Tag Archives: sustainable oceans

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:




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! 

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