COVID-19: Bad For Fishermen, Good For Fish?


“It is so damn peaceful and relaxing out here.”

Commercial fisheries are yet another example of the yin and yang of the pandemic era. The US commercial fishing industry, like so many industries, is being crushed, with demand plummeting:

The novel coronavirus pandemic has destroyed demand for seafood across a complicated U.S. supply chain, from luxury items such as lobster and crab, generally consumed at restaurants, to grocery staples sourced from the world’s fish farms.

Now, with restaurants closed, many of the nation’s fisheries — across geography, species, gear types and management — have reported sales slumps as high as 95 percent.

Boats from Honolulu to Buzzards Bay, Mass., are tied up dockside, with fisheries in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska affected, throwing thousands of fishermen out of work and devastating coastal communities.

This is brutal for fishing industry workers, and the relief bills coming out of Congress do not do enough to cushion the blows. But it is logical to assume that this forced hiatus for US commercial fishing is a big benefit to all the fish stocks commercial fishermen target.

In the meantime, it is worth asking whether this pandemic might be a good time to restructure and shrink the global fishing industry. All the blather about “sustainable fisheries” aside, humanity is devastating fish stocks throughout the oceans. Only a tiny percentage is not overfished or maxed out (and, remember, that is a self-interested human judgement). If the fishing industry comes back from COVID, much smaller, and puts a lot less pressure on global fish stocks, that would be a good thing.

That is not to advocate throwing fishermen around the planet into poverty and destitution. But it is to say this would be a good time for governments everywhere to help idled fishermen with the financial support and education they need to find new ways to make a living. Like regenerative agriculture, for example.

Climate change had already brought humanity to an inflection point that demands global change. COVID is reinforcing, and bringing urgency, to that inflection. The massive disruptions of this pandemic are costly and painful. They are also an opportunity to revolutionize how we live and how we care for the planet.

Sylvia Earle Does Not Eat Fish

And here she explains why:

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if we’re talking freshwater species — for most people, eating fish is a choice, not a necessity. Some people believe that the sole purpose of fish is for us to eat them. They are seen as commodities. Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food. They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful. It isn’t just a matter of caring about the fish or the corals, but also about all the things that are destroyed in the process of capturing ocean wildlife. We have seen such a sharp decline in the fish that we consume in my lifetime that I personally choose not to eat any. In the end, it’s a choice.

There are few people on the planet who have thought more about that choice, so Earle is worth listening to (though she isn’t quite willing to tell people not to eat meat as well; attention Cowspiracy).

And, since we are on documentaries today, you can hear a lot more about her and her work in the Netflix doc Mission Blue.

Sustainable Fish?

I don’t think it exists. But chef Dan Barber was determined to find some fish he could feel good about.

Since it appears to be Fish Friday here, I thought I’d let him tell the tale.

The backstory: “Chef Dan Barber squares off with a dilemma facing many chefs today: how to keep fish on the menu. With impeccable research and deadpan humor, he chronicles his pursuit of a sustainable fish he could love, and the foodie’s honeymoon he’s enjoyed since discovering an outrageously delicious fish raised using a revolutionary farming method in Spain.”

Media Failure And The Dying Oceans

CNN takes detailed note of the grim future of oceans, and the fish and mammals that live in them:

Remoteness, however, has not left the oceans and their inhabitants unaffected by humans, with overfishing, climate change and pollution destabilizing marine environments across the world.

Many marine scientists consider overfishing to be the greatest of these threats. The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international survey of ocean life completed in 2010, estimated that 90% of the big fish had disappeared from the world’s oceans, victims primarily of overfishing.

Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna were caught every year in the North Sea in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, they have disappeared across the seas of Northern Europe. Halibut has suffered a similar fate, largely vanishing from the North Atlantic in the 19th century.

