1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Once I caught a fish alive.
 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, But then I let him go again.
Oh, why did you let him go?  Because he bit my finger so.
– Anonymous, Nursery Rhyme

In last week’s diary and subsequent discussion, we explored at length issues related to sustainable production of livestock.  Which logically leads to another whole class of food protein, the fruits of the ocean.

Oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface and contain 97% of its water supply.  Yet, we know more about the surface of the moon than about the floor of the seas.  In this brief diary I cannot hope to do more than touch on the environmental issues related to the oceans and the production of food for humanity, and what we can do about them.  I’ll try to make up for that by providing plenty of links for your own continued explorations.

This is another diary in the continuing “New Environmentalism” series. In this series, we’re going to be looking at ways to change the way we live and work – sometimes significantly – in order to live in harmony with our environment.

Goals of the New Environmentalism: devise a practical, realistic vision for a sustainable future and a plan for moving from our modern society to a sustainable society. In this society, we claim that the proper goal of economic activity is not growth but, rather, human happiness.

Egarwaen and I encourage you to contact either of us by email if you’d like to be a contributor to this series (post a diary / host a discussion).

One other point:  While my discussion will focus primarily on the oceans, at some points I’ll “come ashore” and expand the discussion to include both freshwater and saltwater species, as similar issues may occur for both freshwater and saltwater species.  I’ll point out when I do so, however.

Ocean Hunting

I’ve chosen to collectively call our practices of commercial fishing, crabbing, lobstering, etc. “ocean hunting,” to point out that while these practices have been modernized thorough the centuries, we’re essentially still practicing the food-gathering methods of our pre-agricultural ancient forebearers.  On land, the hunting-gathering lifestyle long ago proved insufficient to support large populations in a complex culture, and so it is not surprising that this same strategy should eventually prove insufficient at sea as well.

Throughout history we have bumped up against the limits of the sea when “hunting,” but due to the size of the oceans and the fecundity of its life, we were always able to find a new bank to fish, a new species to turn to.  The history of whaling is, in a nutshell, the sorry story of just such a progression from one location to another, one species to the next, chasing fewer prey with improved technologies, until an entire family of organisms were globally on the verge of extinction (see here and here.  We face a similar problem with our fisheries today, as we are running out of oceans, running out of species, and hitting limits that cannot be addressed by further technological innovations.  And this is happening at the very moment when a burgeoning world population needs all the food sources it can get.  

Due to space limitations I’ll illustrate with one example that has been studies in detail, the collapse of the north Atlantic cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland, but the principles apply generally to other cases of fisheries collapse, such as the Pacific Northwest salmon fishery (where habitat destruction and mismanaged aquaculture are also factors), the Peruvian anchovy fishery, the southern New England lobster fishery, several species of West Coast rockfish,
and the potential for collapse of tuna stocks.

History of the Cod Fishery

In 1497 when John Cabot arrived off the coast of Newfoundland, the fish were so numerous that the progress of his ship was impeded and simply lowering a weighted basket overboard was enough to catch them.  In the 1950’s, local fishers using traditional methods still had consistently caught 250,000 tons annually for more than a century.  Around that time, large “factory ships” modeled after whaling vessels that could process the catch on board moved into the area, from nations around the world.  With such larger vessels, catches increased, peaking at 800,000 tons by 1968.  This was more pressure than the stocks could bear, however, and by 1975 the cod catch had dropped to under 300,000 tonnes (tonnes = metric tons; 1,000 kilograms or 2,200 pounds, versus 2,000 pounds for an English ton), and other species were also in decline.

The US and Canada addressed this problem by extending their “commercial exclusion zone” from 12 miles to 200 miles off the coast in 1976, which eliminated the foreign fleets.  With fewer boats, the catch dropped to 139,000 tons in 1978.  This might have been a sustainable level if the limit has been set there.  However, with the foreign competition gone, domestic firms began to think big and soon had their own fleets of stern factory-trawlers, or “draggers.”  By the mid-1980s, the Canadian catch was back up to 250,000 tonnes of cod annually.  This level was maintained through the 1980’s, despite warning from small coastal fishers that the fishery was in danger.  Big business had a big investment at stake in their fleet, and Ottawa was compliant.

Draggers haul enormous, baglike nets, as long as a football field, held open by a combination of huge steel plates or “doors” and heavy chains and rollers that plow and scrape the ocean bottom. They drag up whole schools of fish and anything else in the way, inflicting immense damage to immature target and non-target fish and the benthic (bottom-dwelling) community. They were not only destroying critical habitiat, but they also contributed to destabilizing the ecosystem of the northern cod.

The draggers targetted huge aggregations of cod while they were spawning, a time when the fish population is highly vulnerable to capture and to the physical impacts of the bottom-trawling gear on the environment. Reference

By 1986 scientists also knew the fishery was in trouble, and recommended the allowed catch be halved.  The government only took half-hearted measures, however, beginning in 1989.  In 1990 an independent review determined the situation was dangerous, with only 400,000 tonnes of cod remaining in that part of the ocean.  The fishery was closed in 1992, but it was too late.  By 1995 the estimate of the cod biomass dropped to 1,700 tonnes.  It is only recently that some limited fishing has resumed.  The economic and social impact on the Maritime Provinces has been immense.  This is the cost of environmental mismanagement; the reference above details the economics and politics of how such things happen despite available scientific data.  Such is the Tragedy of the Commons.

The problem goes beyond more than just taking too many fish.  In nature, there is an evolutionary advantage for fish to grow to the largest size possible, limited only by the availability of food.  Larger fish grow faster, breed sooner, and produce more eggs.  They’re more likely to avoid predators.  Unfortunately, the larger fish can’t avoid one predator, man, who preferentially catches the larger fish in his nets.  The slower growing and smaller fish slip through the net and escape.  The smaller fish produce fewer eggs, resulting in a secondary cause for the decline in the numbers of fish.  Growing slower, their young are more easily preyed upon for longer by other species.  And in fact, as the cod declined, there was an increase in the species that fed on young cod, from mackerel to lobsters and king crab.  The fish that was once at the top of the food chain was squeezed out by other predators, including seals, that made out better in this reweaving of the food web after the tear caused by man.  The result is that the niche once occupied by the cod no longer exists as it did before, and the cod may never be as plentiful as it once was, even if man were to disappear tomorrow from the planet.  Or they may regain a part of their niche and increase in size again.  We cannot know; only time will tell.  (References: here, here, here, here)

Editorial aside: This is how ecology works in the real world – the food chains and food webs we learned in school are mere snapshots in time.  The reality in the environment is more analogous to a series of chemical reactions, feedbacks, and shifting equilibria in a vast stew of reactants and products.  There’s no going home; even if you get there home is different now.  Thus the need to act cautiously and deliberatively any time we put our hand to the wheel of the ship.  We call ourselves homo sapiens, wise man, but we are not wise, merely clever, as was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The European cod fishery faces the same issues today.  The governments there have apparently learned nothing from the Canadian tragedy, as similar warnings are being ignored (also see here).

Whether ocean hunting can remain a viable proposition is a discussion I’ll take up below.  But before that, if “oceanic hunting-gathering” is facing problems let’s turn our attention to “ocean farming,” which at first blush would seem the logical alternative.


If ocean hunting is not capable of meeting global demands, maybe ocean farming might.  The idea is not new.  Perhaps inspired by seeing fish trapped in ponds or puddles after a flood, the ancient Chinese and Egyptians quickly hit on the idea of (freshwater) farming fish.  They were followed in this by the Greeks and Romans [click on “complete document”], whose aquaculture include such creatures as oysters, seabass, seabream, and mullets.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, aquaculture was abandoned (perhaps because the reduced population could be supported by fishing alone) until the 12th century, when fish farming was again taken up, this time at inland European monasteries requiring a steady supply of affordable fish (practicing aquaculture on freshwater species), as the Church prohibited eating meat on Fridays.  In Asia, (freshwater and salt water) aquaculture continued development at a measured pace, as Chinese culture never suffered a collapse on the order of the fall of Rome, and gradually spread to Japan, India, and Southeast Asia (see link above).

