Singapore is nearly synonymous with seafood. From its wealth of Michelin rated restaurants to its world renown hawker centres, the range and quality of seafood in this city state is like no other. In fact, over 120,000 tons of seafood are consumed here each year. And there lies the problem. With such a wealth of options and quantity, how does a traveler know what has been caught sustainably and what may be damaging the very ecosystems you’ve traveled to southeast Asia to see? This post aims to help you navigate your culinary ethics while visiting beautiful Singapore.
Our oceans are in crisis. The UN Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) classifies 76% of fisheries as either fully exploited, overexploited or depleted; our coral reefs are dying; massive ‘dead zones’ exist worldwide where life once thrived, and destructive practices such as deep-sea bottom trawling are scraping millenia-old deepwater coral reefs out of existence.
Choosing sustainable seafood is one way to help combat this crisis, but doing so is hard enough when you’re in your home country. For example, farmed salmon is bad, farmed oysters and scallops are good. Albacore tuna is good, bluefin tuna is on the verge of possible extinction. All of these variables are difficult for the average consumer to keep track of and has even led some prominent ocean advocates to boycott seafood altogether.
When it’s this confusing to keep track of green dining options at home, it’s all the more daunting to do so when traveling to the other side of the planet, where market conditions, fishing practices and local management standards are completely different. Take tilapia for example. Raised in recirculating tanks in the USA, this fast growing, vegetarian fish is one of the best green options out there. But put the same fish in flood-prone mud swallows in Central America, it inevitably escapes and becomes one of the most aggressive invaders of the aquatic world. With all these complexities, even the savvy traveler may need some culinary some guidance.
Singapore’s seafood sustainability outlook is as complex as anywhere on Earth. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that 3 out of 4 popular species served in Singapore are unsustainable. Yet despite this daunting statistic, there are a lot of green options available and a growing number of suppliers and restaurateurs are committed to providing sustainable seafood options. Here are two tools that will help making choosing sustainable seafood in Singapore a little easier:
The Singapore Seafood Guide uses an internationally agreed method to assess seafood sustainability. It groups some of the most popular seafood species in Singapore into three categories:
- Recommended: Seafood species from well-managed, sustainable stocks which are not considered to be over-exploited.
- Think Twice: Seafood species from fisheries that are at risk of becoming unsustainable, due to management, environmental or stock issues. Only eat these species occasionally, if recommended options are not available.
- Avoid: Seafood considered to be over-exploited, or from unsustainable, overfished and poorly managed fisheries.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) are the largest seafood sustainability certification organizations in the world and both are active in Singapore. Look for their labels on menus, restaurant advertisements and packaging for seafood that has been sourced from well-managed fisheries and farming operations.
Where to Go
At the top of the list, the Hilton Singapore was the first hotel in Asia to commit to sourcing exclusively MSC and ASC certified seafood at their restaurants. Top tier dining options at the Hilton include il Cielo, Opus Bar & Grill, Verde Kitchen, and the internationally acclaimed Iggy’s. The Grand Hyatt Singapore is also committed to MSC certified seafood, and boasts an equally tempting range of dining options.
Other Singapore restaurants featuring sustainable seafood options – although not always certified – include Fisk and JAAN. And the monumental Marina Bay Sands resort is aiming to serve sustainable seafood at all of its resident restaurants by 2020, and they’ve already removed the worst offending dishes.
For even more sustainable seafood dining options, check out the more than 30 restaurants that participated in WWF Singapore’s 2014 “Pick the Right Catch” seafood festival.
One only needs to watch Crazy Rich Asians to understand the popularity and downright deliciousness of Singapore’s iconic hawker centres. These open food stall marketplaces do not usually advertise sustainable options, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Use WWF’s Singapore Seafood Guide described above to make responsible choices. I used it to choose Singapore’s most famous seafood dish – the chili crab (get the sauce here). I have to admit that the mud crabs used in the dish are listed as Think Twice due to concerns with their over-exploitation for the popular dish. However, I took some comfort in knowing that intensive research and conservation efforts are underway to begin raising the crabs via aquaculture and restoring native populations.
For an intentionally sustainable hawker experience, try Mizzy Corner‘s stall at Changi Village hawker centre. Specializing in the popular nasi lemak fish dish, they serve Indian mackerel rather than yellow-banded scad in an effort to reduce the threat of extinction to the latter red-listed fish.
Cooking at Home
If you’re renting a home, have a hotel with a kitchenette or are fortunate enough to be living in Singapore for the short or long term, you can find MSC/ASC certified seafood at the following grocery locations:
What to Avoid
Even if you don’t go out of your way to try one of the sustainably-minded businesses mentioned in this post, there are few things you should avoid at all cost. The following are examples of seafood choices that are so bad, they are having devastating impacts on the survival of the target species:
- Shark Fin Soup. National Geographic cites that more than 100 million sharks are slaughtered each year to produce shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy especially favored at wedding parties. This wasteful mass slaughter, which often takes the fins and throws the rest of the shark away, is unraveling ocean ecosystems that depend upon sharks as top predators.
- Maguro or Bluefin Tuna. Known as maguro in sushi restaurants, bluefin tuna is one of the most sought after cuts of sashimi in the world, and this popularity is devastating populations of the massive oceanic fish from which it comes. Migrating long ocean distances in big schools, bluefin tuna depend upon a mass spawning strategy to reproduce. This means, smaller schools of fish have reduced chance of successfully producing the next generation of ocean giants. When dining on sushi, also watch out for the words toro and akami. These aren’t other kinds of fish, they are specific cuts of maguro.
- Leopard coralgrouper.
This beautifully spotted fish is one of the most popular selections in the live reef fish food trade (those Asian restaurants in which you pick your fish live from an aquarium). These fish are critically important to the health of coral reefs from which they come, but are particularly vulnerable due to their slow maturation and aggregate spawning strategy (like bluefin tuna). Eating this fish not only threatens the species, it threatens the coral reefs many people come to southeast Asia to see.
That’s it for now. Enjoy dining out in Singapore but choose your seafood wisely!
DO YOU #KnowYourSeafood?
Header image (top of page): Ebi fry salmon aburi. Photo: Soon Koon/Flickr/Creative Commons
Featured image (top of post): Stir fried prawns. Photo: Project Manhattan, Creative Commons