In some cases, the collapse has spread to entire fisheries. The remaining fishing trawlers in the Irish Sea, for example, bring back nothing more than prawns and scallops, says marine biologist Callum Roberts, from the UK’s York University.

“Is a smear of protein the sort of marine environment we want or need? No, we need one with a variety of species, that is going to be more resistant to the conditions we can expect from climate change,” Roberts said.

The situation is even worse in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, people are now fishing for juvenile fish and protein that they can grind into fishmeal and use as feed for coastal prawn farms. “It’s heading towards an end game,” laments Roberts.

It’s as dismal a picture as you can imagine, and the collapse of fisheries and acidification of the ocean, apart from the moral failures involved, will have profound effects on humanity’s future. Usually, if self-interest is at stake, people care.

So here is my question: why are these global threats–to the climate, to the oceans, to other species–not front page news each and every day on every media platform modern man has devised? They are existential threats, threats that dwarf the issues and problems that regularly get coverage, threats that dwarf most challenges we have ever faced because they are truly global and go to the core of how we live.

I am sure that media companies would answer that the public doesn’t want to read or hear about the scale of the problem, and the role of humanity and its hyper-materialistic culture in creating the problem. Doesn’t want to hear about sacrifice and the need for change. Covering that stuff is a money-loser.

But if Hitler or Dr. Evil, or an alien invader was threatening to heat up the planet, acidify the oceans, and force mass extinctions, I assume mainstream media would think that was newsworthy, and the public would agree. The occasional due diligence report, like this one, just doesn’t cut it. We need to be going to Defcon 1, and instead we are being hypnotized by the modern opiate of the masses, celebrity worship and endless and feckless video distractions.

Here is one point of agreement I have with Sarah Palin. Mainstream media = Lamestream media. And its failures, like ours, will seem criminal and shockingly blind to future generations trying to cope with the compromised planet we have bequeathed them.

Nightly Reader: Oct. 22, 2012

Links to to ponder (or sleep on)…

Counterintuitive: Are electric cars worse for the environment than gas cars?

Two-Fer: I unburden myself of interesting links by handing you off to Mark Bittman unburdening himself of interesting links.

Mark Bittman Links

Alternate Reality: Planet Money assembles a spectrum of economists to craft a bipartisan tax reform plan that makes economic sense. They do. It’s really good. And almost none of it will ever get passed. But here is how it would be pitched:

Is Any Fish Truly Sustainably Fished?

A pile of shrimp bycatch.

There are probably a few, but good luck figuring out which. When my daughter and I went vegetarian we grappled with the question of whether we were just going meat-less, or meat-less AND fish-less. My daughter, bless her heart, had no question that we should leave fish alone. And I was fine with going along with her, partly for humane reasons, but also very much because all the evidence is that there are very few species of fish (whether wild-caught, or farmed) that are sustainably managed. And even fewer that don’t have some negative environmental impact (such as bycatch, disease transmission, antibiotic resistance, etc., etc.). So meat-less and fish-less we became.

We didn’t put a ton of research into that decision, but it feels vindicated by the news over the weekend that Whole Foods has decided to stop buying certain New England fish because it doesn’t believe that they are being fished sustainably (despite existing fisheries management, and “sustainable” certifications):

Starting Sunday, gray sole and skate, common catches in the region, will no longer appear in the grocery chain’s artfully arranged fish cases. Atlantic cod, a New England staple, will be sold only if it is not caught by trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, a much-used method here.

“It’s totally maddening,” Mr. Sanfilippo said. “They’re just doing it to make all the green people happy.”

Whole Foods says that, in fact, it is doing its part to address the very real problem of overfishing and help badly depleted fish stocks recover. It is using ratings set by the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. They are based on factors including how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.

