Tag Archives: fishing

Biodiversity and Food Choice: A Clarification

ImageThere needs to be a correction, and also modification of a particular concept, to the recently published article I had written for the North American Vegetarian Society (“Meat: no longer just a factory farm issue” in Vegetarian Voice 2012) regarding biodiversity loss. The “30,000 per year” extinction or loss of species statement I made is actually referring to species of animals, plants, insects—not simply animals (although the “animal” kingdom technically includes insects). This figure was first brought to light by Harvard naturalist and emeritus professor of biology, Edward Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press 1992) and supported by Niles Eldridge (Life in the Balance, Princeton University Press 1998). Others such as Georgina Mace, Paul Ehrlich have extinction estimates as high as 70,000 to 130,000 species per year (7,000 to 13,000 times the background rate).

After speaking with and interviewing numerous researchers with the Species Survival Commission of IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and COBD (The Convention on Biological Diversity), about this topic over the past four months, I now feel there are many uncertainties surrounding attempts at quantifying the exact number of species becoming extinct per year. For this reason, it is more meaningful to view our planet’s current loss of species and the impact of our food choices in the following manner:

  1. We are losing species of life as well as ecosystems on Earth at an unprecedented and alarming rate, estimated to be anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background rate”—that which had been seen for the previous several thousands of years. Therefore, it is this massive rate of extinction rather than number of loss that becomes a more meaningful metric and cause for concern.
  2. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict the number of species loss per year because of a number of factors. One of the largest unknowns is the exact amount of species that we have on earth, which is a needed component when attempting to determine total numbers of species loss when using an extinction prediction equation. This is one of the reasons the Species Area Curve Relationship method of extinction calculation has led to speculation and wide ranges of numbers of extinct species. It is the feeling of most researchers today that although we have identified approximately 1.8 million species on our planet, there are most likely between 10 and 30 million that exist.
  3. Regardless of the exact number of species becoming extinct per year, it is alarming at best and can be most attributed to loss of habitat—and the predicted future escalation will be due to habitat loss combined with climate change.
  4. With estimates of 45% of all the land mass on Earth used by animal agriculture and 1 to 2 trillion fish extracted from our oceans each year (by fishing methods such as trawling, purse seine, long lines, explosives and other techniques that are damaging ecosystems)—eating animals (fishing and livestock production) is the largest contributing factor in habitat loss and constitutes the second largest sector implicated in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions which lead to climate change.

There has been widespread thought that marine species were more resilient to extinction and our further exploitation. However, there is finally a growing amount of evidence that fish and wildlife in our oceans are as, or more, vulnerable to extinction than many terrestrial and freshwater species. Despite continued massive harvesting of sea life from our oceans, it is generally agreed upon by researchers not affiliated with sustainable certifying organizations that the amount and distribution of threatened marine species is, at best, “poorly known.” Our demand to eat fish cannot be taken out of the equation when discussing our abuse of natural resources, eventual loss of species, and climate change.

Habitat loss is far and away the most pervasive threat to terrestrial animal species, impacting 86% of all mammals, 88% of amphibians, and 86% of all birds. One in every eight birds, one in every three amphibians and one in every four mammals is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future. Overexploitation of animals for consumption remains a second major factor for extinction such as can be seen in wild meat trade in Africa and Southeast Asia and all hunting endeavors on land, globally.

Current biodiversity assessments (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IUCN Red List, and the Global Environmental and Biodiversity Outlook) now generally agree that land use change, modification of river flow, freshwater pollution, and exploitation of marine environments are the most significant drivers of biodiversity change and loss of species. Eventually, ocean acidification and climate change will become increasingly important. With overharvesting sea life in our oceans and raising livestock on land (grazing or CAFOs), our demand to eat animals and animal products remains the largest contributing anthropogenic factor to those accepted drivers of loss of species on Earth.

Let’s eat plants, not animals, and inspire others to do the same. Dr. O

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:


And, become more aware:



Biodiversity Loss and More Rainforest Thoughts

Depletion of our land on Earth due to our choice of foods encompasses a number of topics—direct and inefficient agricultural land use, feed crops produced for livestock, and even depletion of our food supply, or world hunger. (Please refer to Chapter V, Comfortably Unaware, “Whose land is it anyway?” Global Depletion of Our Land)

