What you need to know about the sustainable fish landscape in South Africa
September, 2020
Article by Maryke Musson, Pr.Sci.Nat

CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation

The conversation around eating fish sustainably can be a heated one. 

For one, the term ‘sustainable fish farming’ is an oxymoron for those who believe fundamentally that fish are sentient beings who should be spared a life of suffering at all costs, and moreover have the financial privilege to choose alternatives.

However, for many coastal communities fishing is a crucial (and for many; only) livelihood-sustaining skill. Many believe the ocean offers enough to feed us if we manage her resources mindfully and with the utmost respect.

If eating fish still aligns with your wellness choices yet you wish to only support the small scale farmers and business going about it in the most sustainable way, you may be surprised to hear, this isn’t as easily achieved as you would think.

To get a better handle on the sustainable fish farming lanscape in South Africa,  we asked Maryke Musson – CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation and self-confessed fish nerd – 4 questions.

What we really wanted to know, is whether eating fish and eating for the oceans can co-exist in our food choices. 

Photo by Egle Sidaraviciute on Unsplash

1st question: “What would a sustainable fish supply/ farm/ source look like or have to comply with?”


Sustainable fish is basically the opposite of overfishing.

This can take quite a few forms, but ultimately the impact on the ocean of either fishing or farming should consider:

  • the well-being of the ocean and environment
  • the population impact and dynamics of the species
  • the impact on the livelihoods of fishers

The South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative is a consumer guide showing the science-based status of the various seafood species.

It takes into consideration whether a seafood species are being fished or farmed sustainably.

A component that receives reduced attention unfortunately is the impact of fishing, or non-fishing, on the livelihoods of small-scale fishers.

Sustainable Fish Supply requirements:

  • Sourced from a healthy stock (wild)
  • Capture / Farming method has no to minimal environmental impact
  • Animal welfare and health are considered at all stages of production (fishing and farming)
  • Full traceability – from source to consumer
  • Certifications in place such as MSC / ASC / BAP / Global G.A.P or similar supporting ocean stewardship from source to consumer
  • Full transparency with regards to production processes (fishing methods / farming methods / source of feed / community benefits)
“Environmental conscious consumers are still in the minority when it comes to seafood”

2nd question:  “To your knowledge where could someone buy the most sustainably available fish in SA that meets with the majority of these criteria?”


When it comes to retailers

Currently, most of the large retailers in South Africa have made self-set commitments to procure in line with the SASSI guidelines, and labeling is being utilised to inform consumers of the sustainability of the product.

There are various smaller fish retailers who procure directly from small-scale fishers while retaining full traceability and quality.

Apps that offer support

The Abalobi app suite is an innovative way of promoting stewardship, empowering the value chain, and supporting an ecosystems approach to fisheries.

This considers eco and social labeling, meaning the traceable product was sourced in a low impact manner while contributing to direct social impact.

Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya  on Unsplash

Before we can go into sustainable aquaculture options we need to understand aquaculture criteria in SA

With regards to aquaculture, SASSI has assessed some species and farming practices and has labeled land-based recirculating production units green, meaning little to no direct impact to the environment or species.

However, there are very few RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) in operation in South Africa.

To make such a production system financially viable, you need to produce at fairly high stocking densities, but stock health and management remain the top priorities, and if you cannot grow healthy stock, you will not have a successful business model.

Healthy fish require optimal environmental conditions and nutrition to ensure limited stress, and healthy fish grow and survive well, which is what a production system relies on.

RAS farms can deliver fresh products of high quality with limited to no environmental impacts.

The initial RAS pioneers in South Africa utilised innovative but basic technologies so as to have a limited need for fresh water:

  • they generated energy through biodigesting waste
  • they used solar energy for heating
  • they only sourced certified feeds ensuring very low fish in fish out ratios (FIFO).

Important points to clarify where fish farms compare to alternate animal protein production units

Carbon emissions
The carbon emissions of a well-managed fish production plant is well below that of any other protein production units.

Fish feed
It is also a bit of a misnomer that more fish is used to feed to fish than what is produced.

The feed is the highest cost input on a facility. Quality and food conversion are both critical success factors. Recent science has contributed to producing fish feeds with very little to no fishmeal as a protein source.


Currently, in South Africa, there are a number of abalone farms (flow-through) but working under production permits and strict permit conditions. To be able to qualify for a production permit a full environmental impact assessment is required, together with an environmental management plan.


Mussel and oyster farms generally have a low environmental impact, as spat (small oysters/mussels/abalone) are seeded in the ocean and harvested once they reach a marketable size.

There is currently one RAS fish farm in operation in South Africa, situated in a temperate climate to reduce the need for heating.

Trout farming

Freshwater trout farming was one of the first aquaculture practices in Southern Africa, and again, due to water scarcity farming practices have to be clean with minimal environmental impact as water is just not available to flush systems. Quite often the intake to a production facility is below its effluent line, meaning that the wastewater has to be clean enough to use in the production facility again.