“Stewardship of the ocean is so important to our customers and to us,” said David Pilat, the global seafood buyer for Whole Foods. “We’re not necessarily here to tell fishermen how to fish, but on a species like Atlantic cod, we are out there actively saying, ‘For Whole Foods Market to buy your cod, the rating has to be favorable.’ ”

The company had originally planned to stop selling “red-rated” fish next year but moved up its deadline. The other fish it will no longer carry are Atlantic halibut, octopus, sturgeon, tautog, turbot, imported wild shrimp, some species of rockfish, and tuna and swordfish caught in certain areas or by certain methods. (Whole Foods has already stopped selling orange roughy, shark, bluefin tuna and most marlin.)

Then today, Juliet Eilperin followed up in the Washington Post with a story that got even deeper into the complexities and disagreements over all the organizations rating fisheries as sustainable or not:

Many retailers tout the environmental credentials of their seafood, but a growing number of scientists have begun to question whether these certification systems deliver on their promises. The labels give customers a false impression that purchasing certain products helps the ocean more than it really does, some researchers say.

Backers respond that they are helping transform many of the globe’s wild-caught fisheries, giving them a financial incentive to include environmental safeguards, while giving consumers a sense of what they can eat with a clear conscience.

To add to the confusion, there are a variety of certification labels and guides, prompting retailers to adopt a hybrid approach, relying on multiple seafood rating systems or establishing their own criteria and screening products that way….[snip]

…The most stringent and commonly used certification is that of the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified 148 wild-caught fisheries, or between 6 and 7 percent of the global supply. It uses independent reviewers to determine whether a fishery earns an MSC-certified label and can be classified as sustainable — meaning that the fish is relatively abundant, the fishery is well managed, and catching it does not harm other species or ocean habitats.

It is a measure of the attention focused on the world’s fish stocks that the council’s work has come under scrutiny.

A study published online last week in the journal Marine Policy showed that, for fish stocks where there was sufficient information, 31 percent of MSC-certified stocks were overfished and subject to continuing overfishing.

There’s no question that if you are going to eat fish, you should buy only fish that is certified as sustainable by…someone (and hope that it really is). But, to me, the only unambiguous way to protect and preserve fish stocks is….not to eat them.

Here’s a good graphic the Washington Post included, which reinforces the point that it is hard to know whom to believe:

A Market Solution For Saving Whales?

Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd confrontations with whaling fleets make for good television. But despite their efforts lots of whales still die every year (some 2000, in fact).

A minke whale is processed in Hvalskurður, Iceland. (Via WIRED. Photo: Dagur Brynjólfsson/Flickr

Environmental economists Christopher Costello, Steve Gaines, and Leah Berger think that market incentives might be a better way to reduce the numbers of whales killed every year. Writing in the January 11 issue of NATURE, they propose the equivalent of a cap and trade system for whales, which would allow conservationists to spend money on purchasing whale shares (and saving the lives of whales) in stead of spending money on chasing whaling fleets around the world’s oceans.

Here’s how WIRED describes the plan:

The proposed market would be patterned after a system known best known from fisheries management as catch shares: Sustainable harvest levels are quantified, a maximum quota established, and catch allotments put up for sale by the International Whaling Commission. Costello’s proposal would add the crucial wrinkle of allowing activists to buy shares, too. If they did, a corresponding number of whales would be removed from the quota. (Indigenous groups would receive a set number of shares to be owned in perpetuity, apart from the market — though those could conceivably be sold, too.)

According to Costello’s estimates, global whaling profits amount to $31 million, and likely less when government subsidies are removed. Mainstream anti-whaling groups — Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund — spend about $25 million to fight the hunts.

“This money could be used to purchase whales, arguably with the same or better effect,” write the researchers in Nature.

There is pushback over the idea that whales would continue to be treated as commodities to buy and sell, instead of exempted from human harvest because they are intelligent, social creatures.

But until humanity achieves a more enlightened and ethical understanding of the relationship between humankind and the other species on Earth–and can agree to leave whales alone–it makes sense to try any approach that actually reduces whale kills. Right now, money is what motivates mankind, so it’s an intriguing proposal.

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