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June/July 2002
Vegetarian Advocate: Deep Trouble: The Ecological Cost of Overfishing

By Jack Vegetarianberger


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about The Rainbow Fish (North South Books, 1992), a popular children’s book. The Rainbow Fish is a story about “the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean,” whose scales are “every shade of blue and green and purple, with sparkling silver scales among them.” One day a little blue fish asks the Rainbow Fish for one of his shiny scales. The Rainbow Fish, who is very proud of his handsome appearance, refuses to share a single shiny scale.

The other fish, once they learn of the Rainbow Fish’s inability to share, avoid him. The Rainbow Fish quickly becomes “the loneliest fish in the entire ocean,” and can’t understand why the other fish don’t like him. Finally, he visits the wise octopus, who advises him to give “a glittering scale to each of the other fish. You will no longer be the most beautiful fish in the sea, but you will discover how to be happy.”

After some hesitation, the Rainbow Fish shares all but one of his shiny scales with the other fish. He discovers that he “at last felt at home among the other fish,” and the other fish decide to be friends with the Rainbow Fish. The end.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the worldwide ecological crisis of overfishing—how the earth’s oceans are being stripped bare of sea animals—and I imagine that if Marcus Pfister, author of The Rainbow Fish, writes another sequel, the Rainbow Fish should be portrayed as a solitary being, swimming sadly through the empty ocean, never encountering another fish.

Deep-Sea Decimation
The extinction of sea animals is nothing new, but the last several decades have seen the world’s oceans being emptied of sea animals at an alarming rate. In the 1960s, fisheries had decimated many of the shallow-water fish species, so they turned toward deep-sea trawling. Now, four decades later, deep-sea species are similarly threatened. Twenty minutes of deep-sea trawling off-shore of New Zealand and southern Australia, for instance, captured about 60 tons of bottom-dwelling orange roughy in the 1980s; today, stocks have been reduced to less than 20 percent of their former abundance. Likewise, deep-sea catches of pelagic armorhead have shrunk from 30,000 tons in 1976 to an average trawl of 3,500 tons today.

The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s recent “State of the World’s Fishery Resources” report concludes that 60 percent of the planet’s major fish populations are in decline. In the Northeast Atlantic, for example, two-thirds of the 60 main commercial fish species are being depleted faster than they can replenish themselves, and all nine of the commercial fish species caught in the North Sea are being fished unsustainably.

Deep-sea fishing has changed dramatically during the last ten years. Since the end of the cold war, fishing ships have been able to equip themselves with spy gear, like multi-beam sonars and positioning systems, that allow them to precisely map the sea floor. Now, deep-sea trawlers can pinpoint populations of sea animals and, using bottom-trawling nets up to 400 feet in width, wipe out entire communities of fish. In essence, what we are seeing today is the strip-mining of the deep seas. Everything in the path of these enormous, weighted trawling nets is often captured or crushed.

What is particularly troubling is the recent discovery that many sea animals are restricted to narrow areas. It is believed that more than 50 percent of all lobster species on coral reefs are confined to small geographic regions, as are nearly one-third of snail populations and more than one-fourth of fish populations. The danger is that the sea animals’ limited geographic range increases their risk of extinction as localized fishing and pollution can decimate entire species.

Wanted: Advocates for Sea Animals
At times like this I wish reincarnation was a fact, as opposed to a reassuring belief system, and that Henry Spira would magically appear so he could champion the cause of sea animals. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Spira was the lone prominent advocate for farmed animals, who comprise the largest percentage of animal suffering. While many activists were focused on pets, fur-bearing and wild animals, Spira was speaking up for the most miserable and forgotten. He was also, unlike some of his peers, pragmatic, combative, and effective. (Those who are unfamiliar with Spira should read Peter Singer’s biography of him: Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement [Rowman & Littlefield, 1998].) What sea animals desperately need is someone who can direct public attention to their rapidly worsening situation.

Unfortunately, ethical vegetarians (myself included) have focused most of their efforts on bettering the treatment of land-based animals. Animal advocates have paid too little attention to exposing the exploitation of sea animals, which traditionally has been largely the concern of often-timid conservation groups. What the sea animals need is a Henry Spira-type, in-your-face leader and lots of grassroots animal advocates who are willing to rally around their cause, and to make the exploitation of sea animals a distasteful endeavor.

Blaming All Carnivores
In researching this column, I’ve read more than a dozen newspaper and magazine articles about overfishing. While all of them agreed that overfishing is a serious problem that is only getting worse, none of them dared to mention one simple and inescapable fact: namely, carnivores are responsible for the problem of overfishing. If human carnivores didn’t eat sea animals, we wouldn’t be confronted with the current ecological nightmare.

I believe people are responsible for their actions. No one, with the exception of children and the mentally challenged, is forced to eat the flesh of sea animals. It is the personal decision of carnivores to eat sea animals that has caused the overfishing crisis.
Plenty of blame can be heaped upon food columnists like Parade Magazine’s Sheila Lukins, whose recent “Get Hooked On Fish!” column contained recipes for stripped bass, crabs, salmon, and halibut. Or upon conservation groups like The National Audubon Society, which has published a book, The Seafood Lover’s Almanac. The almanac encourages people to only eat fish that are not classified as seriously threatened. What a tepid approach!

As vegetarians, we need to speak up for sea animals. We need to challenge the notion that eating fish is somehow less cruel than eating land-based animals. And we need to make the public aware that the world’s deep-sea regions are being hopelessly strip-mined. Educate yourself—and agitate!

Contact: Sheila Lukins, P.O. Box 5099, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-5099, or National Audubon Society: Seafood Lover’s Initiative, Audubon’s Living Oceans, 550 South Bay Ave., Islip, NY 11751;; (888) 397-6649.



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