Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opinion piece in Grist gets it wrong about fishing

© 2011 Joshua Stark

There are few controversies in the environmentalist world quite like fishing.  Most folks agree that most recreational (though I hate that term) fishing is a great way for children to connect directly to the wild in a special way, a way that often begins a lifetime of love and appreciation for the outdoors; fishing is often our gateway.  Really, only the animal rights groups have a problem with recreational and subsistence fishing, and as I've pointed out before, "animal rights" is not environmentalism.

But, then there is "commercial fishing", that ugly moniker attached to images of mutilated sharks, denuded seascapes, and "Whale Wars".

Yet, there is more to commercial fishing than many give credit.  Commercial fishing, when done right, is a powerful way for many people to connect to the wild, through their food.  In fact, commercial fishing is the only major food market left with a direct connection to and need for healthy wild places.  And many organizations and fishing groups have tried to make commercial fishing an ecologically viable enterprise, especially in the past couple of decades, and especially in California. 

Also, consider commercial fishing's impact to wildness vs. farming's impact.  As one fisheries biologist points out, commercial fishing, at its worst, impacts about 30% of habitat, while agriculture, at its best, still impacts very nearly 100%, by completely altering landscapes. 

And the importance of having a group of people whose very livelihoods are affected by the health of ecosystems is vital to ensuring that those same ecosystems have a voice in our democratic systems.

I'm not defending all commercial fishing, but I am arguing that it is a powerful connection to a wild place that would suffer worse without that connection.

This is why I'm disappointed in a recent opinion piece in Grist Magazine titled the, "Sustainable Seafood Myth".  I can expect Grist to go over the top on a typical day, though I am a fan of their reporting and suffer the flash to get to the meat of their stories, but this one didn't have much meat.

Grist uses the very real dangers associated with global warming to pooh-pooh Whole Foods' (and others') attempts to provide real information to consumers about the sustainability of various fish.  Instead of asking Whole Foods why they might still sell fish with a low sustainability rating (I don't know if they do), or simply pointing out that the sustainability rating should include carbon emissions, the piece makes wild claims like, "Sadly, in the era of climate crisis, overfishing and other forms of unsustainable harvest are the least of our problems."

First of all, the least of our problems are still problems.  Second, if it's in the "problems" category, there is no reason to attack a solution.  Third, it may be the least of our problems, but it ain't the least of fish's problems.

The author of the piece does recommend that sustainability rating systems include carbon footprints, but he then wades into deeper waters with an over-simplified and risky solution:

"...dedicating portions of the ocean to farming -- while reserving large swaths for marine conservation parks. These farms need to be small and decentralized. Industrial aquaculture farms have rightly been branded as large-scale polluters producing low-quality food. Simply replacing destructive fishing fleets with destructive global fish farms will only hasten the demise of our oceans. Guided by principles of sustainability, our shorelines of the future can be dotted with organic fish farms servicing local communities."

Ah.  So, the author (an oyster farmer) sees a solution in ending our connection to the wild and replacing it with seafood only for those wealthy enough to live right next to the sea... got it.

This excerpt is so damaging on so many levels, and so completely dumbs-down so many ideas, that it becomes destructive to the greater good.  First, "marine conservation parks" can be problematic, as they often only disallow fishing, but allow for water pollution and resource extraction, both of which come with far larger carbon footprints and other ecological impacts than well-regulated fishing.

Second, dedicating portions of the ocean to farming is the same thing as saying "completely denuding wild landscapes from portions of the ocean and replacing them completely with man-made operations".  Third, not all large-scale aquaculture is bad - in fact, fully enclosed, freshwater systems are very important alternatives that remove impacts on the oceans and can provide local fish to inland consumers who aren't blessed with trust funds. 

Shorelines and oceans aren't homogenous, but pretending that one stretch of beach is the same as another is detrimental to an understanding of fish, habitats, and fishing.  The same spot that will make a great oyster farm (for example) is very often the very same spot that makes great wild habitat for varieties of species.

Last, fish farming in ocean waters is problematic, not only because of the damage it has on wild systems, but because of the political economy.  Fish farms can scale up and pressure markets and governments quickly, and without commercial fishing operations who need healthy ecosystems, there will be little pressure to keep farms' impacts in check through regulation.  (This is true for any industry:  hence, the "well-regulated" label.)

Commercial fishing has a horrible history, but there are proven ways to operate a well-regulated system that helps the environment - just think of the salmon folks fighting today to recover salmon habitat inland throughout the Pacific Northwest and California.  And the commercial folks' check on  aquaculture is vital to a well-regulated market.  We would be far worse off if we lost yet another connection to our wild oceans.

At the end of the piece, we are tasked to, "reimagine our waters as agrarian eco-spaces designed to curb seafood's carbon footprint..."  To which I say no, thank you.  I prefer not to "imagine" my waters as anything. I prefer to understand my waters as they are, and to understand and improve my relationship with them.  I do not wish to pretend that just by ending commercial fishing they will no longer suffer from global warming.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am a board member of SalmonAid.)

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