20 June 2007

On Fisheries

Excellent interview in Salon with Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat. Overall of course, the picture is quite bleak as regard fisheries, but a few interesting details (and even some hope) emerge from the interview:

From a consumer's point of view, should we be eating fish at all?

I didn't say in my book, "Don't eat fish." I say, "Don't eat certain fish, don't eat endangered fish." If a fish takes 20 years to double its population, that's a long time. If it takes 30 years before it breeds, don't touch it. But if you eat something that's fast reproducing and not overfished, you should be all right. And there's quite a lot of those species out there. You can eat a hell of a lot of shellfish, a huge amount of mussels and oysters, and your deep-water scallops, with a clear conscience. You can have a really nice fish stew, it's not a problem. But why eat endangered fish? And the slow-reproducing ones are probably going to have mercury in them anyway, so it's a win-win.


You also uncover a hidden secret about McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich: that the fish comes from two fisheries actually certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. In other words, McDonald's fish sandwich is more sustainable than Nobu's tuna sashimi. Did that surprise you?

Not really. McDonald's is sustainable because it is a big company and needs continuity of supply, but isn't that arguably a definition of sustainability?

Buying Alaskan pollock as McDonald's does is not a bad practice -- except that they don't seek to advertise their MSC connection, which might mean they would have to pay for the logo. Gambling you can make your fortune before you run out of exotic fish is an individual decision and one Nobu shares with many restaurateurs from Asia.

But why has it gone right, say, in Alaska? In the U.S., we always hear how good the wild Alaskan salmon fishery is.

I think it's like Iceland: When you've got nothing else, you look after it. When you're an island surrounded by cod, if your cod goes down, you are stuffed. I think it's pretty much the same with Alaska; they understand they have a resource they haven't destroyed yet. They were able to act on the basis of other people's mistakes. Sooner or later the message gets across that mistakes have been made and if you're the last one starting out, maybe you're going to make slightly fewer than anyone else.


If you want to invest in anything else you put loads of people and money in -- but with fishing it's the opposite. It's an extractive industry.

That's what was interesting about the marine sanctuaries you write about in New Zealand, where fishing has been completely banned. Not only have the fish populations recovered, but they have reached a level of growth and biodiversity the scientists never imagined was possible.

If we did that with the cod we'd be caught up to our eyeballs. I don't see why you can't have a low-impact fishery, a buffer zone, like you do for land-based parks in Africa. It keeps everyone happy, and you keep everything protected.

The whole thing is worth checking out, as is, I suspect, Clover's book. I won't read it because I like my doses of rank pessimism to come concentrated in short bursts rather than drawn out across a whole book, but if you're a long-form nonfiction reader and either addicted to reading about fisheries collapse or want to learn more about it, this seems like a good place to start.

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