Quite apart from now being vegan, I have long been skeptical of all the ways in which humanity catches, farms and eats fish. Species after species seemed to dwindle in number, despite “fisheries management,” and farming fish seemed equally destructive. So when people asked me what fish they should eat, I usually answered “You should eat no fish.”
But my editor at Outside, who loves fish and loves the planet, kept insisting this was the wrong answer. So I researched and reported a story on the question of fish. The answer I came up with is much more useful, interesting and surprising than I expected.
Here’s how it starts (which is already causing me grief from vegan absolutists on Twitter):
I contemplated the simple sandwich on the plate in front of me: a beautiful slab of glistening rainbow trout, crisp lettuce, and a freshly baked French roll. The trout skin was lightly seared and seasoned. The pinkish meat was firm and toothsome. I genuflected briefly, then two-fisted the thing and took a big bite. A slightly smoky, sweet flavor gave my taste buds a sensation long denied. I chased it with a slug of Fort Point ale. Soon, both fish sandwich and beer were gone. I am a vegan, but I was untroubled. Eating the trout seemed like the right thing to do.
We’re used to seeing lots of bad news about how poorly the oceans are faring. Naturalist Carl Safina went in search of more positive stories, in a PBS series. You can now watch the entire first season online here.
It’s encouraging to see the people and ideas who are working to reverse, or at least combat, the decline of our seas. But somehow I feel like we’re all going to have to get a lot more radical to make a real difference.
Ecologist Carl Safina, a writer and the founder of Blue Ocean Institute, developed the first sustainable seafood guide in the late 1990s. Before that, there was really no such thing as “sustainable” seafood: “If a piece of fish landed on your plate, you just ate it,” he said. “It was like bread. You didn’t talk about it.”
When we talk about sustainable seafood these days, we’re mostly concerned with whether a population is being overfished. According to the United Nations’ 2012 “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” report, about 85 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully or overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. We no longer take it as a given that there are plenty of fish in the sea, and some go so far as to suggest that our generation may be the last to enjoy seafood.
The creators of consumer guides to sustainable seafood, of which there are now many, pay careful attention to overfishing. They also look at whether the methods used to catch fish are harming the aquatic habitat, and if they cause a lot of bycatch – the inadvertent snaring of unwanted fish, dolphins and sea turtles. Some of the guides investigate whether fisheries are well-managed. Other factors, like how suppliers deal with waste and whether they use harmful chemicals, are often taken into consideration as well.
“Consumers making the conscious choice to try and buy more sustainable seafood is an important first step,” Tim Fitzgerald, a senior policy specialist who runs the Sustainable Seafood Program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told me. And these organizations do seem to be doing everything in their power to arm consumers with the tools they need to make these choices. The EDF, for example, takes the extra step of providing a version of its guide written in the language of sushi. (When you order “tako,” what you’re getting is octopus, which, by the way, is a very bad choice.)
But in many cases, providing enough information for the consumer to make a truly informed decision is next to impossible. For instance, while there’s a clear distinction between Pacific and Atlantic salmon – Atlantic is always farmed and thus, always bad – whether my Monterey Bay app categorizes my Pacific salmon as a “best choice” or a more cautious “good alternative” depends on how it was caught. There’s really no way, said Safina, for me, or even the restaurant or supermarket I’m purchasing my fish from, to know that.
I wasn’t able to get in touch with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to talk about the way in which they see their guide’s ultimate utility. However, I noticed an extra “consumer note” attached to its entries on salmon. “Buyer beware!” it reads. “Different species of salmon are sold under many market names – and several are available from farmed and wild sources.” Wild and farmed salmon, said Fitzgerald, are among the most commonly mislabeled products. Call a fillet “wild,” after all, and you can sell it at a premium.
“You can’t rely on anybody selling you fish to be truthful 100 percent of the time,” Safina said. This isn’t limited to how the fish are caught; the sustainable option you pick might not be sustainable at all, because it’s an entirely different fish.
