22 Feb 2011: Opinion

How Fisheries Can Gain From
The Lessons of Sustainable Food

As agriculture and energy production have made strides toward becoming more sustainable, the world’s fisheries have lagged behind. But restoring our beleaguered oceans to health will require an emphasis on diversification and conservation — and a more sensible mix of fishing practices.

by john waldman

In The Dark, Blue Sea, Lord Byron famously stated, “Man marks the earth with ruin, his control stops with the shore.” That in 1812 the land side of the shore was already being compromised was not in doubt. But two subsequent centuries of misuse have demonstrated just how mistaken he was about the inviolability of the oceans. Man’s control beyond the shore today is not complete, but it is profound. The sea’s noteworthy denizens — its finfish and shellfish, always major food sources — have felt this control through overharvesting and habitat destruction, so that today many species are in sharp decline or at perilous levels.

Two hundred years of marine environmental degradation have coincided with evolutionary trends in the public’s relations with seafood. In the U.S., much of the fish the average person now eats is made up of a handful of species captured by factory ships that turn their catch into processed fish sticks and other mass-produced forms of convenience; the end product of such corporate fisheries seems far removed from a sleek, scaly creature with fins.

A century earlier in coastal communities, not only were fresh fish consumed in large quantities, but there was an intimacy with them — they were drawn from known sources within an annual cycle of availability and there was appreciation for the subtleties of seasonality, such as the periods when
Agriculture and fisheries share an unyielding reach for efficiency and size at the expense of quality and environment.
particular species would have the highest fat content and taste best. Who buying fish today is cognizant that October mackerel are the most succulent or that pollock are better after mid-summer?

How we manage the sea and its fisheries would benefit from lessons drawn from two great realms that are returning towards diversification and familiarity: energy, and land-based food production. Both are just now emerging from brute domination by massive industrial practices into a more progressive “sensible mix” of options. The ocean realm trails behind.

Energy options beyond petroleum are being experimented with and developed in myriad ways, including new modes of conservation, increased efficiencies, and alternative sources. We are moving with heightened speed to a world where oil will be just one of many ways we power our cars, industries, and homes. Using energy on a daily basis may become more complicated, but by employing a far richer mix of conservation and source options, energy will be more sustainable.

The same holds true for agriculture. Heavily subsidized monocultures, most often corn, provide vast quantities of cheap but marginally nutritious products. The public’s response to industrial farming, after decades of indifference, has been a swiftly growing backlash in the form of the intertwined slow food, organic, locavore, community-supported agriculture, and greenmarket movements. Small farms are becoming economically viable again by producing high-quality products that are grown with respect by the producers and purchased with appreciation by consumers. Even Wal-Mart is attempting to go local with programs such as a pledge to sell $1 billion in food from small and medium farmers in emerging global markets and to double the amount of in-state produce purchases.

The lag in perception by Lord Byron (and he was not alone) in the comparison between the vulnerability of the land and the sea lives on to this day, illustrated by two recent and influential books on what Americans eat and how their food reaches them. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food traces the growth and eventual domination of industrial agriculture of most of the vegetables, fruit, and meat that shows up at our dinner tables. Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish examines the equally distressing history of commercial fishing by following the fates of the inland salmon, the near-shore European bass, the offshore codfish, and the oceanic tuna. All have been and are still overfished, some to the point of collapse, as in the case of Newfoundland’s once abundant cod stocks. Pollan’s terrestrial history and Greenberg’s aquatic history reflect important differences, though — chiefly that the land is privately owned and farmed and the sea is a shared resource that is essentially hunted. They share the important commonality of industrial overshooting and the unyielding reach for efficiency and size — at the expense of quality and environment.

But when it comes to sustainability, use of the sea remains a step behind. There is still little penetration of locally produced seafood in most greenmarkets. Many consumers remain confused about which seafoods are safe from the threat of chemical contamination. Some strain to remember advice from environmental organizations on which species get green, yellow, or red lights for their conservation status. Others struggle to weigh the environmental effects of commercial fishing versus aquaculture in choosing which fish to buy.

