“Um. Well. We ate them,” respond the people who were hired to protect the very marine life that directly or indirectly wound up on their dinner table: wild salmon, tuna, coral reefs.
The culprit of the overfishing crisis is small but insatiable: the human stomach. But most people working in marine science and marine conservation still consume the animals they work to protect. Often, this is done under the rationale that there is a way to manage fish sustainably and that if we followed that way, we would actually have more fish for human consumption. That could be true. But that is certainly not true today.
I study fish and the fisheries crisis. On account of what I learned, I gave up eating all marine life (minus marine plants). But, among my colleagues, I am almost entirely alone in this stance.
As one ocean conservationist commented on my blog:
I LOVE seafood and I LOVE oceans, and I plan to eat seafood as part of my personal ritual of connection to the ocean. In fact, one of my favorite times to eat seafood is right before I go argue with somebody about saving fish. I'm a marine conservationist and part of the reason why is that I want to be able to eat my clients without feeling guilty.
“I must be careful not be YouTubed while I stuff myself with shrimps,” another fisheries scientist wrote to me recently.
My question is this: if the best educated people in the entire world about the overfishing crisis change their consumption very little if at all, what hope is there for the general population?
This says to me two things:
1. Awareness is a weak instrument in changing behavior. 2. The spectrum of voices in ocean conservation is too narrow.
In my first post on the Shifting Baselines blog, I argued that we should stop eating seafood:
Globally, per capita fish consumption and the human population has doubled since the 1960s. Global fisheries production has risen from 20 million tons in 1950 to more than 140 million tons today. How can marine fisheries feed the global appetite? They simply cannot. What to do? The human appetite, a combination of population growth, sashimi, tuna noodle casserole, and shrimp gumbo, is at the root of the global fisheries crisis. It's time to go on a global diet.
I ended the post with a quote from fisheries biologist (and my supervisor), Dr. Daniel Pauly:
Daniel Pauly often cautions that voicing my belief in seafood abstinence could place me "outside of the discussion". "You will hit a wall," he says. "And then to whom are you speaking?" But I am speaking to you. YouTube, Googlezon, Time magazine's person of the year. Turns out, you are important. Turns out, the first step to abate overfishing begins with you.
At present, there is not a mainstream message advocating to stop eating fish (despite many to stop eating domesticated animals). I think we need one.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has a new campaign out to get people to relate to fish as animals rather than as commodities, which is a noble goal and one I very much support. But there are a few snags with their Save the Sea Kittens campaign. First of all, fish are not domesticated like kittens (or like chickens! So I also have a hang up about tuna being dubbed "the chicken of the sea"). And I don't think renaming fish as kittens really enhances the mythology around fish (despite all the accessories).
A message to stop eating fish might be impractical and unpopular among industry, it would broaden the spectrum of what is currently a very narrow range of voices. This deeper ethical shift could start by renaming the sustainable seafood movement as the “save our wild fish” movement. So far, sustainable seafood campaigns may be fundamentally flawed in that they still require humans to engage as consumers rather than as concerned citizens. They require people to relate to fish as a commodity rather than as wildlife. And, rather than being “placed outside the discussion”, people interested in fish as wildlife should have a welcome seat at the table, which is not the only place where fish belong. Jennifer Jacquet is a Ph.D. candidate working with Dr. Daniel Pauly and the Sea Around Us Project at the UBC Fisheries Centre. She is the founder of the science blog Guilty Planet, though decided to close down her previous blog Shifting Baselines in favor of this solo endeavor.