Category Archives: fishing

The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

ImageYesterday, it was announced that Drs. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will receive the Blue Planet Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for their work in creating the Ecological Footprint—a tracking or measurement of the impact we have on our planet. Since 2003, Rees, Wackernagel and their Global Footprint Network have used a data-determined metric as a monitoring device tracking how sustainable (or unsustainable) we are living. Their group and global partners now span six continents and apply the impact of the Footprint to many projects. As of 2012, they report that humans are in overshoot mode because we are using the equivalent of more than 1.5 planets to provide the resources taken, and to absorb our GHG emissions. One of their goals is to “increase international media outreach to broaden our message.” The work of this group is remarkable, and can serve as an important tool as we assess and then correct the detrimental effects we impose on our planet. They are to be truly commended.

But knowing that we are in an overshoot, unsustainable mode and actually taking the right steps to correct this are two separate issues. It is how we can best use this tool that becomes the question. The Global Footprint Network make it perfectly clear that they are “not anti-trade, anti-technology, or anti-GDP.” They are informational based only and “make no judgment about the value of technologies” or “the benefits, disadvantages or fairness of trade.” As such, it is left up to our nations’ leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and individuals to first become aware of the information provided by the Ecological Footprint and then to create change—if sustainability is their goal. The Global Footprint Network has come to the same conclusions as many other organizations in that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” However, as with other organizations, the Global Footprint Network stumbles with providing specific reasons and then a viable direction as to resolution—we need a clear pathway toward sustainability, not simply hearing recited observations that we are not there. Fundamental change is in order and it begins with conveying realities.

I can help with the clarification. This would be my approach: Our global demand to eat animals, without proper economic regard or reflection of resource use, has caused food production systems to become the largest contributing factor to our unsustainable Ecological Footprint. The raising, slaughtering, and consumption of animals—livestock, wild caught fish, and aquaculture—is the primary cause of Global Depletion. It is not a factory farm or “agribusiness” problem. It’s an eating animals problem. Our demand to eat animals is responsible for 30-51% of all anthropogenic ghg emissions and climate change, 80% of the deforestation of tropical rainforests, 100% of the overgrazing, 100% of the fisheries collapse, 100% of the food insecurity issues (with factors we can control), and at least 50% of the rapid extinction of terrestrial and oceanic species. This is what needs to be said.

So Drs. Rees and Wackernagel are quite right in stating that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” They, and the world however, need to identify the reasons, spell out the fact that although there are other contributing factors, our food choices as they involve animals and animal products are the largest single issue. We need to use this valuable information to create change, not simply point our finger at a generality that a problem exists. Although specifying the major cause of our ecological overshoot appears to be difficult for everyone to do, it is actually the easiest to identify and correct—simply begin eating all plant-based foods. No animals. Now.

I encourage everyone to take the information Rees and Wackernagel have so skillfully assembled, assign the major causative factor for overshoot, make the change to a fully plant based diet and then inspire others to follow suit. We have the information. Let’s do something with it.

Dr. O

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Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern, and the Head of a Octopus

ImageKnowing I would have never seen it otherwise, someone asked me to watch an episode of Bizarre Foods, the wildly popular program hosted by Andrew Zimmern, whose professed creed is “if it looks good, eat it”—leaving one to wonder what his definition of “looks good” could possibly be based on.  In any event, this is what I observed from that episode:

Andrew begins by walking into a crowded, noisy restaurant in Japan sitting down between two people on a stool at a counter—behind which, the cooking is accomplished for all to see. Zimmern states that this is why he “loves restaurants in Japan” because of “their noise and also freshness of seafood.” The camera then, on cue from the “freshness” comment, turns to capture the chef pulling an octopus out of a pan on the floor. The octopus was, of course, very “fresh” and very alive as it gracefully and purposefully moved the tips of its eight legs, gently up and down the chef’s hands and arms as the animal tried to assimilate textures, colors, and temperatures, attempting to make sense out of its new surroundings. That’s what octopuses (or octopi) do. They are quite intelligent beings with a large cognitive brain and complex sensory input mechanisms that researchers have recently found to be able to problem solve. They can gather information, process it, and then implement well thought out functions. Female octopuses are very sensitive with a strong maternal instinct—so strong that they mandatorily give up their life in the process of having offspring and protecting them after birth.

