Guilty Planet

Not to beat a dead horse (although that horse could possibly help alleviate the demand for tuna) but I wanted to clarify some of the arguments against eating seafood or, rather, in favor of marine life. Here I address some specific (and broader) questions in response to my recent posts.

Isn’t there sustainably harvested seafood out there we can eat?
In theory, we should be able to harvest seafood sustainably. I am not ruling out this possibility, although most scientists are very hard pressed to name several truly sustainably managed fisheries (note on the rule of sustainability: things should stay the same). Given the current state of fisheries management, though, it is hard to ensure what you are eating is ecologically sound. Many ‘sustainable fisheries’ have negative consequences on the species that rely on them for food or the species that are caught as bycatch. Also note: in theory, we could also harvest whales, manatees, and dolphins sustainably. That doesn’t mean we should.

Why focus on a personal boycott?
My work does not focus on a personal boycott (to date in the scientific literature I have argued for better seafood labeling, eliminating subsidies, and banning the use of fishmeal in livestock feed) but someone out there should be voicing a boycott as an option. This is not because the consumption by one individual will make a difference but mainly because, from a theoretical standpoint, fish need a wider spectrum of voices. At present, the conservation community (and consumers, too, of course) fundamentally relates to most marine life as commodities rather than wildlife. Plus, many consumers suffer cognitive dissonance when we say: the oceans are totally screwed but just eat this rather than that and things will improve. A radical problem calls for (at least the presence of) a radical solution.

Name one species of shellfish that is extinct.
In part due to the viscosity of aquatic habitats, ubiquitous extinctions in the marine environment are rare. But ecological extinctions (the reduction of a species to such low abundance that, although it is still present in the community, it no longer interacts significantly with other species) are common, even among shellfish. West coast abalone populations are nothing what they used to be. Chesapeake Bay oysters are less than 4 percent what they were 150 years ago. Giant clams near Eritrea disappeared upon human arrival.

How about the premise of eating local when it comes to seafood?
It’s a nice idea but unrealistic for the majority of Americans. The U.S. imports 80% of its seafood from 13,000 different suppliers from 160 different countries.

Are farmed fish the solution?
Not to be the wettest of blankets (although that might fit a marine scientist), but I don’t like this idea, either. There are plenty of people advocating for fish farming and this industry (one of the fastest growing globally) is working to improve its practices. But even if we were able to get the ecological side of fish farming (and the potential for mad cow disease in farmed fish) under control, we have to contend with the issue of domestication. We have seen a rapid domestication of marine species in the last several decades. I do not like the idea of domesticating the planet’s last remaining wildlife and so no reason why we are required to do it.

What about all the people who depend on fish and fishing for suvival?
I have said this repeatedly, but I do not think that food insecure populations should consider giving up anything, unless it’s on account of health reasons. Tackling issues of abstinence/personal consumption, while worthy and intriguing, is really a luxury pastime.

What about my health?
Seafood is not as healthy as people think (more on this to come). Aside from having to deal with the dangers of accumulation of mercury and PCBs prevalent in marine carnivores, several medical studies came out this year affirming that, at best, fish oils are just one factor of many that may reduce health ailments, such as heart disease. The medical researchers found that people who do not eat fish, such as vegetarians, are not at any greater risk of illness.

In conclusion, we should consider giving up seafood for the following reasons:

EATING SEAFOOD IS NOT THAT HEALTHY.

EATING SEAFOOD HAS NEGATIVE ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.

MOST IMPORTANT: TO EAT SEAFOOD IS TO EAT THE PLANET’S LAST REMAINING WILDLIFE.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin Parcell
    June 19, 2009

    I support your position, Jennifer. Every successful movement begins with someone like you — someone inside. I also assert that it’s good for people to practice compassion in their food choices: we become better people when we practice being better people. As for arguments that fishing supports families and that some must eat fish because of limited choices, the fact is that if we who can choose to not eat fish make that choice, then those who depend on fishing for an income will be less threatened by loss of the resource, and those who depend on fish for food will be better provided. Clearly, not eating fish is the correct choice now for those who have that choice.