In other world cultures, aquaculture was practiced by peoples including the aboriginal Australians, ancient Hawaiians, and ancient Amazonians.  Incorporated into native cultures, these (freshwater and salt water) practices were relatively sustainable, in that the scale of operations and the population they were supporting was relatively small.

Here’s a snapshot of more recent aquaculture from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO):

Global aquaculture production in terms of both volume and value has recently been reviewed in depth from 1984 to 1992, for which period aquaculture statistics separate from those of capture fisheries were submitted to FAO (1995) by Governments. These statistics indicate that aquaculture expanded from 8% to 14% of global fisheries production from 1984 to 1992. Total aquaculture production in 1992 was 19.3 million tonnes valued at US$32.5 thousand million. Developing countries accounted for most of this production, with Asia producing 84.0% and Africa 0.5% and Latin America 2.3%.

In terms of production of major commodity groups in developing countries, about 48% was finfish, 31% seaweeds, 16% molluscs and 5% crustaceans in 1992 (Csavas, 1994) with Asia dominating production in all groups. The distribution of production between inland and coastal aquaculture was almost equal at 44% and 56%, respectively, although their commodity distributions vary. More than 99% of inland aquacultural production was finfish although freshwater macrophytes [i.e., large aquatic plants – K.P.] are excluded from the statistics. In coastal aquaculture seaweed production was 56%, molluscs 28%, crustaceans 8% and finfish 7%.

As the statistics do not differentiate between culture systems, either by culture facilities or intensity of production, rural aquaculture production cannot be estimated. Although global finfish production is mostly freshwater carps, much of this is produced in China where intensified production has risen dramatically over the past decade, taking much of it beyond the realm of rural aquaculture. In fact such statistics may not include production from rural aquaculture since many small-scale farmers do not practice aquaculture in the conventional sense of regular stocking, harvesting and pond draining. They may be unable to culture fish throughout the year because ponds either dry up or become increasingly flooded due to unstable rainfall. Farmers usually harvest small amounts of fish at irregular intervals for household consumption and culture fish for longer than a year without draining the pond to conserve water for other purposes if they perceive that the pond holds sufficient numbers of fish. The multifarious factors relating to rural aquaculture preclude collection of statistics on production levels in the conventional terms of kg or tonnes/unit area/year as required for annual summaries of data.

The rural fish farmer is frequently invisible to the fisheries research and seed production centres. He purchases a few hundred to a few thousand fry, usually from middlemen in Asia. If he sells fish, it is within the equally invisible market of the village or local `micro-market’. His pond or fish-farming enterprise may be equally invisible, consisting of a paddy field, or backyard pond measured in only tens or hundreds of m2. Even satellite image interpretation cannot pick up such resources, let alone field surveys by understaffed departments of fisheries, but resources they are and crucially important to the farm family livelihood. By standard definitions, some of these micro-ponds in Asia should not be included in a discussion of rural aquaculture. Many such ponds are in fact traps, ranging from depressions to pits in and alongside paddy fields, acting as a sump into which water and fish are drained at the end of the rice planting season. While this practice has often been termed rice-fish culture it is the basis upon which several writers have claimed aquaculture to be an age-old practice in the region – in its original form, the practice is simple rice-field capture fishery, as much capture as setting a trap at a gap in the bund or dangling a line.

Rural fish production may well be grossly underestimated in Asia due to inadequate data. One example suffices to indicate the weak database: Fish production for Northeast Thailand estimated from actual fish consumption data was six times higher than official Department of Fisheries estimates (Mekong Committee, 1992)[Reference – FAO]

Modern aquaculture has a mixed record.  As noted above, it can be practiced in a form little changed from its ancient predecessors, with manageable ecological impacts.  Or it can be practiced as the aquatic version of feedlot farming, with overcrowded fish requiring unsustainable inputs of feed and antibiotics, and resulting in water pollution to the surrounding area.