The Bizarre Foods’ camera crew then moved back to Zimmern. The person sitting in the next stool put her hand on his baldhead and said “the octopus has a head like yours”, referring to Zimmern’s shiny, hairless scalp. A good laugh ensued while the camera focused on the chef pushing the octopus down with both his hands into a pot of boiling oil over a red-hot burner in order to kill and cook the poor unsuspecting octopus.

We weren’t allowed to see how the octopus reacted to being held in oil as it was being boiled to death—portions to be then later served for Zimmern to eat.  Imagine, for just a moment, what that octopus must have experienced as it went from attempting to carefully feel, see, interpret, and adapt to the chef’s hands with the thousands of sensory receptors on its legs—sending those inputs to an intelligent and quickly processing brain—to the next moment of being forcefully held in boiling oil, scalded to death. Actually, you can’t really imagine it, because you are not an octopus.

Although we are still learning about octopuses, (while killing 2.5 million tons of them and other cephalopods such as squid each year) it is has been quite well established that they are very sentient beings that feel and think in ways we do not understand. It can also be said that like all animals, octopuses only eat what they need to in order to survive. They kill only because they NEED to and without knowing that they are inflicting pain or suffering on any other living thing—quite unlike Andrew Zimmern and 98% of all other humans on this planet who kill because they WANT to kill, and then eat whatever it was that they just killed. All this, for no nutritional reason (there are many plant based foods that are infinitely healthier for us to consume). So, no, the person sitting next to Zimmern was not correct with her comment to him. The octopus does NOT have a “head” like his.

More About the Octopus:

The common octopus (vulgaris) is found in many oceans worldwide. Although found frequently in numerous sushi restaurants in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it would be rare to know exactly what species you are eating.  All octopus species are suffering from overfishing, especially in the fisheries of Mauritania, Vietnam, and Japan. All researchers agree that octopus is a poorly understood species with no fishery management and dwindling numbers. They are also caught in large numbers as bykill with long line and other fishing methods.

The majority of octopuses are caught by bottom trawling techniques, where (in addition to loss of octopus species) further damage is done to sea beds, other species, and interdependent ecosystems. Although little is known about octopus, much is known about the detrimental impact that bottom trawling inflicts on delicate and sensitive seafloor habitats. Isn’t that a curious but commonly seen combination of factors regarding what we decide to eat as a global society—we know very little about the species we are killing, knowingly ruin ecosystems and other wildlife in the process, in order to consume something we call food. This “food” though, is in reality, vastly inferior to plants that we could be eating, from a nutritional standpoint. The highly respected Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (MBASW) places a “Good Alternative” recommendation for octopus, especially if they are captured from Hawaii or the Gulf of California, despite admitting in their Summary that octopus, “suffer from a lack of solid information and little or no fishery management.”

Given that this statement is accurate, it becomes just another frustrating example of the dichotomy created by guiding institutions that we consider to be leaders.

I am still waiting for the proper management of information to be accomplished and then disseminated by those in positions of informational power such as MBASW. Something along these lines would be nice to hear: “As with all sealife and consistent with other researchers, we at Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch admit to knowing very little about the octopus or the effects of our attempts at capturing them have on all the ecosystems and habitats involved. Therefore it is our humble opinion that we should stop all harvesting activities of octopus and any methods of fishing that affect them or their habitat such as trawling and long line operations that find them as bykill. Of course these fishing activities in pursuit of octopus are propelled by, and begin with, our demand to eat them—so it is our strong recommendation that the ordering and consumption of octopus ends.”

Yes, wouldn’t that be nice. And, appropriate.

More About Andrew Zimmern:

I need to somewhat apologize if this blog seems to weigh too heavily on the animal rights or animal sensitivity theme and if it appears to be too harsh towards Zimmern. However, he and his show are manifestations of our generalized lack of awareness and greater lack of compassion. This is more than worrisome to me. It’s time we convey the true sad state of our media—who it is that is awarded platforms and what they have to say about the food we eat. It is critical that we speak out about this imbalance of public information.

Zimmern is an award winning monthly columnist for magazines, a journalist with numerous national and international publications, spokesperson for large corporations, an acclaimed author of many books, and now has a highly popular television program for which he is the producer, writer, and host. In 2010, Zimmern even won the prestigious James Beard Award for ‘Outstanding Television Food Personality.’

With all those accolades comes the stark realization that we are a society of skewed virtues and archaic behavior, if not a collective intellectual void. I am struggling to find other ways to describe this.

