The Intersection

i-7ef71d715e0953d7da96329742b4d227-051031_Gore.jpgAs a marine conservationist, I’m compelled to comment on the Gore/Sea Bass faux pas.. or lack there of. Jennifer and Tim recently posted on the former VP’s meal at his daughter’s wedding which included (gasp!) Chilean Sea Bass aka Patagonian Toothfish. Our newest Science Blogger, The Angry Toxicologist was quick to weigh in as well, and I already enjoy his company in the blogosphere. Although I’d never order that species myself, it’s ridiculous to spend the afternoon lambasting Gore on one meal bearing in mind the event in question. Yes he’s an environmental leader, although as far as I know, never claimed sainthood. But rather than wax poetic on something already digested, I see this as a great opportunity to touch on a topic far more significant in marine conservation: Getting the message out that OCEANS ARE IN REAL TROUBLE and impact all of us! I have much to say in this regard, but given the current seafood topic, will begin by reposting my perspective from last April when the Seafood Debate came up at Shifting Baselines on why I continue to eat sustainably harvested fish:

I’m a marine scientist in the conservation policy world. Translation: I go out for dinner and friends order with trepidation.. “Can I get Chilean Sea Bass?” or “Atlantic salmon, is that the good kind?” I smile at the well-intended person across the table realizing he would not stop to consider such a decision in anyone else’s company. I could take the staunch environmentalist approach. “No! Don’t you know we’re fishing down trophic levels?!” Now call me a pragmatist, but that seems a bit ridiculous. Instead, I acknowledge his thoughtful consideration of my profession and say “Order whatever you’d like, we both know that it’s already dead on ice in the kitchen.”

[I would likely take a moment to explain which species are in trouble, why I personally don’t order them, and provide my friend with his very own Seafood Watch wallet card on making sustainable choices.]

You see, while I agree with Jennifer that individual decisions do matter, a great big problem with environmentalists is that we are easily dismissed when mistaken for extremists. Yes, if everyone held hands and declared ‘No More Seafood!’ it would do something. But externalities like bycatch, run-off, ocean acidification, etc. exacerbate the problem to such extremes that my personal decision to eat fish now and then does not have enough of an impact to rationalize nixing something I enjoy. (Paging Garrett Hardin..) Am I contributing to the Tragedy of the Commons? Perhaps. But then, fish is healthy, tasty, and simple to cook.

When all those seafood buffets across the country transition to sustainable choices rather than piles of grouper and cod, I’ll likely follow suit

[by considering abstaining from seafood altogether]

but first and foremost, we need to get the message out. I see this as the most significant contribution to the cause I can personally make. As Randy suggests, it’s about marketing. My best friend can tell me all the finalists on American Idol, but hasn’t a notion that overfishing is a real issue. Mounds of colorful seafood at her local supermarket suggest otherwise. And more importantly, why should she care? Unless we do our part to make it personally relevant, she’s justified feeling there are more important immediate things to worry about as she balances family and a budget.

I digress. We live in a world where we are faced with so many complex decisions. Until we wake everyone up to the fact that the oceans are in REAL BIG TROUBLE and WILL impact all of us, I’m not giving up Mccormick and Schmick’s.


  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    July 19, 2007

    Too bad no reporters bothered to call the restaurant. Par for the course, I’m afraid:

    (You’d think with so many screw ups about Gore, the media would learn after a while…)

  2. #2 Jimbo
    July 19, 2007

    Soylent Green is People!

    (Personally, I think screenings of this classic accompanied by a Sad State-of-the-Oceans presentation afterward would really have an impact. Edward G. Robinson’s last scene in the movie is poignant, meaningful, and troubling.)

  3. #3 Mark Powell
    July 19, 2007

    Sheril, Glad you don’t lecture your friends. We need to connect with people to get them to notice ocean problems and shouting “don’t eat that” is not the right approach. I’m curious what you think we SHOULD do? How will we wake people up as you put it?

  4. #4 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    July 19, 2007

    Mark, I think there are many things we need to do.

    A good start would be to focus on understanding what motivates people to act by incorporating social scientists, economists, and marketing experts into the mix. By taking a multidisciplinary approach, we’ll best learn what kind of messages resonate with the public and policymakers and develop better tools to be more effective communicating.

  5. #5 Mark Powell
    July 19, 2007

    I like it! Email me sometime and let’s put our heads together on specifics.

  6. #6 Nigel Williams
    July 19, 2007

    Good on you Mark. How far away do you think we are from Peak Fish?

  7. #7 llewelly
    July 19, 2007

    (You’d think with so many screw ups about Gore, the media would learn after a while…)

    Learn? What they’ve learned is that these ‘screwups’ damage Gore politically, and they believe that is to their advantage.

  8. #8 ChrisC
    July 20, 2007

    As an aside, it turned out that the toothfish Gore ate came from stocks that were approved by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainably managed stock. There are aspects of the media that are so quick to jump on Gore that they don’t stop to check the facts.

  9. #9 sunnygrrl
    July 20, 2007

    Sheril and others-
    I think that answering the question “should I eat this” with “we both know it is already dead” is irresponsible, and I am sorry to hear that well educated people are afraid to share their knowledge with others on this issue. What better way to connect to someone than to discuss why that choice may be less sustainable than another? Maybe it’s just me, but engaging in a responsive dialog with someone who asks a question seems like better a better way of “framing” the issue than sticking one’s head in the sand. Provide the information: its the individual’s choice to use it or not. And I have never once shouted “don’t eat that!”.

  10. #10 matthew
    July 20, 2007

    Where did you read about that specifically, ChrisC?

  11. #11 Mark Powell
    July 20, 2007

    Nigel, How far from peak fish? Many fish are down to 20% or less of what they should be without fishing. Many of our most valuable fish are even lower, below 5%. There are some success stories out there, and we should see improvements thanks to recent changes in the law.

    Big problem is that the goal of fishery management are what I call The Good Depletion, which is removing about 60% of the fish (termed “fishing down”) a fish population in the theoretical expectation that productivity will increase. We now know that this theory is mostly wrong, but managers and fishery scientists tend to like it.

    Bottom line, we’re far, far below peak fish.

  12. #12 Alan Lund
    July 20, 2007

    matthew, I can’t say where ChrisC read it, but the source I’ve read and seen quoted is from Telegraph.

    But the fish enjoyed by the Gores were not endangered or illegally caught.

    Rather, the restaurant later confirmed, they had come from one of the world’s few well-managed, sustainable populations of toothfish, and caught and documented in compliance with Marine Stewardship Council regulations.

  13. #13 Alan Kellogg
    July 20, 2007

    When you can sell cod for about $9.00 a pound, you know it’s overfished.

  14. #14 Ben
    July 21, 2007

    Hmmn…I feel kind of silly now for not eating the sea bass last night.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    July 22, 2007

    What kind of sea bass, Ben? You may want to learn the different common and scientific names, or at least distinguish the genera.

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