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.

MORE FROM YALE e360

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.
READ MORE
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 

COMMENTS


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.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Cashes Ledge: New England's Underwater Laboratory
A little over 70 miles off the coast of New England, an unusual undersea mountain range, known as Cashes Ledge, rises from the seabed. The area teems with kelp forests, sea sponges, and a wide variety of fish and mollusks — much of it captured by ocean photographer Brian Skerry during dives made earlier this year
READ MORE

How Norway and Russia Made
A Cod Fishery Live and Thrive

The prime cod fishing grounds of North America have been depleted or wiped out by overfishing and poor management. But in Arctic waters, Norway and Russia are working cooperatively to sustain a highly productive — and profitable — cod fishery.
READ MORE

Unsustainable Seafood: A New
Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

A recent study shows that a surprisingly large amount of the seafood sold in U.S. markets is caught illegally. In a series of actions over the last few months, governments and international regulators have started taking aim at stopping this illicit trade in contraband fish.
READ MORE

Using Ocean Robots to Unlock
Mysteries of CO2 and the Seas

Marine phytoplankton are vital in absorbing ever-increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, researcher Tracy Villareal explains how he is using remotely operated robots to better understand how this process mitigates climate change.
READ MORE

In Japan, Captive Breeding
May Help Save the Wild Eel

As eel populations plummet worldwide, Japanese scientists are racing to solve a major challenge for aquaculture — how to replicate the life cycle of eels in captivity and commercially produce a fish that is a prized delicacy on Asian dinner tables.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Opinion


A Conservationist Sees Signs of Hope for the World’s Rainforests
by rhett butler
After decades of sobering news, a prominent conservationist says he is finally finding reason to be optimistic about the future of tropical forests. Consumer pressure on international corporations and new monitoring technology, he says, are helping turn the tide in efforts to save forests from Brazil to Indonesia.
READ MORE

True Altruism: Can Humans
Change To Save Other Species?

by verlyn klinkenborg
A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?
READ MORE

A Blueprint to End Paralysis
Over Global Action on Climate

by timothy e. wirth and thomas a. daschle
The international community should stop chasing the chimera of a binding treaty to limit CO2 emissions. Instead, it should pursue an approach that encourages countries to engage in a “race to the top” in low-carbon energy solutions.
READ MORE

Animal ‘Personhood’: Muddled
Alternative to Real Protection

by verlyn klinkenborg
A new strategy of granting animals “personhood” under the law is being advanced by some in academia and the animal rights movement. But this approach fails to address the fundamental truth that all species have an equal right to their own existence.
READ MORE

A Year After Sandy, The Wrong
Policy on Rebuilding the Coast

by rob young
One year after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast, the government is spending billions to replenish beaches that will only be swallowed again by rising seas and future storms. It’s time to develop coastal policies that take into account new climate realities.
READ MORE

Why Pushing Alternate Fuels
Makes for Bad Public Policy

by john decicco
Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has backed programs to develop alternative transportation fuels. But there are better ways to foster energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than using subsidies and mandates to promote politically favored fuels.
READ MORE

Should Wolves Stay Protected
Under Endangered Species Act?

by ted williams
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stirred controversy with its proposal to remove endangered species protection for wolves, noting the animals’ strong comeback in the northern Rockies and the Midwest. It’s the latest in the long, contentious saga of wolf recovery in the U.S.
READ MORE

No Refuge: Tons of Trash Covers
The Remote Shores of Alaska

by carl safina
A marine biologist traveled to southwestern Alaska in search of ocean trash that had washed up along a magnificent coast rich in fish, birds, and other wildlife. He and his colleagues found plenty of trash – as much as a ton of garbage per mile on some beaches.
READ MORE

Our Overcrowded Planet:
A Failure of Family Planning

by robert engelman
New UN projections forecast that world population will hit nearly 11 billion people by 2100, an unsettling prospect that reflects a collective failure to provide women around the world with safe, effective ways to avoid pregnancies they don't intend or want.
READ MORE

As Extreme Weather Increases,
Bangladesh Braces for the Worst

by brian fagan
Scientists are predicting that warming conditions will bring more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. Their warnings hit home in densely populated Bangladesh, which historically has been hit by devastating sea surges and cyclones.
READ MORE


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

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

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.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

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

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale