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One Fish, Two Fish, Eat Fish…No Fish By Sangamithra Iyer
Animal activists and ethical vegetarians often talk about the 10 billion
farm animals slaughtered for human consumption each year in the U.S. Yet
the majority of our campaigns don’t shed enough light on the roughly
17 billion aquatic creatures Americans eat annually, not to mention the
countless others discarded as bycatch.
Last fall a report in Science warned if current fishing trends continue, the
world’s fish supply could be depleted by 2048. Mainstream media quickly
picked up on this, with blaring headlines about the emptying of our oceans. According
to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, since 1961 fish consumption has
more than doubled in the U.S. and increased more than ten-fold in China. This
trend however, continues to grow as wild fish become scarcer.
Aquaculture is also on the rise worldwide with the weight of farmed fish exceeding
the amount of beef produced globally. But don’t be fooled into believing
this doesn’t put pressure on wild populations. Not only are pollution concerns
present, but it can require up to five pounds of wild fish to feed one pound
of farmed fish!
Despite the impending collapse of our aquatic ecosystems, marine conservation
groups, seafood purveyors and guilt-ridden fish eaters are still finding ways
to embrace seafood consumption.
Saving Fish by Eating Them
While the efforts and literature promoting sustainable seafood genuinely attempt
to address the emptying of our oceans, it seems like some of the biggest proponents
simply want to ensure their livelihoods. For example, the Marine Stewardship
Council (MSC), which certifies sustainable fisheries, was originally a joint
venture between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, the world’s largest
distributor of seafood.
Even giant retailers are promoting themselves as “ocean-friendly.” Whole
Foods Market boasts about their sustainable seafood policies, and stopped carrying
the threatened Chilean sea bass in 1999. However, now that MSC has certified
a Chilean sea bass fishery, this fragile species is back in its display cases.
Last year Wal-Mart announced its pledge to source in the coming years all its
wild-caught fresh and frozen seafood for North America from MSC certified fisheries
bearing the “Fish Forever” seal of approval. This commitment, however,
does not include farmed salmon or Asian-farmed shrimp—the majority of their
These days, those concerned about fish—yet not enough to stop swallowing
them—have a plethora of handy wallet-size cards and pocket guides for “sustainable” or “ocean-friendly” seafood
consumption. The Long Island-based conservation group Blue Ocean Institute, the
Audubon Society and Monterey Bay Aquarium have produced their own cheat sheets
advocating eating the least endangered critters, “harvested” via
the least environmentally destructive methods. Some species of farmed fish are
also promoted as sustainable.
There is a bizarre logic with “ocean-friendly” seafood, that we can
actually save these animals while eating them, and the only reason to save them
is so people can continue to eat them. In the Worldwatch Institute paper, Catch
of the Day, Brian Halweil concludes, “Being a more deliberate seafood eater
doesn’t mean a Spartan existence; in fact, it could be the only guarantee
that fresh and healthy fish continues to appear on our tables.”
But leaving seafood off our tables need not be “a Spartan existence” either
and perhaps is a better guarantee that healthy fish appear—and simply stay—in
Fish Out of Water
Unfortunately, fish are not always seen as beings but rather resources: seafood, fish
stocks and filets. But whether wild-caught or farmed, sustainable or not… it
is clear that someone with eyes, gills and fins is dead on the plate.
Yet abstaining from eating sea creatures is not often promoted by ocean-friendly
campaigns. Rather, these campaigns focus on creating markets for sustainable
seafood. To get a better understanding of the sustainable seafood marketplace,
we turned to Whole Foods Market. Their website reasons: “Comprehensive
boycotts…employed by some groups as an answer to over-fishing unnecessarily
alienates the fishing industry and directly destroys fishing operations who are
trying to abide by sound management practices. In contrast, the Marine Stewardship
Council’s program is based on respect and partnership with the fishing
industry to accomplish change—a concept and practice that Whole Foods Market
In search of this respect and partnership, the Satya staff made a fieldtrip to
our local Whole Foods in Manhattan’s Union Square. The bank of display
cases, brimming with whole and parts of dead fish, were overwhelming. We stopped
at a colorful nutrition and cooking guide, strangely open to a page on orange
roughy, a particularly threatened deep dwelling fish, offering nutritional and
cooking information. Flipping through, we found pages on the more popular critters—tuna,
shrimp, salmon—side by side with information on how to cook shark and alligator.
Despite Whole Foods’ stated commitment to selling sustainable seafood,
there were no signs or messages with environmental or animal concerns in sight.
Witnessing the abundance of sea creatures on display, we were bombarded with
messages of consumption—go ahead, eat all you want, whatever species you
like. Like the bodies surrounding us, we felt like fish out of water.
Sure, this is a partnership—between business and the idea that we can keep
eating whomever we please forever. As for respect, the truth is, we as a species
have rarely treated the planet and the animals we share it with, with respect.
And the rapid emptying of our oceans to fill our bellies is testimony to this.