    I wish you a long life and great success.

    Regards,
    Kevin Parcell
    http://sunmoney.org

  2. #2 romunov
    June 19, 2009

    I’m more of a “top down” guy. Lateral pressure usually doesn’t work. You have to convince the governments to start thinking sustainably. Including those supersonic fast growing “3rd world” countries who have more mouths to feed than there are mouths to be fed.

  3. #3 jim
    June 19, 2009

    It seems like you have a critical difference in opinion as compared with numerous, large, NGOs with staffs full of scientists that have created lists of sustainable or unsustainable fisheries. If there are truly no sustainable fisheries, in the sense that any fishery will have some negative impact on the ecosystem then you must be correct in your personal solution. However, terrestrial food production negatively effects marine ecosystems as well (Especially chicken production – in the Chesapeake Bay watershed). So shall we just stop eating?

  4. #4 jim
    June 19, 2009

    Maybe I am cynical about this position because I can’t see how it would make inroads in changing the current destructive way the seafood industry operates. Can you explain how if this movement took off across the world, what you would expect to see happen?

  5. #5 Paul
    June 19, 2009

    You will take my smoked salmon away from me why you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

  6. #6 Giordano Bruno
    June 19, 2009

    Hoki, caught of the West Coast of New Zealand, is a well managed stock. Exported to USA, dont know what name is used there. They strip out a line of oily flesh because consumers like white flesh. I am guessing that this contains Omega 3 DHA, ironically. Possibly used as animal feed, possibly dumped. I suggested to a Fisheries chap that NZ should start a DHA capsule industry, but caps are down to 7c, so profit might be difficult. It could be labelled “Southern ocean clean” since I am told that DHA capsules currently come from Norway.
    Oddly, the big fishing boats attract Southern Bluefin Tuna. A dozen or so near the nets. These are not caught commercially, it seems. “Sports” fishermen come out 50km in small boats and catch tuna on rods. 4 hours “fight”. I ate some, pecular, salty, red, soft, not a delight.
    NZ oceans may be the last place you can catch big fish for “sport” I am ambivalen about the morality of hookng wild beasts in the mouth and dragging them about.

  7. #7 llewelly
    June 20, 2009

    The real problem with the “fishing supports families” argument is that most of the world’s fisheries are being grossly over-fished, and soon, they won’t support anything at all. Those people being supported by fishing are on a sinking ship.

  8. #8 jim
    June 20, 2009

    Hey Giordano – Hoki is usually renamed white roughy or whitefish over here and this is one of the things I don not understand about MSC – how does a bottom trawl fishery get certified as sustainable?

  9. #9 Rystefn
    June 20, 2009

    So… if we can sustainably harvest whales, why shouldn’t we? How do army ants in the deep jungles not count as wildlife?

  10. #10 Petter Hedberg
    June 20, 2009

    I think one has a responsibillity as a scientist not to be ruled by emotions in giving advice about ones field.

    “EATING SEAFOOD IS NOT THAT HEALTHY”:

    Well, seafood is healthy food and we have done it for thousands of years. It gives us a lot of good fat-acids.

    “EATING SEAFOOD HAS NEGATIVE ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.”

    Well, it depends on how you mean. I really don’t see the problem with people who like to have a shrimp sandwich or shrimpsallad. Yes of course we should not overfish the oceans, but with seafood you include everything, and that statement is not supported by data.
    “MOST IMPORTANT: TO EAT SEAFOOD IS TO EAT THE PLANET’S LAST REMAINING WILDLIFE.”

    This would be the emotional argument I guess. Many people regularly eat moose, dear, and other game meat that can only be considered non-threatened and clearly wild. Exactly what do you mean with that Seafood is the last remaining wildlife. There are plenty of wild plants and animals on the earth, although the numbers are declining.