Zimmern’s pilot show on November 1, 2006 (the ‘test’ show where it is either accepted as a potential hit or quickly discarded as another flop) was a solid indicator of what was to come. That first show highlighted Zimmern eating what he and the indigenous people considered ‘food’ from Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand. He proceeded to eat fish bladder, turtle (most likely an endangered species), frog ovary, and even the beating heart of a frog –sashimi (fresh). He revealed all of this in a positive, enthusiastically supportive manner as he does in all of his subsequent shows because this very first one was so successful, it served as the catalyst. In the next two episodes, Zimmern showed his growing audience how acceptable and enjoyable it was to eat lamb tongue and eye, soup made from a bull’s rectum and testicles, a pie made of pigeons, a calf’s brain and a cow’s heart, stuffed pig pancreas, more frog, and even balut—a duck embryo (pre hatched chick) that was boiled alive in its shell. Somewhere buried in each of these segments, he will throw in a brief comment about a unique fruit. For instance in the first three full episodes, he spent a conciliatory minute or so introducing the calamondin and durian.

I am writing this in complete amazement, utter disbelief, and true embarrassment of how we as a society can place this person and his work in such high esteem for not merely perpetuating, but essentially sensationalizing the gruesome, medieval act of torturing, slaughtering, and eating creatures that, if they had a choice, would certainly run, fly, or swim in the other direction—away from this predator. But, it is not Zimmern who is at fault here for doing anything wrong, it is clearly us. We are the ones condoning this and that are more interested in seeing the “bizarre” as it relates to killing and eating animals or body parts of animals than we are in perhaps learning about bizarre or unusual plants—plants that are not only unique (‘bizarre’) but also that are healthy to our planet or to us. Why can’t we be interested in hearing about plants such as the sacha inchi seed or acai berry that can be grown in the rainforests sustainably and provide some of the most powerful phytonutrients and healthy micronutrients found in the world, or how teff an ancient grain from the highlands of Ethiopia might be grown to help reduce world hunger and poverty in that region and elsewhere, or unique plants that can be eaten to cure diseases—but then, I almost forgot…this would be considered ‘educational’ instead of simply mindless entertainment and therefore most likely not tolerated or even accepted by the populace.  After all, Zimmern knows what the audience wants to watch and that’s why he is successful—at least from an economic and popularity standpoint. This fact, and of course the shows themselves (now that I’ve seen a one or two of them), make me so very sad on many levels. Please no offense to Andrew Zimmern himself, but my thought is that we, as an intelligent, compassionate society with a conscience—a society deeply concerned about all living things that we share this planet with—should have taken that very first Bizarre Foods ‘pilot’ show and buried it swiftly and deeply in a hole in the ground so as to not ever have to admit that one of our kind produced it.

Please stay tuned as we return to more topics of Comfortably Unaware soon, inspiring others to become aware—and compassionate!

Assembly Bill 376, Shark Fins, and You

This is a bizarre story that connects the dots between three choices: food, behavior, and legislature. And, it begins with the demand for shark fin soup, weaving its way through indifference and lands on the table of a politician who, along with increasing public awareness on this subject, can begin to heal a wound. Although we are not discussing a cuddly animal like the Koala or baby seal, we are talking about another living thing on earth that is in trouble. And we are directly implicated in its demise. Worldwide, 73 million sharks are killed each year, which is causing nearly one third of all shark species to become seriously endangered and on the edge of extinction. How are we able to justify the killing of 73 million sharks or any other species?

The IUCN Red List concludes that 65% of the 181 shark species are threatened.  Most of the 73 million sharks slaughtered each year are due to a growing demand for shark fin soup although an unknown but nearly as high amount are also killed each year as bykill and simply out of hostility against the species by fishermen. The fin itself is of no nutritional value, tasteless, and is considered more of a garnish, a byproduct of cultural influence, which renders the soup as a food of celebration here and abroad. The usual method of killing all these sharks, “shark finning”, is by catching them, slicing their fin and tails off and then throwing the bleeding body overboard, still alive and unable to swim. I am always deeply saddened to learn of just one more of the many thoughtless and barbaric acts that we humans carry out under the guise of food.

