aeon stores in Japan, the company is committed to the elimination of illegal trading, harvesting and fishing of natural resources; minimising use of non-renewable resources, and establishing agricultural and fishery production location and fishing method traceability.
"In Malaysia we have started to study Aeon's policy for conservation of biodiversity and prevention of natural resource depletion," says Hiroko Yamada, Aeon Malaysia's food line assistant general manager.
Aeon Malaysia has made small forays into providing sustainably farmed fish even before the pledge. "Since December 2012, we have started to source seafood from the GST Group which supplies FOS-certified local farmed fish," Hiroko says. "We started selling their frozen products first, and then extended the range to fresh cultured fish in March 2013."
Working with WWF Malaysia, they have established a chain of supply with the local sustainable fishery.
Sustainable fish farm
GST is a Friend of the Sea-certified local aquaculture farm and seafood processing facility involved in the Aquaculture Improvement Programme with WWF (AIP-WWF). The company has sea cages and hatchery in Penang and Perak with a record for product traceability.
Named after its founder Goh Siong Tee, it started as a small, family-based seafood trading company in Penang 30 years ago. It set up a sea farm in Pulau Aman, Penang, in the early 90s and now has about 10,000 cages with additional facilities in Pulau Jerejak in Penang, and Pulau Pangkor in Perak.
Its modern seafood processing plant - and headquarters - in the Simpang Ampat Industrial Zone is HACCP and BRC (British Retail Consortium) compliant, with a European Union certified production standard, signifying a high level of safety and quality competence to meet export requirements.
The plant processes over 2,000 tons of seafood a year, including portioned fillets in vacuum packs for export to Australia, Europe and America.
It is a "total control supply" pioneer in the Asia-Pacific region, with its own facilities to control all aspects of production, including a fish feed plant. It has a pilot hatchery in Batu Kawan, Penang, to produce fish fries from eggs collected from its own farms.
The fries mature into fingerlings and grow in one of the 45 ponds on the 20ha facility before being transferred to sea cages where they grow to market sizes. The hatchery is able to produce vast varieties of fish fries like barramundi (siakap), red snapper, grouper and cobia to meet the needs of the group's breeding farms and for sale to other farms.
At the halal and ISO 9001 certified processing plant, the fish are filleted, trimmed, washed and vacuum packed before blast chilling and shipping out.
From the second Penang bridge, you may just be able to spot GST's floating aquaculture farm. Some 150m off the island of Jerejak and a 20-minute boat ride from the Pulau Jerejak jetty, the 320 sea cages float in the calm jade green waters, linked by narrow, wooden planks in a grid pattern.
Each cage is home to a fish species; the smaller fishes are placed in cages of a finer net and are transferred to coarser nets as they grow. Workers live for extended periods on the platform to feed, transfer and harvest the fish, and maintain the nets.
The fishes bred here include the red snapper, golden snapper, golden pompano, barramundi, green grouper, travelly and cobia. The biggest fish is the giant grouper which can grow up to 30kg and these are bound for live fish markets in Hong Kong.
The most popular market fish sizes are between 400g and 600g, 700g and 900g, and 1.2kg and 1.4kg, says GST senior aquaculture technician Mohd Addin Aazif. It takes between five and eight months to grow a barramundi of 400g to 900g.
GST's seafood is certified by Friend of the Sea (FOS), a non-profit NGO whose mission is the conservation of the marine habitat. It claims to be the main sustainable seafood scheme in the world, and the only one that certify, with the same seal of approval, products from both farmed and wild-caught seafood.
Other certification bodies have separate eco-labels for marine and aquaculture like the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council).
FOS claims its certification requirements follow the FAO guidelines for eco-labelling of fish and fishery products, and in particular, only products from stocks that are not over exploited can be certified.
The FOS certification requires onsite audit of the farm by independent auditors on criteria such as no impact on critical habitats like mangroves; respect of wastewater parameters; no use of growth hormones; use of permitted feed, compliance with social accountability; and gradual reduction of carbon footprint.
Apart from GST, Aeon carries MSC certified frozen processed fish from the Pacific West brand of "deep sea frosty", oatmeal fish fillets, cornflake fish fillets and popcorn fish.
"We have also been selling for more than 20 years, Atlantic salmon from Norway, which is not certified, but is also a sea-cultured fish," says Hiroko.
"Most customers don't know sustainable fish from wild caught and other farm fish," says Hiroko, who being in the retail industry is very much aware that wild fish catches are going down every year and the market is even selling baby fish, an unsustainable practice.
Why choosing sustainable fish is important
The Aeon initiative is one that consumers must support at a time when oceans are at crisis point. "The question now is can we stop the decline at all?" asks The Future of Fish in Asia report (2011) published by sustainalytics.com.
Citing the Science journal's global loss of seafood species chart using FAO data, it says: "If we continue at our current rate, we will have fished out the seas by the middle of this century. As a society, we seem to be knowingly destroying a vital source of food and income at a time when the global population is predicted to swell to 9.3 billion."
It says that the impact will be felt more deeply in Asia than in other regions. "Statistically, the region dominates the fishing industry … over 85 per cent of all fishers and fish farmers in 2008 were Asian, as were six of the top 10 producer countries in capture fishing.
"At stake ecologically is the entire marine ecosystem, which may never recover from a catastrophe as complete as a total loss of commercial fishing stocks. Even now, it is impossible to know if ocean habitats will be able to recover from the damage already done by destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling, dynamite and cyanide fishing - most marine environments are fragile and take decades, if not centuries, to return to their original state."
For many industries and sectors, the sustainability of marine resources may not immediately seem a material enough issue to be incorporated into their sourcing policies. The retail sector is a case in point.
"A typical supermarket might derive only around 1 per cent to 5 per cent of its revenues from direct seafood-related sales. However, if that supermarket were to consider the role of seafood throughout its supply chain, it would also need to factor in the fishmeal used as feed in its pork, poultry and farmed fish products; the fish in its pet food range; the fish oil in certain nutraceuticals and Omega-3 enhanced nutritional products; and potentially even the traces of fish in some household and personal care products.
"There are currently very few supermarkets willing to take such an in-depth look into their supply chains, and very few shareholders prepared to challenge them to do so."
The report, supported by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation with contributions from experts in the fields of science and conservation, highlights that Asian companies have a long way to go in addressing supply chain sustainability.
"But the presence of three progressive corporate groups, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels and Aeon, with policies in place to increase sustainable seafood offerings, indicates that this is an issue that is coming onto the radar for leading operators.
"Action and commitment are required now, from many parties, to ensure the sustainability of marine resources and seafood supply in Asia and globally."
According to Friend of the Sea, sustainability is the only way to ensure a future for current and next generations.
Love seafood? Ensure future supplies by taking action now. Start with buying sustainable seafood as much as you can.
It's not necessarily more expensive. A 500g fresh FOS siakap is RM7.90 (S$2.80) at Aeon. Compare this to a non-ecolabel siakap (700g and above) going for RM14.90 a kilo at another supermarket and you can see that the price difference is small. Furthermore, according to Aeon, its sustainably certified seafood and non-sustainable seafood are priced the same at all its outlets.
What this means is that if you are an Aeon shopper, it costs you nothing to switch to sustainable seafood.
FOS certified fish by GST are available at all Aeon stores except in Johor, and MSC certified sustainable seafood by Pacific West is available at all Aeon stores.