    I like this blog otherwise though, but I am generally worried about that scientistst can ruin the credibillity of other scientists by using their profession to advocate ideas that are not supported by data.

  11. #11 Lesley Alexander
    June 21, 2009

    What about organic US Farmed catfish? A fish that isn’t seafood?

  12. #12 Eleanor
    June 22, 2009

    1. Everything we do has negative ecological consequences. The logical and biological extension of your argument is “stop living.”

    2. Ocean fishes and invertebrates are NOT the planet’s last remaining wildlife. You’ve just lost any remaining credibility you might have had. What a completely inane statement. There’s all kinds of wildlife, everywhere, even in urban areas. And we even eat some of it – deer, rabbits, squirrels, waterfowl, and freshwater fishes.

    You are entitled to your personal views, which I happen to agree with and applaud you for. I just wish you would stop using your Science Merit Badge to make the case because you are damaging science in the process. Just as the Bush Admin distorted science to make bad policy, so are you. But you are just coming from the opposite direction. You happen to be a marine biologist, but your argument is not a scientific one, and your use of science to back up your emotional PR campaign is really distressing.

    NO SCIENTIST SHOULD EVER MAKE THE BASIS OF THE ARGUMENT “BECAUSE I AM A REALLY SMART PERSON WITH A PH.D AND I SAID SO.”

  13. #13 Milan
    June 22, 2009

    This discussion seems akin to one I have been having about the importance of reducing one’s personal greenhouse gas emissions:

    http://www.sindark.com/2009/06/11/resistance-versus-abstinence-in-responding-to-climate-change/

    In the end, I think it is important to set an example. That being said, people really committed to an issue can accomplish far more by pressing for institutional changet than they can by simply reducing their personal impact.

  14. #14 Michael Erickson
    June 23, 2009

    Jennifer is NOT making the basis of the argument “Because I am a really smart person with a Ph.d and I said so”. She is TELLING THE TRUTH. We should give up seafood NOW – it’s the planet Earth that is at stake here. We are destroying our ONLY HOME, and no one but Jennifer and a few other intelligent human beings seem to care. Stop eating seafood so we don’t end up destroying our only home – is that really too much too ask?

  15. #15 MattL
    June 23, 2009

    You know there are real problems when even Japan says we’re overfishing for Blue-Fin Tuna. NPR covered the issue last night. They estimate there might be 3-4 years left before the population can no longer sustain itself.

  16. #16 John
    March 4, 2010

    We should stop eating beef and poultry too then, poor chickens.
    Also, I believe that Omega 3 comes with great health benefits, not just preventing a couple of diseases.
    Having said that I could live without eating fish or sea food , not a big fan : )

  17. #17 Roland
    August 9, 2010

    How about eating lower on the food chain? This avoids buildup of mercury and other nasties. I don’t see any problem with my addiction to canned sardines, herring, and other smaller schooling fishes. There’s very little by-catch with them, either.

  18. #18 Sharon Astyk
    August 9, 2010

    I’m completely and utterly for the value of personal solutions – which, after all, only remain personal to the extent that you are unable to use your personal commitment to influence others. I don’t disagree with your general assessments, I think you are absolutely right.

    I do find myself wondering, though, if the “last remaining wildlife” thing enriches your case. It is, of course, not accurate – and people eat wild creatures all the time, and in a moral and philosophical sense, I’m not convinced that there’s a compelling case against wild meat as such (as opposed, say, to endangered wild meat or overhunted wild meat) – indeed many species that overoccupy a niche after predators are removed would make a good source of calories for people – everyone in cities should eat pigeon ;-).

    I’m also not clear why the moral argument against the domestication of fish – I’m not sure that fish could be fully domesticated in a true and reciprocal sense, but Chinese grass carp, for example, have been kept reasonably sustainably in cohabitation with humans for a very long time.

    None of this undermines your most basic message, which I agree with – I just don’t quite grasp your emphasis on these points and would be interested in hearing more.

    Sharon

  19. #19 PEMBE MASKE
    June 15, 2011

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