Endangered Australian fish being sold in shops and restaurants

A worker prepares a fish for sale. Some endangered fish species caught in Australian waters are being sold in shop and fish markets. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Endangered fish species are being routinely sold to Australian and international consumers thanks to a little-known feature of environmental laws that allows for the species to be commercially fished. Under Australian environmental laws, marine species that are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered are classified as “no take” species, meaning they cannot be sold or exported.

But species such as blue warehou, eastern gemfish and scalloped hammerhead, which are eligible for listing, are instead categorised as “conservation dependent”, meaning they can be caught in Australian waters and sold in shops, fish markets and restaurants, or exported, despite being considered threatened.

Marine conservationists have long argued for the removal of this category from Australia’s national environment laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act – but its existence has flown beneath the radar for most seafood consumers.

“Most people assume that everything caught in Australia is sustainable,” said Tooni Mahto, a marine biologist and a campaign manager for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“People work on the assumption that anything endangered is not for sale.”

Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International said the category was there for “political expediency”.

“It’s a special category just for commercially fished species to avoid giving them protection that they actually qualify for because they’re commercially valuable,” Beynon said.

With the EPBC Act currently subject to a once-in-a-decade review led by the former competition watchdog chair Graeme Samuel, the AMCS has again called for the conservation dependent category to be axed.

It’s one of a string of problems Guardian Australia has reported on that highlight how the act is failing to stem what scientists say is an extinction crisis.

The federal environment department said species determined to be “conservation dependent” are monitored annually and the threatened species scientific committee received annual updates on population numbers. A spokesperson said the category worked effectively because it allowed for continued commercial harvest while also rebuilding fish populations.