Small retailers who are fully committed to sustainable sourcing of seafood include:

Which supermarket fish brands are better to support?

Large fishing companies such as I&J have shifted their catch to MSC certified products only and I&J now only fishes for MSC certified deep-water Cape hake (which is also green listed on SASSI). Imported Chilean hake is SASSI red-listed.

Photo by Anastasia Palagutina  on Unsplash

3rd question: “Why are there so few suppliers or businesses addressing this need?”


The growth of aquaculture in South Africa has been quite slow.

This is mainly due to these limitations to aquaculture in  SA:

  • limited local demand
  • cost of farming
  • fish feed
  • no permissions to export farmed fish to countries following CODEX (code of fish and fishery products))

Farmed fish can thus not be exported from South Africa to Europe or the United States until permission is granted to the competent authority managing aquaculture. 

  • Such an authority needs to demonstrate:
  • the ability to ensure full traceability of products
  • full residual monitoring programs
  • effective welfare practices and management
  • full traceability and certification of feed
  • health monitoring programs in place
  • processing facility approvals

This is not the case in South Africa as yet.

Added to the above , there are more barriers to entry into fish farming, which are definitely restricting development of this industry.

Additional barriers to fish farming: 

  • high start-up costs
  • various permissions required (which is a good thing when it comes to environmental impact, but can be a very costly and lengthy process)
  • limited technical support
  • local market limitations and export limitations

Cost of RAS farming is high, and hence the farm-gate price needs to be at a level to cover operational costs.

The local market in South Africa is just not developed enough to offer financially sustainable models.

Investor confidence is not high in South Africa, even though the first RAS farms showed very successful production initially.

Marketing limitations of the product and securing adequate revenue forced most of the facilities to close, with a high loss of initial investment.

From a fishing perspective, compliance management remains a concern, and thus some fishing practices continue to have a very negative impact on the environment and fish stocks (from direct to by-catch impact).

At the end of the day, as with most businesses, money talks, and demand rules.

  • Consumers are still more price sensitive than environmentally sensitive, and would thus opt for a lower priced product.
  • Environmental conscious consumers are still in the minority when it comes to seafood.
“Even though I do not consume seafood, I think it will be very sad if we cannot manage this incredible natural resource to continue to provide to humans.”
Photo by Juan Jaramillo CoSrenic on Unsplash

4th question: “Okay, so say I’m someone who wants to eat fish but only if it’s truly sustainable fish? What are my current options?”

I am a firm believer in always knowing the source of the product and thus taking responsibility for knowing the environmental and social impact of what you choose to consume.

The ocean and fisheries are in a very concerning state, but quite surprisingly there are still evidence of healthy stocks such as South African favourites yellowtail (kingfish) and snoek. 

Support supplier networks
Supporting supplier networks such as Abalobi, who work directly with small-scale fishers and manage the entire cold chain with full traceability also ensures:

  • good quality product
  • positive social impact
  • supporting a fair, credible fishery
  • low environmental impact

‘Take what you need’ approach
I also feel that the ‘hunter-gatherer’ approach with an attitude of only taking what you need should apply.

Due to busy lives and preferences for convenience, people do not hunt and gather anymore, and the ocean is probably the only environment where it is still possible to sustainably harvest a small-scale. Whether it is collecting black mussels or oysters in the tidal zones, or permitted fishing, collecting your own seafood can most definitely be environmentally sustainable.

Even though I do not consume seafood, I think it will be very sad if we cannot manage this incredible natural resource to continue to provide to humans.


What can the general public (who have the means) do to support a shift towards more sustainable fishing? 

Knowing the source and sustainability rating of seafood is really important, so consumers really should only consume eco-certified seafood:

  • MSC
  • ASC
  • Friends of the Sea
  • BAP
  • Global G.A.P
  • Seafood Watch
  • Oceanwise
  • Fishwise
  • Abalobi

The choice of whether to purchase a product lies with the consumer, and consumers drive demand. By always choosing a sustainable seafood product the market demand for species at risk will reduce and hence the pressure on such species.

Be passionate about the ocean. Experience the ocean. Know your fish species.With knowledge and love comes respect, and if all people connect with the ocean and respect it, we will look after this valuable resource a lot better.

Creating an environment for species to thrive in is also critically important and being aware and mindful of pollution will definitely contribute to making the ocean a healthier environment. Ghost fishing gear is an enormous threat to all marine animals. The simple act of picking up litter (which in coastal areas very often include discarded fishing gear) will make a difference to the ocean and marine animals. Support small-scale fishers. For generations, their livelihoods have depended on the ocean. Saving our oceans and marine species start with coastal communities.

Call to Action:

  • Be informed and choose right (there are good seafood options).
  • Care about the environment and the ocean – keep it litter free.
  • Support local (which also means seasonal and sustainable).
  • Be responsible.
  • Love the ocean and nature – respecting the environment also leads to protecting the
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