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 Seafood Is A Fantasy

About 400 tons of jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner.

Finally, someone agrees with me:

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.

Or this recent look at the challenge of shrimp-farming:

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.)


Or this look at the carbon footprint of shrimp farming:

Twenty years ago, 80 percent of shrimp consumed here came from domestic wild fisheries, with imports supplying the rest. Today, we’ve more than flipped those numbers: the United States imports 90 percent of the shrimp consumed here. We now bring in a staggering 1.2 billion pounds of it annually, mainly from farms in Asia. Between 1995 and 2008, the inflation-adjusted price of wild-caught Gulf shrimp plunged 30 percent.

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,” hetold Science.

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.

Overexploitation Watch: Antarctic Krill

Sea Shepherd has a pretty depressing report on the factory ships they have seen plying Antarctic waters and scooping up krill:

The area where we found the krill fishing vessels was incredibly close to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands that are dotted with penguin rookeries and fur seal haul-outs. This gives a full overlap between the fishery and the foraging ranges of land-based predators like the penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie and Macaroni), which cannot move to other locations. Even if there is still plenty of Krill around, both predators and fishing vessels will concentrate on the highest densities and therefore directly compete. The surrounding waters are cruised by seven species of Baleen whales. The ice floes in these waters function as resting places for Crabeater and Leopard seals. All these animals depend directly or indirectly on Krill as their food source. The true seals have flourished and the fur seals were able to bounce back from near-extinction when the Antarctic waters were emptied of the Krill-gorging baleen whales during the whaling era (early 1900s until the 1980s). The competition eliminated, more food became available for them, but a decline in Krill will eventually hit all animals in the Antarctic, even flying birds and fish, and will prevent the great whales from returning to pre-exploitation numbers.

Krill is called the single largest under-utilized commercial marine resource remaining, because the global quota set is not yet reached, but expansion of the fishery seems inevitable. The fishery was kept in check by the distance and inhospitality of Antarctica’s waters, the fact that Krill are highly perishable once killed and that consumer interest was limited. Aquaculture feed demand is on the rise however, rapid on-board processing techniques have dealt with the quick spoiling and new products are being developed. The Krill fishery is the continuation of a trend in the history of fishing. We fish further and further away from home and we fish further and further down the food chain. You can’t get much further away as Antarctica and you can’t get much further down the food web than Krill. We are reaching the end.

Worth thinking about the next time someone tells you that fish farming is sustainable. Everywhere you look, new species, and new resources, are being exploited for commercial purposes. Each one is unique, and each one has its own special role in the ecosystem, and it seems impossible to keep up with, and blunt or even slow the insatiable grind of industry and its quest for new profits.

How is it that we have created an international system of politics and economics that completely fails to value and protect these resources?


The only way, really, to address these endless and destructive forays into nature’s delicate balance, the only way to imagine that all these extraordinary natural resources can be defended, is to change the culture that lies behind them.  That is the only global solution, but it will take a revolution in thinking and values.

Who Owns The Fish?

The whole concept that humans “own” the fish in the sea is objectionable, but that is the system that humanity has created to try and regulate fishing. And it’s a system that does not work very well, or protect small fishermen.

Here’s an interesting take on the failed system, by the Center For Investigative Reporting (via GOOD):

I would prefer that we figure out an alternative food source to fish, and let the oceans be. But if we are to fish, it needs to be globally managed on the basis of the principle that all earth’s resources should be shared sustainably by all earth’s people–and not according to who has coastline–and quotas should be drastically reduced according to the most conservative scientific evidence regarding what annual take any given fish stock can handle.

Is There Such A Thing As A Sustainably Farmed Fish?

I have long doubted it, but this guy thinks he may have cracked the code:

Goldman chose barramundi because their personalities are “tame, gregarious, and kind of patient” — well-suited to life in tanks. And, unlike most fish, which only obtain omega-3s from the plankton and algae — or other fish — that they eat, barramundi can actually synthesize them on their own. “They spend a lot of their early life cycle in freshwater, so they’re not exposed to the long-chain fatty acids,” explains Goldman. “They actually develop the ability to build omega-3s without necessarily having to consume them.”

This is key to the barramundi’s claims to sustainability. One pound of farmed bluefin tuna can require as much as 20 pounds of wild fish as feed; for farmed salmon, the ratio is often well above 3 to 1. That means a host of problems: depleting the biomass of the oceans at a faster pace, decimating so-called “forage fish” that serve as a staple in poor countries, and, since some estimates say aquaculture demands will outpace fish meal production within decades, undermining the industry itself.

“Everybody on the marine side is really focused on reducing fish meal and oil” in fish feed, says Goldman. “There’s a consensus on that — that it’s really, really important.”

It’s hard to say what the animal and environmental impacts of scaling this sort of operation to real significance will be. But my guess is that any flaws would begin to become pronounced at that stage. And like all industrial food farming operations it has a bit too much of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice feel to me.

Give Goldman credit for trying to address the very real problems of overfishing and environmentally destructive aquaculture. But maybe we should all just start coming to grips with the fact that our animal-eating tastes are overtaxing the planet and its other species, and start learning to love tofu.

Fish Fry

People sometimes ask me whether I eat fish, and when I tell them I don’t they want to know why. My stock answer is that I doubt that any fish are being fished sustainably, or farmed in a way that is net neutral when it comes to the environment and health.

Yes, there are fish guides that supposedly tell you what fish species are “safe” to eat. But then you see gross data, like that contained in this WWF Living Planet Report, which show an unrelenting, and appalling, human devastation of global fish stocks. Against that backdrop, it is simply hard for me to believe that anyone who cares about the future of fish and the oceans should do anything other than stop contributing to the insatiable demand for fish protein that is strip mining the seas. Against that backdrop, it makes sense to be overcautious, to not place our faith in subjective and imprecise assertions that some fish are doing fine. In other words, it makes sense to give fish everywhere a break.

Here’s a graphic from the WWF report, which says it all:

Yep. that’s a lot of red. And it’s not like it doesn’t follow many warnings that humanity’s estimations of “sustainable” fishing are pure fantasy. Here’s one of the best, which is in fact the analysis that prompted me to stop eating any and all fish.

Anyhow, this is the Washington Post‘s take on what has been happening:

Between 1950 and 2006, the WWF report notes, the world’s annual fishing haul more than quadrupled, from 19 million tons to 87 million tons. New technology — from deep-sea trawling to long-lining — has helped the fishing industry harvest areas that were once inaccessible. But the growth of intensive fishing also means that larger and larger swaths of the ocean are in danger of being depleted….

[snip]…Indeed, there’s some evidence that we’ve already hit “peak fish.” World fish production seems to have reached its zenith back in the 1980s, when the global catch was higher than it is today. And, according to one recent study in the journal Science, commercial fish stocks are on pace for total “collapse” by 2048 — meaning that they’ll produce less than 10 percent of their peak catch. On the other hand, many of those fish-depleted areas will be overrun by jellyfish, which is good news for anyone who enjoys a good blob sandwich.

This interactive graphic from the WWF report shows the overall population trends over the past few decades (hint: it doesn’t look very good). But we knew that already. The question is: what are you going to do about it? And what are you going to put on your plate?