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April/May 2007
Editorial: 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 seafood sales.

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 our oceans.

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 wholeheartedly endorses.”

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.


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