These are important issues that we will continue to touch on, but I think it’s important to, once again, discuss on how our food choices are affecting the loss of other living things on earth—our plants, animals, and insects. The loss of biodiversity is happening so quickly to so many species that it can only be considered a 6th era of extinction.  But, this one is much different than the previous 5 because they were all caused by phenomena out of our control whereas this one, we are actually creating.  The question is why? There are a few primary reasons—unprincipled or poorly planned urban sprawl and pollution are certainly major factors—but certainly one of the major reasons is due to what we are requesting to eat, on a global basis. Scientists have divided our planet into 825 terrestrial “ecoregions” (as well as 450 freshwater and a number of oceanic ecoregions) each defined by its own distinct set of animal and plant species as well as climate. Of all these land ecoregions, almost ½ are reported to have livestock as a current threat. The World Conservation Union reported last year that “most of the world’s endangered or threatened species” on their “Red List” are suffering habitat loss due to livestock—not due to agriculture—but to livestock. The most recent Convention on Biological Diversity was just held in Nagoya, Japan last October as a follow up to the one held in 2002. Here were their findings: They agreed that none of their goals from 2002, for lessening the rate of biodiversity loss, were met. Then they confirmed that the main pressures for the rapid loss of species are all increasing in intensity—which are habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. And then lastly, all countries reworked their “targets” and strategies to meet them. Here is what they came up with: They agreed to protect 17 percent of the land area of the world that remains (as I pointed out in “Comfortably Unaware”, we now know livestock are already using 30 to 50% of the entire land mass on earth so their thought at Nagoya is to protect 17% of what’s left over for all the other millions of species of living things…) and there was agreement to protect 10 percent of all our oceans by the year 2020. So, you can see my concern. Also, there were no political or economic motives established and nations can police themselves with a “flexible framework”.  That’ll probably work. Let’s see—the Javan Tiger: extinct due to habitat loss from livestock. The Tasmanian Tiger: extinct due to habitat loss from cattle (actually the last one was killed by a farmer because it was in his “hen house”). Giant Eland, Howler Monkey, Red Wolf, and Jaguar: all endangered because of the advancement of livestock operations, and there are tens of thousands of other examples. Great Apes such as the Mountain Gorilla (only 350-450 remaining), Chimpanzee, Lowland Gorilla, Orangutan, and other primates are all endangered—in one way or another—because of the decisions made about food, which results in habitat loss or overt slaughtering of these individuals. In our oceans, pick any of the 80% of all fish species that are now overexploited, with many endangered. And the list is even longer with species of plants and insects. Nearly all concerned researchers agree that the primary causes of the rapid biodiversity loss we are witnessing on our planet today is by pastured or grazing livestock on land, and by unsustainable fishing practices in our oceans. There has been no improvement in a global resolution because we are failing at addressing the primary issue. Nowhere in the resolution from Nagoya, adopted by nearly 200 countries, is exact wording to effectively address our choice of food as it involves animals.

We need to touch briefly on rainforests again. They seem so far removed from all of our daily lives and yet so critical for our existence. Rainforests have been heavily impacted by our choice of foods, and it is time for some important updates. On average, 34 million acres of Amazon’s rainforests have been lost every year since the 1970’s. This number has declined for a number of reasons, to around 20 million acres in 2009. That’s 20 million acres of rainforests gone forever, destroyed in just one year. Certainly, this is an improvement—but it’s still far too much and there needs to be zero tolerance. I don’t think there should be one acre lost. Why? Because of the immense importance of rainforests, the primary reason for destruction is not justified, and we can’t replace them in our lifetime. Therefore, zero tolerance. About 80% of all rainforest loss is due to raising cattle with another 10% due to growing crops to feed them. It’s still happening today, the same reason, just less acreage is being destroyed. It seems like this really shouldn’t involve you, right? Well, until very recently, the U.S. has been the single largest consumer of Central and South America beef. We have many multi national companies that perpetuate the demand here and abroad for animal products or for feed crops that directly come from rainforests. Regarding crops, 80-90% of all soy grown worldwide is fed to livestock—not to us—and most of this soy is grown on rainforest-cleared land. The corporate producers of meat products—Cargill, Georgia Pacific, Unical, Texaco, etc. as well as the food retailers will continue clearing rainforest until we stop the demand for animal/livestock products. Recently, there have been millions of acres of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia that are being slashed and burned to grow palm oil. This oil is used for alternative fuel, but also for the food industry. We do not need palm oil as a dietary requirement and the biofuels generated from these palm plants are in many ways contributing more to climate change than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace. For every acre of primary rainforest that is cleared and replaced with palm oil, there is 65 times as much carbon released into the atmosphere as can be saved annually by using the palm oil as a fuel substitute. Indonesia is losing 7 million acres of rainforest per year. This is the habitat of the orangutan and many other wonderful species of living things. There is a sickening, thick shadow of smoke that can now be seen looming over these countries from peat fires of all the acres of rainforests being burned daily. Rainforests produce 20% of world’s supply of oxygen and also serve as tremendous carbon sinks because they take carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere and sequester it into the soil, long term. How perfect. So, with any discussion about climate change or greenhouse gas emissions, we will always need to include discussions regarding rainforest management. And, therefore, with any discussions about climate change, rainforest management, or even sustaining our future life on Earth, there will always need to be specific attention given to why we kill and eat animals.