An example of this latter approach, which has garnered aquaculture a bad name among environmentalists, is the effort to farm salmon along both the east and west coasts of North America.  The case of British Columbia, as described in Mother Jones magazine, is apocryphal.  Fish farming started out with small, local operations that were run with the environment in mind.  But things went bad:

At first, the farmers trod lightly, consulting with local fishermen to find sites that wouldn’t harm wild salmon runs. But a few years after the farms arrived, things began going wrong. Big corporations bought out smaller operators; the farms metastasized and anchored their net pens in places where wild salmon smolts rested and fed on their way out to sea. Shrimp fishermen began pulling up traps full of farm muck, a gooey black mixture of feces, excess antibiotic-laden fish feed, and decayed salmon carcasses that filtered out of the pens. Piercing acoustic sirens installed to keep seals and sea lions away from the salmon pens drove the killer whales out of the archipelago. To rid their fish of sea lice, farmers dosed them with ivermectin, a potent antiparasitic known to kill some species of shrimp. Farmed fish contracted antibiotic-resistant strains of furunculosis, a fatal disease that produces ugly skin ulcers; wild salmon that migrated past their pens also contracted the disease.  [snip]

“We were told they wouldn’t escape. They escaped,” says Jennifer Lash, director of Living Oceans Society, a local conservation group. “We were told they wouldn’t survive in the wild. They survived. We were told they wouldn’t get upstream. They got upstream. We were told they wouldn’t reproduce. They’ve reproduced.”

Instead of relieving the pressure on wild salmon, industrial fish farming has become one of their greatest threats. Besides mucking up the farm sites and passing lice and disease on to wild fish, escaped Atlantics threaten to outcompete an already stressed population of Pacific salmon, replacing a diverse genetic pool with a single strain of invasive fish that may be ill adapted for long-term survival.

Alaska responded by outlawing fish farming; British Columbia imposed a moratorium in 1995 and offered to subsidize farmers that switched to greener, solid-walled pens that would contain fish and wastes, parasites and chemicals.  The industry responded by doubling fish density in the existing 87 sites as they were.  The problems seen in overcrowded feedlots were exacerbated:  parasites, diseases, too much waste for the local ecology to handle.  With a more industry-friendly government in place and the value of the farmed fish at 11 times the value of the wild fishery, the farmers are now pushing for more favorable rules.  The wealth has been good for the province, but it has pitted the townsfolk working in the processing plants against the rural fishers of the wild stock, who are having a hard time hanging on in B.C.

Today, Alaska’s wild salmon fishery ranks among the healthiest, best managed in the world. But British Columbia’s commercial fishing industry barely survives; in 1999, the wild salmon harvest was the lowest in 50 years. The Canadian government is trying to keep the industry afloat by buying out commercial fishing licenses and decreasing the number of boats in the water. Canada’s farmed-salmon industry, meanwhile, now ranks fourth in worldwide production. (In the United States, so far, salmon aquaculture has been limited to a few sites in Maine and Washington state.)
During the 1990s, salmon farming exploded around the globe. Stymied by environmentalists from further expansion in Canada, the industry headed to Chile, where farming corporations found cheaper labor and few environmental restrictions. The past decade also saw a frenzy of takeovers and mergers, as large companies–most notably Stolt-Nielsen, a Norwegian shipping company, and Nutreco, a Dutch conglomerate–bought smaller ones in order to achieve “vertical integration of the value chain,” industry-speak for the ability to hatch salmon fry, produce fish-food pellets, raise market-size fish, and distribute filets worldwide. The consolidation of the supermarket industry also fueled the merger mania; megagrocers preferred to contract with one supplier large enough to fill their freezers. This is how your Costco comes to offer farmed Atlantic filets at $3.99 a pound, less than half the price of wild salmon.

