To consume or not to consume, fish that is

10 04 2007

There’s a new addition to the ever-popular scienceblogs community, Shifting Baselines, and I figured I would respond to one of the early posts over there. The question is “Should we continue to eat seafood?“, with Randy Olson (of Flock of Dodos fame) saying “yes” and Jennifer Jacquet saying “no,” and if I had to pick sides here I’d probably say “A little from column A, and a little from column B.”

Before I “dig in” to the issue, however, I should probably state my own stance on the matter. For my own part, I no longer eat seafood and become annoying dinner company as anyone who orders fish at a restaurant in my company is going to get a brief (but friendly) lecture on aquaculture, ocean depletion, etc. I don’t spurn people because they eat fish, but most people simply don’t know that when they order Orange Roughy they’re contributing to the non-sustainable harvest of slow-breeding fish that live in excess of 100 years. Ironically, I met Randy during a showing of Dodos at the Margaret Mead film festival at the American Museum of Natural History, the shirt I wore that night proclaiming “Fish are not for farming! Eat wild salmon.” This may seem a little counter-intuitive (even, dare I say it, hypocritical) for someone who doesn’t eat fish, but even though I’ve made my stand I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and hence I would rather support responsible harvesting and making fishing sustainable than try to make everyone think they should never have fish ever again. Hell, if sustainability is achieved in my lifetime I might even enjoy some fish now and then, but at the present time I feel that aquaculture is hurting more than it is helping. That being said…

While many have seized upon Randy’s opening paragraph,

I say we should not be expected to stop eating seafood until there is a clear strategy that will make use of individual efforts — namely boycotts. Asking people to make sacrifices in the absence of organized efforts is asking them to make gestures that are more symbolic than real. That, in my opinion, is essentially religious behavior.

I feel that he makes a second, more-important point. Most ocean-awareness campaigns that I have seen have been based upon making the world ocean seem like a wonderful (even magical) place, focusing on its beauty and trying to get support through tie-ins with Disney characters (do I really have to say which ones?). The whole thing reminds me of Homer Simpson’s idyllic plans;

Merely loving or appreciating the oceans in not enough. Randy gets it just right when he writes;

[A]t this point I honestly don’t know what to say to the world of ocean conservation when I look around and see all the “positive messaging,” going on–specifically the Thank You Oceans PSA produced in California last fall that features beautiful shots of pristine oceans, and the Keep Oceans Clean campaign from NOAA, NMFS, Environmental Defense, Disney and the Ad Council that produces movie posters of the Little Mermaid characters smiling and looking healthy. These campaigns are using visual media to send messages, and the messages they are sending are that the oceans are a fun, happy, healthy place today, which doesn’t quite square with the thousands of beach closure days around the country.

It’s like having your house on fire and instead of telling the people in your living room about the fire, you tell them how beautiful your house is in hopes they will want to see more of the house and discover the fire themselves on their own (believing that if they do this they will feel more personally connected to the issue of your house being on fire and want to fight it more aggressively).

Such campaigns have their place (especially in reaching out to children), but to see that they are the whole of many organization’s conservation messaging is disappointing, and I’m saying that as mildly as I can. There have been some attempts, however, at educating the public about the decline in fish stocks. The latest National Geographic featured a cover-story entitled “Still Waters: The Global Fish Crisis” and I can remember various articles of a similar nature being printed in magazines like TIME since the mid-1990’s as well (I need to dig through my pile of periodicals to try and find them). Although the effort put into such startling articles is great, it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, the articles quickly forgotten or not enough to put people off fish. I have to say, however, that National Geographic reminded us of an aspect of this issue all-too-often forgotten; the fishermen themselves. As I’ve noted before in order to conserve wildlife and habitat, the people who use those resources must be assisted as well. You can protect a species or preserve some amount of habitat, but if people in the surrounding area don’t have enough to eat it’s hard for them to care about ecology, and that holds true for poachers in Africa or fishermen in Newfoundland. Indeed, fishermen have been hard hit by declining fish stocks and the failure to make populations sustainable; if they are not assisted or can find other work there will be continued pressure on fish stocks and fishermen themselves.

Jennifer, in contrast to Randy, suggests the individual decision is important despite what institutions may or may not be in place to work towards healthier oceans. She writes;

These days, it’s easy to make a statement and much harder to make a difference. The media encourages us to do so many things: to take action, contribute to social consciousness, broadcast the latest news, and to create our own entertainment. From MySpace, to iTunes, to FaceBook it’s me, me, me. Last year, Time magazine voted “You” (Me) as Person of the Year. But even with this heightened status, nothing I do seems to make a difference. All individual behavior is engulfed at the national and then again at the global level. On an Earth of 6.5 billion people, how can one person’s actions possibly matter?