It’s not that it isn’t possible (though I have my doubts given the overwhelming global demand for fish). It’s more that our knowledge and understanding of how fish gets to the plate is limited, or even obscured by the fishing industry. Just as more reporting and more investigation led to a better understanding of the depredations and environmental and health costs of Big Meat, the more we dig into where fish comes from and how it is fished the less appealing or sustainable it appears.
For example, take this recent report about farmed salmon and the potential impact of sea lice on wild population:
The scientific study published in Agricultural Sciences by a scientist of Ireland’s Marine Institute, which, it has been claimed, justified the salmon fishing industry’s stance that a mere 1%-2% of wild salmon deaths are due to sea lice, has been challenged in a key publication.
A recent critique by scientists from Scotland, Canada and Norway and led by Martin Krkosek of the University of Toronto’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, published in the Journal of Fish Diseases, argues that the Marine Institute’s work has “fundamental errors”.
Hughie Campbell Adamson, chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association Scotland (S&TAS) is now demanding that the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) retract a statement made by its chairman, Professor Phil Thomas, six months ago dismissing the impact of sea lice on wild salmon.
The new interpretation of the research claims there are “grave mistakes in measuring control and treatment groups, leading to wide inaccuracies”.
The fresh examination of the original data shows that the impact of sea lice on wild salmon causes a far higher loss (34%) of those returning to Irish rivers than the 1% loss that was calculated in the original paper.
Many scientists and environmentalists have been looking to aquaculture — fish farming — as a potential savior for today’s radically diminished wild-fish stocks. Indeed, aquaculture in the crucial Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora has doubled every few years over the past decade. In Harper’s, I pointed out that farmed salmon, shrimp, and tuna require massive amounts of fishmeal, which is usually harvested from wild populations. The recent news displays another problem that I didn’t mention, but that is equally problematic: cramming thirty shrimp into one square meter is a little like putting thousands of people into unsanitary prison camps. Disease runs rampant.
Traditionally, there are several ways to address this issue, none of them ideal. The first is simply to desert the ponds as soon as diseases appear, then build a new one instead. This practice is common in Southeast Asia, and it occasionally happens in the mangrove forests of Nayarit and Sinaloa, too. But La Borbolla, one of the most environmentally sensitive farms in the regions, isn’t built on destroyed mangroves, and it isn’t easily moved. Instead, Mexican farms tend to rely on antibiotics, administered via fishmeal. But disease adapts quickly to antibiotics, and it’s a constant struggle to keep producing drugs that can combat the diseases.
Ironically, Mexico’s state of emergency was announced less than three weeks after theUnited States verified that it would certify Mexican wild-caught shrimp imports as environmentally sound. Hundreds of loggerhead turtles were dying after becoming tangled in the nets of the Mexican fishing fleet. (For perspective, the entire Hawaiian fleet is allowed only seventeen accidental turtle deaths per season.)
It turns out, not surprisingly, that plates mounded with cheap shrimp float on a veritable sea of ecological and social trouble. In his excellent 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, the Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe took a hard look at the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. His conclusion: “The simple fact is, if you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”
Lest anyone think otherwise, these factory farms generate poverty in the nations that house them, as Grescoe demonstrates; they privatize and cut down highly productive mangrove forests that once sustained fishing communities, leaving fetid dead zones in their wake.
And now, a new study from University of Oregon researcher J. Boone Kauffman findsthat the flattening of Southeast Asian mangrove forests is devastating in another way, too, and not just for the people who have been sustainably living in them for generations. Mangroves, it turns out, are rich stores of biodiversity and also of carbon—and when they’re cleared for farming, that carbon enters the atmosphere as climate-warming gas.
Kaufman estimates that 50 to 60 percent of shrimp farms occupy cleared mangroves, and the shrimp that emerges from them has a carbon footprint 10 times higher than the most notoriously climate-destroying foodstuff I’m aware of: beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest.