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon now rule the global premium fish market. In 2000, fish farmers raised 860,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon–more than 1 metric ton for every wild salmon caught in the North Atlantic. Chilean-raised Atlantics are dumped so cheaply in the United States that they’re making it hard for Alaska fishermen to make a living. “When you’ve got Chilean filets hitting the Port of Miami at $2 a pound, raised by workers making $1.50 a day, that’s when the WTO hits home,” says John van Amerongen, editor of the Alaska Fishermen’s Journal.  [snip]

Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), is charged with both promoting fish farming and conserving wild salmon runs. That dual mission has led the DFO to turn a blind eye to the environmental threat posed by the farms. Earlier this year the auditor general, the Canadian government’s independent investigator, scolded the DFO for failing to enforce Canada’s Fisheries Act, the nation’s most sacred environmental law, when the law came into conflict with the salmon-farming industry.

The major environmental groups – National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club – not only warn against eating farmed salmon, they recommend eating wild Alaskan chinook and coho and other salmon that are sustainably fished.  The David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society have begun campaigns to educate consumers about the health benefits of eating wild salmon, which, unlike farmed fish, contain no antibiotics, are not artificially dyed, and are higher in the omega-3 fatty acids that lower the risk of heart disease and breast cancer:

“The fish-farming industry has fed us a line about eating farmed salmon to protect wild stock,” says the Suzuki Foundation’s Hunter. “Actually, the reverse is true. If you purchase farmed salmon, you’re contributing to the risk to the wild fish.”

It’s counterintuitive, but if consumers choose wild fish, fish farmers may start cleaning up their act.  More responsive governments would help as well.  Nobody said it would be easy.

Additional links on this issue: here, here, here.  The industry’s viewpoint (with recipes too!) is here.

What happens to the ecology if fishers work their way all the way down the food chain of fish?  One possibility is a population explosion of jellyfish; such blooms are increasingly common all around the world.  Jellyfish are considered a delicacy in Asia – they’re crunchy – so maybe soon we’ll be harvesting them, also.  
Jellyfish blooms have blocked water intakes to power plants, causing blackouts.  Here’s one theory of what’s going on; what is known is that the blooms are definitely associated with human activity degrading the aquatic environment:

One of the smaller commercially caught fish is one you’ve probably not heard of – menhaden.  It’s inedible because it’s so bony and oily, but it’s commercially harvested for fish oil (now you know where fish oil supplements come from) and fish meal (used for livestock and fish feed – including for salmon – everything’s connected).  Menhaden compete with jellyfish for plankton as food.  Remove enough menhaden, and the jellyfish breed to take advantage of the newly available food supply.  It’s what they do.

The Menhaden Resource Council denies this theory, and says they’re operating sustainably – the Atlantic Menahden Coalition says the answer is to catch more striped bass, which feed upon menhaden!  

Another piece of the puzzle is that jellyfish are preyed upon by sea turtles, which are increasingly endangered by human activity, from hunting to egg collection in Mexico (where they’re a delicacy) to habitat destruction.  Fewer turtles also mean more jellyfish.  Piece three:  Due to metabolic tricks, jellyfish can survive in the “dead zones” at the mouth of the Mississippi and other rivers, where even crustaceans die off – allowing them to feed on plankton there undisturbed.   But it can get much worse, and did for the Black Sea:

In 1982, comb jellyfish were inadvertently dumped into the Black Sea — Europe’s most contaminated sea — when a U.S. ship emptied its ballast water. The Black Sea had never seen a comb jelly before, and it contains no native fish or jellyfish populations that prey on combs. Moreover, overfishing had slashed the fish populations that would have otherwise competed with the comb jellies for food.

The Black Sea is semi-closed, so, initially, no new predators could get in to check the comb jellies once they started to multiply. And multiply they did. Reproducing fast and furiously in this enormous new habitat, comb jellies soon crowded out almost all other fish. By 2000, incredibly, the total weight of the Black Sea’s comb jellies was more than ten times the weight of all fish caught throughout the world in a year.

Since 1997, another jellyfish species introduced with ballast water has been eating comb jellies in the Black Sea, thereby reducing their numbers. But the comb population explosion has cost the Black Sea fishing industry more than $350 million and ravaged tourism in the area. The sea’s vulnerability to comb jellies was neatly defined by Colin Woodard in his recent book about ocean pollution, Ocean’s End: “As a weakened man easily succumbs to disease, so damaged ecosystems readily fall victim to attacking forces.”  Reference

Where Do We Go From Here?

