So, you think eating fish is healthy. Healthy for whom? For you? For the fish? For our planet?
Part One: Fish, Oceans, and our Planet
There are serious issues when we, at any level of self-perceived sophistication, deem our act of killing members of another living species as “sustainable”. When regarding choices of food, I find this more a selfish act of fulfilling our desire to perpetuate culturally induced myths—a proclamation of sorts—that the earth and all its resources are here for us to ‘use’. It is now neatly tucked under the guise of ‘sustainability’, with some false sense that we know of all the ramifications when “harvesting” animals for us to eat—whether wild or domesticated. This simply displays our clear naivety. Although more readily visible and measurable when witnessed on land, the effects of our miscalculations are perhaps more devastating on our oceans when we continue to consume fish taken from them. A quick snapshot of the current state of our oceans reveals this (as related to our food choices):
Of the seventeen primary fishing stocks worldwide, all are either overexploited or on the verge of collapse (FAO). Examples of commercially extinct areas are the Grand Banks near Newfoundland and the Georges Banks off New England, both once considered the most productive on earth. At less than 1 percent their original numbers in these waters, now there simply are no fish. Across all our oceans, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 70 percent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted, with many of them reaching more than a 90% decline. The World Conservation Union lists 1,081 types of fish worldwide as threatened or endangered.
It was inevitable that someone would develop an organization and labeling system from which, we could all feel comfortable continuing to consume living things taken from the ocean. A perfect example of this is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), created in 1997 to certify which fish populations and fishing methods are ‘sustainable’. Certain fisheries are able to display the MSC’s “Fish Forever” label, signifying to the public that their product was caught using socially responsible and environmentally sound management practices. So this becomes an interesting prospect. There still will be two types of consumers of sea life: 1. Those that really do not understand or care about where their food is derived, under the belief that it is simply a meal and on to the next daily project. 2. Those that are becoming aware that we must start giving thought to the origins of our food choices but need and want to rely on another trusted entity to provide assistance and, essentially, justification in purchasing and consuming that choice. Customers relying on MSC or any mode of certification to justify their demand to eat fish are being misled and more importantly, it ultimately furthers the decline in numbers of various fish species and the effect on other ecosystems. Although it may seem like a step in the right direction, certification organizations such as MSC are improperly designed and have, at best, conflicting intentions. By intentions, I mean MSC was not established to be a steward of our oceans. Instead, their principal focus is how to continue fishing and appear responsible during a time when consumerism regarding concern for our environment is on the increase. The more conscientious consumer has a desire to feel justified and therefore good about eating fish and the process of catching and killing them. MSC and other certification labels provide them with this, so the habit can and will continue. A quick walk down the fish section of the meat aisle at one of the many Whole Foods locations (considered to be the premier natural, sustainable food grocery chain in the U.S.), displays the following caught and killed sea life species for consumers to purchase:
“wild caught” cod, swordfish, grouper (Mexico), monkfish, whole butterfly, yellow fin tuna, mahi mahi, MSC Chilean sea bass (New Zealand), coho salmon, flounder, sea scallops (Mexico), baby octopus (Japan), stone crab, conch, hogfish (Mexico), red snapper, oysters, black mussels, farm raised trout (Panama), salmon (Norway), tilapia (commercially grown tilapia have usually been treated with testosterone and have led to the near extinction of genetically pure fish of this type), shrimp (Thailand), and bonzini (Greece) which is a rare European sea bass.
While, at this point, I could easily relate to you the issue with killing and eating each one of these types of wonderful sea creatures, I will say a word or two only about the octopus, although each one has its own sad story. So here you have an incredible and complex living thing that we are just beginning to understand—with over two-thirds of its nervous system located in its arms, the octopus is sensitive, very intelligent, capable of quickly learning and reasoning, has short and long-term memory and can project outcomes. The female sacrifices herself by fiercely defending her nest of offspring without leaving to eat or nourish herself, dying immediately following the process. Octopi have been shown to be able to use tools and have a keen sense of touch. Sadly, they are commonly caught and used as food in many cultures including Japan where they are sometimes consumed alive as novelty food, with their legs sliced and eaten while still squirming. So, why would it matter whether the octopus at Whole Foods happens to be from Japan or not? Why is it on the shelf at all?
Aside from rudimentary and simply relative assessments as to the sustainable status of a species, we do not have the ability to know precisely how many of that species remain, what effect all ecosystems and variables (known and unknown) have on that particular species, and exactly where on the graph of sustained life or recovery they may be…i.e. “Is this Blue Fin Tuna, Atlantic Sturgeon, Baiji River Dolphin, Atlantic Right Whale, etc. (as we continue killing them) sustainable, partially sustainable, or sustainable up to what level (I think I see a few left in these waters)”. And, then later…”oops, I guess not so sustainable because we fishermen haven’t really seen any in these waters for the past five years.” So, now that particular species is on the brink of extinction, or actually gone forever. Assessments all made by those who, by any stretch of the imagination, really do not fully comprehend the short or long-term effects of continued ‘harvesting’ sea life from our oceans. Therefore, it becomes inherently more obvious that we humans should not demand or accept eating anything that we do not have absolute full understanding as to how we have affected that specific animal, its family, or other ecosystems it is connected to or by. Is there a reason to eat octopus?
It is essentially a façade whereby the parameters of true sustainability of fish species and the ecosystems they comprise are not at all fully understood by our very experts let alone by an industry that is motivated by economics. Although MSC offers eco-certification to various fishing businesses world-wide, it must be impressed that they have never refused certification to any fishery that has completed the certification process. As we take a look at the Fraser River Sockeye Salmon, it reveals just one of several examples where the MSC has stamped their label of “sustainable” on a fish species without full comprehension of the true state of this fish or the effect its life has on other various ecosystems. Fraser River Sockeye Salmon are considered “endangered” by those biologists who are intimately studying them such as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose scientists consider overfishing a key threat to the stocks’ health. And, yet, there is the MSC label.
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