Kaufman calls the shrimp-farming style that prevails in Asia “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” because farm operators typically “only last for 5 years or so before the buildup of sludge in the ponds and the acid sulfate soil renders them unfit for shrimp,” hetoldScience.
Cheap shrimp, like cheap oil, is looking increasingly like a dangerous delusion.
Okay, I’ll stop piling on the shrimp-eaters. But given our very imperfect understanding of how fishing is really being done on the high seas, and how farming fish instead will affect the ecosystems around it, it is misleading for anyone to try and say any fish is “sustainable.”
And until we know more, or we truly do find a sustainable fish-producing strategy, the right thing do do is simply not eat fish. Sorry, fish-lovers and pescatarians, by now we know enough to know that we need to know more.
The ocean is so full of trash, it’s easy to create an entire art exhibition from it. Expedition Gyre hopes that the resulting display will get people who view it to think about their consumption and how so much of the stuff humanity uses or throws away ends up in the oceans.
It’s heartbreaking to see the reality of our consumption culture. So more power to the Expedition Gyre team. They are certainly getting lots of media play. However, in my view there is one thing, and one thing only, which will make a real difference: levy an environmental tax on every item of packaging and plastic, and charge for any garbage that is not recycled. Art can inspire. But make people pay, and they change their behavior. Fast.
Any discussion of human fishing practices has to start with this chart (you know how I love infographics). Click image for full size:
The data presented here is damning on two levels. First, as a perfect visualization of the Tragedy Of The Commons, in which we don’t have the will or the wisdom to steward resources on a global scale, instead just seeking profit wherever it can be found, nevermind the fact that over time we are destroying the very stocks we seek profit from.
The journal Science recently published the first comprehensive analysis of more than 10,000 fisheries — roughly 80 percent of our global fish catch. The conclusion: fish populations worldwide are swiftly declining. This global analysis paints a stark new picture of a global ocean fished to exhaustion in an increasingly hungry world.
So, why are we hopeful? It’s because the analysis of global fisheries has a silver lining. We have not reached a point of no return. We have time. Solutions exist.
The good news is that many large commercial fisheries are already benefiting from the improved management of the last decade. The harder problem is with smaller-scale fisheries that local communities rely on for food and income. The fact is that small-scale fishers — who fish within 10 miles of their coast — account for nearly half of the world’s global catch and employ 33 million of the world’s 36 million fishermen, while also creating jobs for 107 million people in fish processing and selling [pdf]. Mostly poor, they live mainly in areas lacking fisheries management, monitoring and enforcement. No one is in a position to formally declare their fisheries “disasters.” They must just endure their situation. Or — take control of it.
Safina and Jenks propose a hyper-local approach to managing fisheries, called Territorial Use Rights, or TURF. Here’s how it would work:
In exchange for the privilege of exclusivity, local fishermen agree to establish and protect no-take zones. Results include increased fish populations, richer marine habitats, and coastlines less vulnerable to climate change — and more food for people.
Unleashing the self-interest of local fishermen to advance both conservation and economic development can create one of those rare win-win scenarios.
A growing body of research shows that fish populations inside a no-take zone can more than quadruple. Fish numbers outside the reserve can double. And, exclusive access enables investment and better management, increasing the catch’s value.
That feels right. No one cares more about managing stocks than the very people whose lives and livelihood depend on the stocks surviving. The challenge is that thousands of TURF zones would have to be created (and enforced) around the globe.
That’s really just another way of saying that we have created a big problem so we need a dramatic solution. And I wish humanity had a better record of tackling big challenges by putting long term interests on a par with short term interests.
But the basic theme of localism is a very powerful one. And there is plenty of evidence that fishing’s emphasis on industrial practices and international fleets has been an accelerating disaster. So, sure, if we are going to do anything we should go local–and encourage traditional fishing practices that don’t strip mine the seas.
