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20 years of “sass” behind a savvy homegrown initiative

The world of food is filled with many choices: to eat meat or not eat meat, to be vegan or vegetarian, or to be flexitarian or pescatarian. And for those who love seafood, there are other things to consider too: such as the sustainability status of each marine species we eat, and which fish is best to choose for the long-term future of our collective food security and the health of our shared oceans.

Children cheering on the WWF-SASSI initiative.
WWF’s Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Fish on the rocks

Growing up my seafood memories are mostly linked to a celebratory moment at the end of each school term. Every break-up day, my mom would take us to Hout Bay harbour for fish and chips.

Sitting on the edge of the docks or sometimes the rocks next to the sea, we’d eat our golden-battered hake. Feeding a few slap chips to the seagulls was always part of the fun too, even though now I know it’s not so good for the birds. I never thought about where the hake was caught, whether local or imported, and definitely not whether there was enough hake left in the sea.

In my twenties I lived in the UK. Fridays were referred to as “fish and chip Fridays”. Except their batter-fried fish was not hake; it was cod. It was around 2004 that I first remember reading articles in the local UK papers about the “fish and chip crisis”: due to the overfished – and fast collapsing – cod fish stocks.

A large plate of seafood carried to a table
Not all seafood is sustainable.
Knowing your haddock - and more!

While the English consume mostly cod as their fish and chips, the Scots on the other hand use haddock. And in South Africa, hake is our fish and chip staple. Hake in fact belongs to the cod family, but it is more delicate in its flaky texture – and milder in flavour – than both cod and haddock.

And what is termed haddock in South Africa is in fact smoked hake – then dyed orange – which is not the same as the British species!

Another childhood seafood memory is the experience of fresh fish being down to the literal “catch of the day” – what had come off a boat, fresh from the harbour or on offer on a seaside restaurant’s seasonal menu. At Kalk Bay harbour, I recall the lyrical cries from the fishers selling fresh snoek or yellowtail!

With many fish species now either overfished or fully fished, we are now more aware of which fish are sustainably fished and which are not.

And with awareness, comes great responsibility – the power of choice to enable different outcomes that are more ocean and planet friendly.

An illustration of a Cape deep-water hake
There are many species of hake, such as the Cape deep-water hake (Merluccius paradoxus) which is on WWF-SASSI’s Green-list.
A sustainable seafood initiative is born

With so many varied fish – most similarly unidentifiable when filleted with their heads and tails removed – to know which fish is which requires being acutely knowledgeable as an ardent angler or marine biologist or trusting that what you order is what you get, and that it is allowed to be sold.

Most people would benefit from knowing which vendors to trust as well as some savvy tools to help get up to speed on the science and sustainability aspects of the many nutritious seafood options…
For those who live in South Africa, the choices of which seafood are sustainably best to eat has been made easier for seafood-loving consumers for the past twenty years. Also back in 2004, when overfishing was making news headlines around the world, so it was that a local sustainable seafood initiative was born…

The Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative – SASSI.

And today we are celebrating twenty years of this forward-thinking local awareness initiative!

Get savvy with three easy questions

Not all fish are equal. Some fish stocks are more vulnerable than others. In the world of “SASSI” the option of choice is sparked by asking three savvy questions which unlock each species sustainability status:

  1. What species is it? (it’s correct name)
  2. Where does it come from? (country of origin)
  3. How was it caught/farmed? (fishing method or aquaculture farming method)

If we don’t ask, we won’t know. And when we do ask our waitron or fish monger these three questions, it will also make them think twice and help to spread more “SASSI-savvy” sustainable seafood awareness.

Use the WWF-SASSI app to guide your 'green' seafood choices.
A traffic light shows the way

While knowing what food choices to make has become more complicated in recent years, the use of the WWF-SASSI traffic light “three fish” system (based on the savvy questions) has helped to clarify confusion about seafood consumption…

Green means GO: this is the best choice of seafood to eat for the future health of our oceans.

Orange means PAUSE: think twice and consider your choice of these orange-listed ocean species, choose them for a special occasion rather than as an everyday option, best still choose a green-listed species over an orange one.

Red means STOP: avoid these seafood species completely to allow them to recover.

Put WWF-SASSI in your pocket

There are also various eco-certifications and labels on the market. Most of them tend to confuse customers rather than empower us to make better decisions. This is why WWF-SASSI is not a certification or a label on a seafood product, but an easily accessible “pocket guide” – and a free-to-download app – that can be used as an always-on reference tool: whether fishing, buying raw seafood or ordering a cooked seafood meal.