Pollan and Greenberg each make recommendations. Primary for both authors is to stop subsidizing industrial-level production. The conservation group, WWF, estimates that global subsidies to commercial fisheries total $15 billion per year, with a sizeable portion going to industrial fishing
Global subsidies to commercial fisheries total $15 billion per year, with a sizeable portion going to industrial fleets.
fleets. The watchdog group, fishsubsidy.org, calculates that between 2000 and 2006, the European Union provided 6 billion Euros ($8.4 billion) to the fishing industry by helping fund vessel construction or subsidizing fuel. Those subsidies helped spur an expansion of EU fishing fleets in countries such as France and Spain, which is one cause of the overfishing of numerous species, most notably the giant bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. In the U.S. alone, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) said in a 2009 report that between 1996 and 2004, the annual subsidies to commercial fisheries exceeded $700 million, much of it for fuel costs. The EWG concluded that this subsidization is equal to one-fifth the value of the catch itself and that it contributes directly to overfishing.

If seafood products from these subsidized fisheries were priced at what they truly cost, they would be less attractive to consumers, and there would be greater incentive to eat a broader array of healthier food items or products with less environmental damage associated with them.

Another of Pollan’s and Greenberg’s prescriptions is to heed the bottom of the food chain. On land, growing a variety of crops on one farm can improve productivity by reducing or eliminating the need for intensive chemical fertilization. In the sea, protection of small “baitfish” that support the food chain may have more economic value than removing them to make fishmeal.

In addition to the admonitions of these authors, a “sensible mix” for securing seafood would include far more artisanal fishing in the place of the industrial, where fisherman would feel a sense of ownership for their fishing grounds, there would be less waste from accidental “bycatch,” and the more carefully handled catch would fetch higher prices in local markets. As with local farms, the added respect for the product by the fisherman would yield greater appreciation by the consumer. Indeed, premium landings from one distributor in Maine are shipped with the identity of the
A sensible mix for securing seafood would include far more artisanal fishing in place of the industrial.
fisherman who caught them, a humanizing touch reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott’s admonition that “It’s not fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service is slowly moving in a promising direction, with a catch share policy that went into effect in November 2010. Under the policy, individuals or communities gain privileged access or harvest quotas that convey a greater sense of responsibility for their use of the marine commons. By using individual fishing quotas that limit total landings, one popular program for Gulf of Mexico red snapper has extended the harvest season from about two months to twelve months. This permits steady remuneration for the fishermen while also maintaining the price per pound by avoiding gluts in the marketplace.

Some individual transferable quota programs are also in place under which the fisherman’s rights can be sold or leased, which also encourages more careful stewardship of fisheries resources. As of 2008, roughly 150 such programs were in place for major fisheries internationally and another 100 for smaller fisheries in individual countries. Also, the Marine Stewardship Council, which administers a rigorous certification process for the sustainability of fisheries, has launched an Access for All Fisheries Project that will provide a methodology to assess the sustainability of smaller-scale fisheries, where data is often lacking.

Larger total artisanal landings would not replace industrial fishing, but they would reduce its importance and its detrimental ecological consequences, while helping to achieve the elusive goal of sustainability. There also needs to be a greater emphasis on preserving the structure and efficiencies of food webs by not cropping any one level disproportionally, including base members of the food chain — such as menhaden — for reduction to fishmeal. A return to higher levels of artisanal fishing could assist this goal by spreading harvests more broadly, both among species and geographically. Artisanal fisheries are also more nimble and may be better at avoiding bycatch and making better use of legal bycatches.


In Novel Approach to Fisheries,
Fishermen Manage the Catch

In Novel Approach to Fisheries, Fishermen Manage the Catch
An increasingly productive way of restoring fisheries is based on the counter-intuitive concept of allowing fishermen to take charge of their own catch. But its success depends heavily on a strong leader who will look out not only for the fishermen, but for the resource itself.
Aquaculture, an endeavor with a mixed environmental track record, can contribute to a more sustainable fisheries system, but only for those species where their food is efficiently converted to fish flesh. Tilapia and milkfish do this far better than salmon, cod, and tuna, and raising them has fewer environmental side effects to the immediate surroundings. In fact, tilapia can be cultured in basements and greenhouses as an integral cog in self-contained polycultures.

We have indeed marked the sea with our ruin. But we have managed to learn that domination by monolithic versions of farming and energy production has many adverse consequences, a knowledge now driving these forms of commerce toward still nascent but more sustainable diversifications. How we derive food from the sea lags behind, yet it too would benefit from a more sensible mix.

POSTED ON 22 Feb 2011 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Oceans Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Science & Technology North America North America 


I thank you for the interesting post on the ecology and sustainability of globalization.