Although shark finning is illegal in the U.S. and at least 60 other countries, monitoring and enforcement of the ban is essentially non-existent.
As predators, sharks have a responsibility and a position in the web of sea life.  From the oxygen producing phytoplankton through all other layers and species of life to the top of the chain, all species have unique and vital roles to play in maintaining the health of our planet. There is strong consensus among researchers that they only understand a fraction of the vast nature of sea life and by killing off an entire species, especially sharks, a ‘cascading’ effect will occur, changing forever the balance of ecosystems and production of oxygen.  Sharks have been on Earth for more than 400 million years, at the top of the oceanic food chain and with self-regulatory mechanisms for their own population numbers. For all those millions of years, nature has had a divine way of creating balance in all ecosystems. In the past 100 years, however, we have decided that within each of our own individualized and very brief few decades of life on this earth, all of the planet’s resources are apparently ours to take. This is, of course, irrespective of the effect on all other complex and intertwining ecosystems—or the effect on future generations of life on earth. And this approach, in its entirety, is generated by our inappropriate choice of foods. It may be considered a ‘sport’ or livelihood or even as gruesome entertainment by some, but the act of shark finning and fishing of all types, on all levels, is typically undertaken because of what we decide to eat and it is not a requirement. What a shame, considering there are an infinite amount of healthier and more peaceful alternatives from plant-based foods. There is an obvious need to increase global awareness of this terrible plight of sharks, just one more aspect of Global Depletion. We must spread the word regarding their unnecessary destruction and help Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations with their campaign on behalf of sharks, our oceans, our planet, and ourselves. Get involved, sign the petition below directed at Governor Jerry Brown of California for Assembly Bill 376. If it fails, as did the review process for granting endangered species status for the Blue Fin Tuna, then we need to begin this, or another process all over again, until we get it right. Let’s make a difference. It is our inherent duty.

Let Jerry Brown know you care:

http://www.therainforestsite.com/clickToGive/campaign.faces?siteId=4&campaign=DOW-SharkFinning&ThirdPartyClicks=ETE_061111_DOW-SharkFinning_F

And, become more aware:

http://www.sharkwater.com/education.htm

http://www.seashepherd.org/sharks/

The story behind the scenes: about Bluefin Tuna, about us.

Why should you care about this story? After all, we are just talking about a fish, right? I believe this is much more than a story about a fish or specifically the Bluefin tuna—it’s a relevant indicator of how far we possibly have fallen from a rational, caring, sensitive, and respectful society with regard to other living things that we share our planet with. This year, 30,000 different species of animals will become extinct (as well as numerous insects and plants). And, although pollution and poorly planned urban sprawl are factors, the largest single contributing force is your choice of foods as it involves animals—which creates pastured or grazing livestock on land and unsustainable fishing practices in our oceans. You most likely aren’t aware of these statistics or reasons because there has been suppression and mismanagement of information of this type as well as general indifference. I strongly believe, though, that it’s time to increase our collective understanding about topics such as this and begin to effect positive change.

It was announced last Friday (May 27) by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), that Bluefin tuna would not be listed as endangered despite losing 90% of its numbers. This endangered status would have provided the much-needed legal protection in hope of recovery. The tragic decline of this beautiful fish is due to overfishing and illegal practices, poorly designed and ignored ‘quotas’ and false reporting, lack of understanding the species’ complex life, and of course our inappropriate choice of food and the demand for sushi. Even though numerous countries including the U.S. actively harvest Bluefin tuna, Japan purchases 80% of the world’s supply and vehemently opposes any ban or restrictions on tuna. This is a very sad day for these majestic fish, but even a sadder day for all of us in making this illogical decision as stewards of our planet. I, for one, am deeply embarrassed. Embarrassed on two levels. One is that we have relentlessly caught and killed Bluefin tuna to the point of near extinction, strictly because we want to eat them—essentially due to an unnecessary, acquired taste and habit. There is no ‘need’ anywhere in the equation here. And, second, without granting an “endangered” status, we have failed at an opportunity to right a wrong—oblivious and apathetic to what we are doing to another living species on Earth.

There are a couple of key aspects to understanding the full story. First, is a review of why there has been such a massive loss of Bluefin Tuna, and second is how we have managed the problem. Let’s look first, then, at why this fish species has all but disappeared. The story begins with the fact that humans enjoy eating fish, especially tuna. And, similar to many other stories regarding our eating habits as it involves animals, that “enjoyment” or demand creates a powerful economic motive, which then manifests itself in cultural, social, psychological reinforcement as a dietary “need.” This eventually creates skewed, and often illogical policy making to ensure that dietary demand is met with supply. These policies are typically tunnel visioned and multi national in nature because no one country could be seen stepping outside of the box of convention.