So, the next time you want to buy seafood: get SASSI-savvy by using the free tools, asking the three savvy questions and choosing green!

A plate of seafood
It is very helpful to use the WWF-SASSI app when ordering seafood at a restaurant.
The science behind WWF-SASSI

By correctly identifying the specific species, WWF then looks to the science to determine the state of each fishery, the catch method and the geography of where it is caught. Where governments allocate “total allowable catches” as a target volume per year to both commercial fisheries and smallholder fishers, these are based on scientific assessments. National government has an entire fishery branch that tracks data and makes these decisions. NGOs also get involved to do independent research and give recommendation to government scientific working groups. And WWF-SASSI is built on international best practice and the foundations of credible scientific, peer-reviewed assessments for each of the popular seafood species consumed in South Africa.

The red, orange and green list is devised by assessing many studies and sources, according to the three WWF-SASSI questions. Where a species comes from – its country of origin – is vital to know. As is the fishing method – how it was caught – and hence the related environmental impacts on other ocean species and the marine environment. For example, yellowfin tuna (what?) which is rod-caught by hand – or “pole-and-line” (how?) as it’s called – is on the WWF-SASSI green list if it is caught in South Africa (where?). Look on a can of tuna the next time you buy one, it will say how it was caught, where it is from and what species is it. It should. Most do these days.

Whereas tuna that is caught in a purse seine net using fish aggregating device has many negative impacts, including unintentionally catching and killing many other marine species like sharks, rays and turtles.
Moreover, tuna caught on pelagic longline fishing also attracts many seabirds which dive for the baited hooks. Often vulnerable and endangered species such as petrels and albatross.

Hence not all types of tuna are categorised by the same WWF-SASSI colour listing.

A sign on a restaurant table encouraging patrons to choose sustainable seafood options.
Like the great tales of fishers’ favourite catches, it is important to choose green and share seafood stories of success.
Why we work with the whole supply chain

In 2002, Dr Kerry Sink, a KwaZulu-Natal-based marine biologist, did some research which revealed an alarming trend in the seafood trade. The year after, WWF approached Dr Sink to develop a national sustainable seafood initiative. It was in 2004 that the WWF Nedbank Green Trust provided seed funding and SASSI, in partnership with government, appointed a national coordinator and created a local species list.

In the two decades since the consumer engagement programme was first developed, there have been many meaningful milestones and engagements across the wider seafood supply chain in South Africa.
Fifteen years ago, WWF-SASSI launched a voluntary scheme to work alongside seafood vendors – suppliers, retailers and hospitality role players – who were committed to a sustainable seafood future. The first participants were Pick n Pay and Woolworths. And ten years ago, the restaurant sector was engaged by creating awards for the chefs who offer only Green-listed seafood on their menus.

More recently, in 2022, over 5 000 people in the culinary and hospitality industries have undergone WWF-SASSI training. And in 2023, an e-version of the WWF-SASSI training was launched to reach even more people about the choice of sustainable seafood – and our role in a better future!

Plus, the WWF-SASSI team has created an Ocean Challenge game for kids, alongside an activity book and fund ocean species card games. We have also long worked together with essential education partners – the likes of uShaka and Two Oceans Aquarium – who help to spread the word to the next generation.

The WWF-SASSI 20th Anniversary logo
Thank you to all the partners and supporters of WWF-SASSI
The many successes of a local initiative with “sass”

While the sad state of many overfished species continues, there have been some fish stock wins in WWF-SASSI’s history. In 2015, the retailer and supplier scheme participants bound together to initiate the Namibian Hake Association and fisheries to become certified by the Marine Stewardship Council – meaning that all such locally caught hake is sustainable.

Also in 2015, the WWF-SASSI science-based assessments showed positive shifts of three species from orange to green. These are Cape bream, carpenter and longline kingklip. And this special anniversary year of 2023, we see two linefish species shifting colours positively: one the iconic Geelbek moving from red to orange, and the catface rockcod moving from orange to green – reason for celebration indeed.

At the momentous 20-year milestone for WWF-SASSI, these are all substantial wins to celebrate – knowing that the full seafood supply chain is being engaged and empowered to make the best choices!

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager: Environmental programme

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

Choose green

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