Personally I think it is essential to revise the rules of the capitalist system in which, unfortunately, continues to erode in research money goes way too massive nature and our planet.

We realize only too late? When there are no more trees to cut and fish to catch? I hope not! :)

Posted by Mr. Legno on 23 Feb 2011

The problem with this analysis is that in the Eastern U.S. the catch share approach recently
imposed by Jane Lubchenko (NOAA) is rapidly leading to consolidation of ownership -- and not
to "artisanal" fisheries. Small boat fishermen in local ports are about to go under, while
ownership is concentrating in a few hands.

New England fisheries don't have to worry about derby fishing. The prior conventional "days at
sea" controls had led to a strong recovery of the fisheries.

Catch shares "sound nice" -- but the devil is in the details. I suggest that researching the actual impact of catch share programs in the U.S. would be worthwhile -- because the reality is that it is leading to the exact opposite of what you want. Check out the work of Food and Water Watch, for example.

Posted by Valerie Nelson on 25 Feb 2011

if we look at all the major problems mankind are facing, it is not difficult to pinpoint the root of all these problems. It is human GREED.

Until we learn to recognise this, we will continue to be consumed by it and the consequences we have to face.

Posted by Law on 01 Mar 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
john waldmanABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College, New York, works on the ecology and evolution of anadromous fishes, historical ecology, and urban waterways. Currently on sabbatical, he is working on a book titled Who Hears the Fishes When they Cry on the historical ecology of the Atlantic river-sea fishes, such as sturgeons, salmon, shad, and river herring. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about the ways that warming temperatures are causing the “global weirding” phenomenon and how from generation to generation, certain species cease to matter.



African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

The Dungeness Crab Faces
Uncertain Future on West Coast

The winner of the 2016 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest explores how ocean acidification may be putting at risk a prized crustacean that is vital to the fishing industry and the marine ecosystem on the U.S. Pacific Coast.


MORE IN Opinion

Why U.S. Coal Industry and
Its Jobs Are Not Coming Back

by james van nostrand
President-elect Donald J. Trump has vowed to revive U.S. coal production and bring back thousands of jobs. But it’s basic economics and international concern about climate change that have crushed the American coal industry, not environmental regulations.

How the Attack on Science Is
Becoming a Global Contagion

by christian schwägerl
Assaults on the science behind climate change research and conservation policies are spreading from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology.

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

by bill mckibben
Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?

Floating Solar: A Win-Win for
Drought-Stricken Lakes in U.S.

by philip warburg
Floating solar panel arrays are increasingly being deployed in places as diverse as Brazil and Japan. One prime spot for these “floatovoltaic” projects could be the sunbaked U.S. Southwest, where they could produce clean energy and prevent evaporation in major man-made reservoirs.

Point/Counterpoint: Should
Green Critics Reassess Ethanol?

by timothy e. wirth and c. boyden gray
Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray argue that environmental criticisms of corn ethanol are unwarranted and that the amount in gasoline should be increased. In rebuttal, economist C. Ford Runge counters that any revisionist view of ethanol ignores its negative impacts on the environment and the food supply.

The Case Against More Ethanol:
It's Simply Bad for Environment

by c. ford runge
The revisionist effort to increase the percentage of ethanol blended with U.S. gasoline continues to ignore the major environmental impacts of growing corn for fuel and how it inevitably leads to higher prices for this staple food crop. It remains a bad idea whose time has passed.

How Satellites and Big Data
Can Help to Save the Oceans

by douglas mccauley
With new marine protected areas and an emerging U.N. treaty, global ocean conservation efforts are on the verge of a major advance. But to enforce these ambitious initiatives, new satellite-based technologies and newly available online data must be harnessed.

Why Supreme Court’s Action
Creates Opportunity on Climate

by david victor
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan may have a silver lining: It provides an opportunity for the U.S. to show other nations it has a flexible, multi-faceted approach to cutting emissions.

With Court Action, Obama’s
Climate Policies in Jeopardy

by michael b. gerrard
The U.S. Supreme Court order blocking President Obama’s plan to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants is an unprecedented step and one of the most environmentally harmful decisions ever made by the nation’s highest court.

Beyond the Oregon Protests:
The Search for Common Ground

by nancy langston
Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place of confrontation, the Malheur wildlife refuge is actually a highly successful example of a new collaboration in the West between local residents and the federal government.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.