Bluefin Tuna grow up to 14 ft in length, weigh up to ½ ton, and can swim 50 mph for long distances, which is why their stocks are governed by an organization composed of many countries, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, based in Spain. The tuna are managed as two stocks—the western Atlantic and eastern Atlantic which includes Mediterranean Bluefin tuna. For the past 40 years, Bluefin tuna have been caught and eaten without regard to potential extinction. Although many are harpooned and caught by big game fisherman, most commercial vessels catch them by using long line and purse seine techniques (dropping a mile long net and circling a large school of tuna with a boat, catching the entire school and all other sea life that happen to be present-dolphins, sea birds, endangered turtles, etc.). Many more Bluefin tuna have been killed each year than are reproduced—with up to 150,000 tons of total tuna killed in just one year alone. Annual cumulative ‘declared’ catch amounts by tuna fishing vessels from 2006 through 2009 ranged from 21,000 tons to 35,000 tons although the ICCAT admits now that “catches of Bluefin tuna have been seriously underreported” with catches in the Mediterranean area alone now being more realistically estimated at 61,000 tons per year.  The current recommended yearly “sustainable” catch rate by the ICCAT, is 13,500 tons, which is absurd, since there already has proven to be no accurate reporting methods and no enforcement protocols—thus leading to the decimation that is seen today. Committee members admit that “given the quantified uncertainties, the Bluefin tuna stock would not be expected to rebuild by 2019 even with no fishing”, and some scientists predict without protection, the species will become extinct in the Mediterranean by the end of next year (2012). They have already been fished to extinction in the Black and Caspian Seas. Most researchers without economic ties to the tuna fishing industry agree that they do not fully understand the complex life of the Bluefin and associated ecosystems. Many are concerned that their numbers are under further duress because of the BP oil spill and long line activity throughout the species’ spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Many long line fishing in that area use multi barbed nets that can extend up to 25 miles long catching blue fin tuna and other sea life as bykill. Despite all of the facts, the ICCAT and NOAA feel that this fish needs no protection—hence, the fateful decision last Friday. For the past few months, a review process had been established to help determine whether to grant an endangered species status to the Bluefin tuna. This review was conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and then submitted to the NOAA for final determination. Much of the final decision was based on the result of interviews requested by the NMFS of the tuna fishing industry itself—those fishermen whose livelihood depend on catching these fish. Those who, no doubt, eat these fish themselves. The following is an excerpt taken directly from the formal correspondence to all commercial tuna fishermen, for a determination meeting about the Bluefin tuna:

Questions attendees may consider include the following: What are your general impressions of the abundance and distribution of Atlantic bluefin tuna over time? If you have experienced a decline or increase in bluefin tuna catches, what do you attribute this to (abundance, distribution, availability, gear changes, regulatory effects, etc.)? Are there particular areas where you typically encounter larger numbers of bluefin tuna? If so, where are they (e.g., inshore or offshore)? Do these areas change on an annual basis? What is the average size of bluefin tuna being caught by different gear types or fisheries? Written comments may also be sent to: National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930.

Unbelievable, isn’t it? Let’s ask the Bluefin tuna fishermen a series of questions to see if they think what they catch everyday for their income and food, should be taken away from them. Brilliant.

One single Bluefin tuna—just one of these fish—may be sold for up to $50,000-$100,000. What can be said about a society or a world that facilitates and then condones extinctions because of greed? In the case of Bluefin tuna and most other endangered animals that we eat, there is no physiologic need whatsoever for us to consume and therefore kill them—it is a fabrication of our culture. The protein and omega three fatty acids everyone expects to get by eating sliced tissue from one of these great fish can easily be found in plant foods and without inflicting pain, suffering or devastation of a species or loss of other interrelated ecosystems. Chia seeds, ground flax seeds, spirulina, and chlorella all have more omega three content per ounce than fish. And, all plant foods will provide you with much-needed fiber and phytonutrients—neither of which can be found in any fish.  Also, every fish has unwanted cholesterol and saturated fat.

Rich Ruais, executive director of the American Bluefin Tuna Association stated, “There are over 5,000 commercial and 15,000 recreational tuna fishermen just in the U.S. stretching from Maine to Texas, and they are relieved NOAA didn’t give the fish an endangered status.” And in the event any one still wonders if politics ever play a role in decisions about food choice and eventual loss of biodiversity, I present the following: “Listing the Bluefin as threatened or endangered would have jeopardized the livelihood of tuna fishermen,” said Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. What else needs to be said?

It’s time we increase the awareness of others, write our senators and members of congress, set up and sign petitions, align ourselves with organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and others that truly care about our planet and other living things—it’s time to make a difference!