The Rainforest is home to over 5 millions species of plants, animals, insects—over ½ of all living things on our planet. They shouldn’t be lost because of our choice of foods or our collective indifference. Let’s all make a change.

Please read more about this and other areas of global depletion of our resources and our own health in “Comfortably Unaware.”


The Fish Facade: Part II

Knowing that the majority of global fishing areas are becoming devoid of fish (please read/re-read my previous blogs titled, “The Fish Façade”) there has been prolific development of the fish farm industry.

Nearly 80% of all the fish stocks found in the world are depleted or fully exploited as reported in 2010 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Because of this, businesses and governments have turned to other ways to produce fish (rather than simply the option of not eating fish at all…). Aquaculture, the growing of fish in a farmed area, is growing faster than all other animal food sectors. Farmed fish now involve 47% of all fish produced or caught for food. This growth in aquaculture is driving an explosive increase in global fishing. It is a bizarre, ecologically unhealthy circle, where the demand to eat fish has taxed our oceans so there has been a proliferation of controlled fish-farm production, which then places further stress on the oceans because of the need for fish-meal and oil in the production process. One third of all fish caught in oceans are used as meal for farmed fish or livestock. The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission study recently revealed that it requires up to 60 million metric tons of “harvested wild fish” per year to feed the 3 million tons of the three major tropical tuna species that we are now harvesting annually raised in ‘farms’ (essentially concentrated floating pig farms). This is interesting logic—to catch, kill, and eat Blue Fin Tuna until they are critically endangered and then turn around and create near extinctions of other species of fish just to feed the tuna we are now raising on farms because we cannot get enough of what—sushi? For salmon the ratio is 3.3 tons of fishmeal to produce 1 ton of farmed fish, complete with pesticides, antibiotics, and sea lice (see “Comfortably Unaware”, Chapter VII).

It has once been said that, “we live because our oceans live.” Some things to consider: Our oceans produce 70% of all oxygen on earth.                                           Oceans are responsible for the proper regulation of our climate. They consist of not only just water, but also a diverse amount of living things—plants, animals, and fish—all intertwined and dependent upon each other, sometimes in complex and poorly understood ways.  For these and many more reasons we need to do what we can to keep our oceans and the many ecosystems of living things within them healthy. Currently 64% of all our oceans have no national jurisdiction, so fishing practices remain completely unregulated. The other 36% is governed by various policies that are vague and subjective at best—without appropriate laws in place or adequate methods for implementation and enforcement to ensure our oceans remain in perfect health. Massive extraction of fish species from our oceans is taking place in order to supply our ever-increasing demand to eat them. So it is essentially our collective demand to eat fish that is responsible for decimating intricate and vital oceanic ecosystems. There is no physiologic ‘need’ for us to kill and consume sea life. The omega 3 fatty acids, protein, and beef alternatives you seek can easily be found in plant foods—and, without the cholesterol, saturated fat, potential for mercury and heavy metals, and accompanying environmental loss you find in our quest for more fish. Additionally, there is no fiber to be found in fish and not one phytonutrient—so, if you wish to eat foods that have numerous types and powerful amounts of these highly beneficial substances, you will have to consume plants—thus also reducing your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, inflammation, and oxidation/aging all at the same time. For every one of the numerous extinctions we are causing through our abusive actions with our oceans, we are really only one step closer to our own demise. I think we need to consider replacement of the well-recognized sign that states, “Gone Fishing” with a new one—“Fishing Gone.”

Much more on what we are really doing to our oceans when we choose to eat fish can be found in “Comfortably Unaware”, Chapter VI-Part 2: Our oceans—what is happening below the surface?

The Fish Facade

So, you think eating fish is healthy. Healthy for whom? For you? For the fish? For our planet?

Part One: Fish, Oceans, and our Planet


There are serious issues when we, at any level of self-perceived sophistication, deem our act of killing members of another living species as “sustainable”. When regarding choices of food, I find this more a selfish act of fulfilling our desire to perpetuate culturally induced myths—a proclamation of sorts—that the earth and all its resources are here for us to ‘use’. It is now neatly tucked under the guise of ‘sustainability’, with some false sense that we know of all the ramifications when “harvesting” animals for us to eat—whether wild or domesticated. This simply displays our clear naivety.  Although more readily visible and measurable when witnessed on land, the effects of our miscalculations are perhaps more devastating on our oceans when we continue to consume fish taken from them. A quick snapshot of the current state of our oceans reveals this (as related to our food choices):

Of the seventeen primary fishing stocks worldwide, all are either overexploited or on the verge of collapse (FAO). Examples of commercially extinct areas are the Grand Banks near Newfoundland and the Georges Banks off New England, both once considered the most productive on earth. At less than 1 percent their original numbers in these waters, now there simply are no fish. Across all our oceans, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 70 percent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted, with many of them reaching more than a 90% decline. The World Conservation Union lists 1,081 types of fish worldwide as threatened or endangered.