Just as wildlife preserves on land can act as reservoirs for regeneration of species that then migrate off-site and are hunted, a series of marine reserves for biological hot spots or “marine protected areas” have been proposed.  These areas would be off-limits to fishing, allowing fish stocks a safe haven for replenishment.  1% of the main fisheries areas have been set aside in such reserves to date; closer to 20-30% is needed for sustainability.  The investment is substantial, but with high dividends, but it’s not happening fast enough to avoid a crisis, it’s feared, and illegal fishing is a serious problem.  “Pirate” fishing under “flags of convenience” must be stopped or our treaties and organizations are hollow efforts [details here].

Even with ocean reserves and control of pirate fishing fleets, more careful management of the resources will be needed to ensure healthy stocks are maintained into the indefinite future.  An example: part of the ecological niche formerly held by the cod has been taken by the plankton-feeding mackerel, which may be part of the reason the cod is not rebounding well – the more prevalent mackerel are eating more cod fry in the plankton.  While mackerel stocks are up, the tone taken in a Canadian government report on the mackerel fishery is one of caution – a “let’s not mess this fishery up too” attitude.  This is even more apparent in unofficial, less formal studies based on the same data.  This is probably a good sign; a humbler, “handle with care” attitude towards fisheries would certainly seem to be the logical response called for.

The overfishing and collapse of a fishery is a classic example of a “tragedy of the commons,” as noted above.  New economic models are being considered to avoid this outcome, the ultimate conservative approach being “privatize all commons; people will protect what they own.”  The concept of “Individual Fishing Quotas” has been floated as a way of giving fishers an investment in seeing the oceanic commons conserved.  However, as described by the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the concept needs additional safeguards added to protect the small family fisher and the public interest in resource conservation:

Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs allow fishermen to catch a percentage of the total quota for a species of fish or shellfish in a defined area within a specific time. This privilege allows fishermen to catch their quota anytime during a fishing season.

Advocates of IFQ programs offer them as the solution for many of the problems facing our fisheries, including over-exploitation, poor market prices, and unsafe conditions. Although IFQ programs can provide some of these benefits, many fishermen and conservationists are concerned that poorly developed and poorly regulated programs will undermine conservation efforts and economically harm fishermen and fishing communities.

Because of those concerns, Congress placed a four-year moratorium on new IFQ programs in 1996 and commissioned an exhaustive study of these programs by the National Research Council (NRC). In 1999, the NRC published a report called Sharing the Fish [link here; you can read and print chapters but not save them – K.P.], which documented the benefits and risks of IFQ programs and identified a number of safeguards to assure that such systems advance conservation and do not disadvantage fishermen and fishing communities. In 2000, Congress extended the moratorium for two years so that national standards could be developed to address the risks of IFQ programs. [snip]

…poorly regulated IFQ programs pose risks to marine ecosystems, family fishermen, and the public ownership of fish resources. IFQs can affect ecosystems by promoting “high grading,” a process by which fishermen discard the low-value fish of the species for which they have quotas. In addition, IFQs provide little incentive to fish selectively or to protect ocean habitats from damaging fishing practices. Even worse, IFQs can impede efforts to adopt ecosystem-based management measures because quota shares are allocated for individual species and such allocations do not consider the needs of the ecosystem (for example, food for predator species).

Poorly regulated IFQ programs put family fishermen at risk because quota shares are often allocated based on the amount of fish a fisherman has caught in the past. This results in large-scale fishermen getting more quota and small fishermen receiving little or no quota and often being forced to leave the fishery. An IFQ can also be sold; it is “transferable,” which favors large-scale fishermen or corporations who have the financial resources to buy large amounts of quota. If there are no caps on consolidation, corporate interests can gain control over large segments of the fishery.
While federal law states that IFQs are not compensable private property, many people fear that if the quotas are held for long periods of time (10 or more years) they will become de facto property. In fact, some banks have seized quota shares that have been used to secure loans. This may force the government to compensate fishermen for making changes to their quotas, such as reducing the size or number of quota shares.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management of 1976 to manage fisheries in waters 3 – 200 miles off the US coast.  Their website has extensive resources, links, and discussion on the issues surrounding IFQs and legislation.  This is far too complex an issue to explore fully in this diary, but it is important and worthy of your further investigation, especially as legislation on this subject is working its way through congress.  The concept still has bugs to be worked out (as the links show) as is presented here as an example of the kinds of conversations taking place, not as a specific recommendation.