It would also help if the billions of people who don’t NEED to eat fish to survive would start laying off the tuna, Chilean Sea Bass, shrimp, shark fin soup, and every other fish our lust for high-end, boutique, food is destroying.
Since I touched on the topic of morality and climate change today, I wanted to share this powerful and articulate argument about morality and science. It comes from the always insightful Carl Safina, and I hope he won’t begrudge me the license to publish his entire essay–posted on his excellent blog–here (hey, if you’ve written something that can’t, or shouldn’t, be cut, then you have really accomplished something!).
Safina makes a critically important argument: that science is about the search for objective truth, and that humanity must always seek and acknowledge truth–no matter what the moral or political implications–because failure to do so can only bring darkness and crisis.
Take it away, Carl:
Science is essentially the systematic pursuit of what is real in nature.
Science is a method of inquiry. It asks, what is here?; then it seeks to answer questions of why and how.
Science aims to be objective. Two scientists who hold opposite hypotheses, give money to opposing political parties, and are of different faiths will—if they do their science honestly—get the same result.
This is what makes science the most powerful tool for truth-seeking ever devised by people. Science is in my opinion the finest achievement of the human mind.
Science is acknowledged as extremely important in much of the world. But it is also strenuously resisted, mistrusted, and ignored. It is not compatible with oppression and dishonesty, because it requires freedom of thought.
Only in a world where truth is feared can it be “inconvenient.”
A world that better valued and embraced science would be, by definition, more open to the truth, more realistic, more flexible and adaptable. A society more open to truth and more flexible could also be more humane, more compassionate, more pleasant—and more likely to survive.
Science can be flawed by human bias. It can be misused. But by its very design it resists those things; to the extent that science entails bias and is misused, it is bad science. Good science entails an abundance of curiosity, a lack of bias, a desire to better understand reality, and a commitment to embrace the truth. That makes science the most honest—and therefore the most moral—discipline ever devised by the human mind.
I am impressed over and over again with the fact that science must be the starting point for understanding what is really going on, for detecting changes in the world, and for identifying the likely consequences of human action or inaction. Science is a compass; it does not define the destination but it can guide us in getting there.
A populace acquainted with science, with its standards of openness, evidence, and repeatability, would be far less susceptible to the claims of politicians, salesmen, and extremists of various kinds. Science helps people cut through the nonsense. Science is a wise counselor. In short, science is a very good thing for the world.
Because the world is accelerating and problems proliferating, science is crucially important now. We need more science in our world and in our lives. So we need more of what science does, and we need it better understood and better valued.
I hope the world takes note of Carl Safina, and his new book, The View From Lazy Point (NYT review is here; Mother Jones review here). Safina is an original and deep thinker, and The View From Lazy Point is both an homage to the natural world and a clarion call–that is remarkably gentle yet utterly persuasive–for reimagining how humans live and interact with our humble planet.
I was drawn to Safina’s work because I have long been troubled by the idea that humanity has been intelligent enough to achieve great technological triumphs, yet not wise enough to find harmony and balance in human affairs or our understanding of the finite nature of Earth. We are well past the need to try and arouse humanity from its material, consumptive ways with a deluge of depressing and enervating detail about environmental destruction. That’s been going on for decades, and people have either chosen to recognize reality, or blind themselves.
What’s needed now are pathfinders and prophets who can redefine what it means to be human, and what changes humanity should make to its behaviors, economies, and cultures. Safina is searching for those sorts of answers and that’s why he is worth reading and talking about. I have no doubt that a critical mass will eventually develop behind the need to reinvent humanity. The only question is what sort of planet we will be living on when it happens. I am pessimistic, even nihilistic, about the prospects for a reasonable transition to this new epoch. But all anyone who cares can do is put out a light and hope people are drawn to it. As Safina writes: “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.” Or wise. That would be nice.