It was inevitable that someone would develop an organization and labeling system from which, we could all feel comfortable continuing to consume living things taken from the ocean. A perfect example of this is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), created in 1997 to certify which fish populations and fishing methods are ‘sustainable’. Certain fisheries are able to display the MSC’s “Fish Forever” label, signifying to the public that their product was caught using socially responsible and environmentally sound management practices. So this becomes an interesting prospect. There still will be two types of consumers of sea life: 1. Those that really do not understand or care about where their food is derived, under the belief that it is simply a meal and on to the next daily project. 2. Those that are becoming aware that we must start giving thought to the origins of our food choices but need and want to rely on another trusted entity to provide assistance and, essentially, justification in purchasing and consuming that choice. Customers relying on MSC or any mode of certification to justify their demand to eat fish are being misled and more importantly, it ultimately furthers the decline in numbers of various fish species and the effect on other ecosystems. Although it may seem like a step in the right direction, certification organizations such as MSC are improperly designed and have, at best, conflicting intentions. By intentions, I mean MSC was not established to be a steward of our oceans. Instead, their principal focus is how to continue fishing and appear responsible during a time when consumerism regarding concern for our environment is on the increase. The more conscientious consumer has a desire to feel justified and therefore good about eating fish and the process of catching and killing them. MSC and other certification labels provide them with this, so the habit can and will continue. A quick walk down the fish section of the meat aisle at one of the many Whole Foods locations (considered to be the premier natural, sustainable food grocery chain in the U.S.), displays the following caught and killed sea life species for consumers to purchase:

“wild caught” cod, swordfish, grouper (Mexico), monkfish, whole butterfly, yellow fin tuna, mahi mahi, MSC Chilean sea bass (New Zealand), coho salmon, flounder, sea scallops (Mexico), baby octopus (Japan), stone crab, conch, hogfish (Mexico), red snapper, oysters, black mussels, farm raised trout (Panama), salmon (Norway), tilapia (commercially grown tilapia have usually been treated with testosterone and have led to the near extinction of genetically pure fish of this type), shrimp (Thailand), and bonzini (Greece) which is a rare European sea bass.

While, at this point, I could easily relate to you the issue with killing and eating each one of these types of wonderful sea creatures, I will say a word or two only about the octopus, although each one has its own sad story. So here you have an incredible and complex living thing that we are just beginning to understand—with over two-thirds of its nervous system located in its arms, the octopus is sensitive, very intelligent, capable of quickly learning and reasoning, has short and long-term memory and can project outcomes. The female sacrifices herself by fiercely defending her nest of offspring without leaving to eat or nourish herself, dying immediately following the process. Octopi have been shown to be able to use tools and have a keen sense of touch. Sadly, they are commonly caught and used as food in many cultures including Japan where they are sometimes consumed alive as novelty food, with their legs sliced and eaten while still squirming. So, why would it matter whether the octopus at Whole Foods happens to be from Japan or not? Why is it on the shelf at all?

Aside from rudimentary and simply relative assessments as to the sustainable status of a species, we do not have the ability to know precisely how many of that species remain, what effect all ecosystems and variables (known and unknown) have on that particular species, and exactly where on the graph of sustained life or recovery they may be…i.e. “Is this Blue Fin Tuna, Atlantic Sturgeon, Baiji River Dolphin, Atlantic Right Whale, etc.  (as we continue killing them) sustainable, partially sustainable, or sustainable up to what level (I think I see a few left in these waters)”. And, then later…”oops, I guess not so sustainable because we fishermen haven’t really seen any in these waters for the past five years.” So, now that particular species is on the brink of extinction, or actually gone forever. Assessments all made by those who, by any stretch of the imagination, really do not fully comprehend the short or long-term effects of continued ‘harvesting’ sea life from our oceans. Therefore, it becomes inherently more obvious that we humans should not demand or accept eating anything that we do not have absolute full understanding as to how we have affected that specific animal, its family, or other ecosystems it is connected to or by. Is there a reason to eat octopus?

It is essentially a façade whereby the parameters of true sustainability of fish species and the ecosystems they comprise are not at all fully understood by our very experts let alone by an industry that is motivated by economics. Although MSC offers eco-certification to various fishing businesses world-wide, it must be impressed that they have never refused certification to any fishery that has completed the certification process. As we take a look at the Fraser River Sockeye Salmon, it reveals just one of several examples where the MSC has stamped their label of “sustainable” on a fish species without full comprehension of the true state of this fish or the effect its life has on other various ecosystems. Fraser River Sockeye Salmon are considered “endangered” by those biologists who are intimately studying them such as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose scientists consider overfishing a key threat to the stocks’ health. And, yet, there is the MSC label.

be looking for: Part Two