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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.

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 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 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 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.

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.

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