The simple answer, and the one I espouse most often, is: they can’t. But this simple answer is simply how the conscience justifies acts of hedonism. Individual behavior is still where any strong argument begins. Which is why, as someone committed to doing something about overfishing, I do not eat seafood.

This reminds me of a quote from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax;

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

So the question becomes how do we get people like us to care? Part of it is individual choice and bringing the issue up; if we simply wait until things change then nothing will change (or the change will be too slow). Indeed, in such a circumstance those who want to continue fishing out the oceans will say “Well, if people really wanted this, they’d be making different choices.” Government institutions have a habit of ignoring problems or not taking responsibility for natural resources, individuals (or communities) often having to fight in order to make their voices heard. If we don’t take a stand and become more vocal, then are we doing anything other than throwing up our hands and saying “Well everyone else is doing it”?

The practice of finning sharks (removing a sharks fins and dumping the animal, often still alive, back into the ocean) has been well known for years but has been notoriously difficult to stop because of the popularity of shark fin soup. The soup is regarded as both aphrodisiac and status-symbol (once only available to royalty), and with economic growth in Asia came an increasing demand for the stuff. Other than resistance to the idea of boycotting the soup, the practice of finning is hard to stop because once the fins are harvested it’s essentially impossibly to tell whether they were collected legally or illegally, and so unless you catch fishermen in the act all you can do is appeal to the public, restaurants, and organizations. There has been some success in getting websites like to ban the listing of shark fins or shark fin soup, but others (notoriously still offer a variety of shark products to the undiscriminating consumer.

Case in point, last year NBA star Yao Ming (along with “Olympian Li Ning” and “pop star Liu Huan,” according to the New York Times article) joined WildAid to denounce the consumption of shark fin soup in China and hoped to spread ecological awareness. No one seemed to care. In fact, many responded with the same rationale that’s kept the Japanese whaling fleet so busy; it’s a part of the culture and that’s that. The year before Disney (the same people who care SO much about conservation *pours on some extra sarcasm*) pulled shark fin soup from its parks in China, but said that it did not bow to pressure from environmental groups. How many people instigated this change? Not many, only about 1,000 sent e-mails to protest Disney serving the soup off the menu (it’s original concession), which is both saddening and heartening. While it’s appalling that only 1,000 people knew about this issue and held Disney to task, such an outcry from that many individuals working together did force Disney to change. Even so, Disney used the c-word again, Don Robinson (“managing director” of Hong Kong Disneyland) stating;

Striking the right balance between cultural sensitivities and conservation has always been our goal, and we believe this decision is consistent with our ongoing commitment to conservation and responsible consumption practices.

This, of course, comes from a spokesman for a conglomerate that constantly and consistently displaces native animals and destroys habitat in the name of progress, only then contributing to conservation programs and expecting a pat on the back. Indeed, prior to the opening of the famed Animal Kingdom park several endangered animals died because they either could not adjust to being in Florida (black rhinos) or were killed because of incompetant design (two West African Crowned Cranes run over by safari attraction vehicles). Regardless of the organization’s hypocrisy, a large part of the fish consumption issue is that it’s a cultural issue; who are you to tell me what I can and can’t eat? Even beyond that issue, a lot of overfishing is done in places where the local people are poor and have no choice to keep fishing to feed their children or to collect tropical fish/fin sharks to get money, and again if we do not help the people it will be nearly impossible to help the environment.

To say the least, the global ocean is under assault (I didn’t even mention ocean acidification, global climate change, or other problems), and immediate action needs to be taken. Cultural norms or governmental willingness may be slow to change, but we simply do not have the luxury of waiting for things to come around. We all need to make a choice; are we going to continue to contribute to practices we know are irresponsible, unethical, and non-sustainable? I’m not suggesting that if anyone eats a fish again they’re going to hell, but if we are to make changes we must be vocal, we must make a commitment to doing the right thing, and we should tell other people who we are in contact with about these issues. Maybe you or I can’t influence the whole of the Chinese people, but we can influence our friend who loves sushi or our parents who have fish every now and then. There’s really no excuse not to make an effort here and now to spur on larger scale changes, if those who know there’s a problem don’t do anything, who is?




3 responses

11 04 2007


why exactly is fish farming bad for the environment? give me some quick lines please, then I’ll read on for myself.

2 05 2007
tropical fish

I agree on your statement that the fish culture is being threated horribly and that today they are breeded in cultures just for farming in a non natural environment that is disturbing our ecological system. However I believe people have the right to choose if they want to eat fish or not. Just like eating meat… It’s a choice…

It was an interesting read 🙂

3 05 2007

[…] a commentor recently mentioned on my fish-as-food post that people should have the “right” to eat fish. This got me thinking; where does this […]

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