Drawing on analogies with land-based agriculture, we need to replace “feedlots” with “ranching.”  If we’re going to sustainably farm fish, we need to be acutely aware of their food needs, and how much of their wastes can sustainably be assimilated by the ecosystem.  If we are unhappy with that result, then we look to see if there are technologies of waste treatment that can be brought into play, or ways the wastes can be used or processed differently (as fertilizer?  Converted in a tank digester to methane or alcohol for fuel?)

The net effect of sustainable aquaculture may be that fish for you and I are going to become more expensive if raised sustainably (similar to the point made last week about organic beef being three or so times more expensive), although large-scale, low-intensity, local aquaculture (better use of farm ponds) may help in keeping the transition affordable to all, especially if energy runs out.  Sustainable aquaculture is also a better deal for the developing world, where the poor have to live with the results of doing it right or doing it wrong.

We face the challenge of going from feeding 6 billion people today to feeding 9 billion in fifty years.  Even with appropriate technology and good behavior, systems will be stretched to the limit.  One of the attractions of aquaculture for me is that it expands the number of ways we have of producing food, increasing our options heading into a period where we’re going to need all the options we can, as some will prove not to be workable, and none will work everywhere.  The more options we have, the better the odds that some will work good enough to keep some folks going somewhere that might otherwise not have made it.  Things are likely to get worse before they get better, as there are simply more ways things can go wrong than right.  One example:

Aside from overfishing, oceanic fisheries will face challenges from the collapse of plankton due to global warming: climate change causes a drop in the ocean currents that result in upwelling of nutrients from the deep sea.  Without this “natural fertilizer,” there is less plankton relative to the numbers of consuming fish, which results in a crash in the plankton population.  This then results in a crash in the stock of larger fish.  This happens naturally in some fisheries such as the Peruvian sardine and anchovy fishery, which are affected by El Nino (but in a more complex way than traditionally thought).  However, this would be an ongoing problem that would act against the viability of oceanic fishing (“hunting”) in a greenhouse world.  It may already be starting to happen off the Oregon coast; scientists are unsure.

This is the interface where the global warming issue bumps up against the fishery issues; one of the unanticipated ways things can go wrong and we’re screwed.  Sorry for the gloom, I’m just giving you the facts.  We need to be reality-based to face the future successfully; nature cuts no slack for what is or is not achievable with our current politics, or is too unpleasant to consider.

I’m no Marine Biologist.  What Can I Do To Help?

Since I’m assuming 99%+ of the readers are not commercial fishers, there are no easy personal fixes here like changing from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs, or buying a hybrid vehicle.  There are choices one can make when shopping for fish; some links with detailed recommendations on what to eat and not are here for British readers and here for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s well-known Seafood Watch Pocket Guide that you can customize for your region of the US, then print out, slip in your purse or wallet, and take out dining or shopping with you.  At the site you can link to detailed discussions on each species.  Highly recommended!  

I’d say one big thing you can do is to stay informed, and keep others informed – these issues will change over time as species are fished out or recover, as aquaculture methods are improved or not, as climate change effects on fisheries kick in, and people start to ask the right questions.

Here are some additional references to get your explorations started; I found a whole lot more material than I could tie directly into the diary itself.

The FAO website had a whole library on how aquaculture can be sustainably practiced in the developing world (or adapted to your 10 acres).  Go here and search for aquaculture.

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives had a two-part in-depth article on the state of the oceans in 2004:  part 1: Eating Away at a Global Food Source; part 2: Delving Deeper into the Sea’s Bounty

A gateway site for the USDA’s take on US aquaculture.

If you want to see the aquaculture industry’s view of the world, see an issue of Aquaculture magazine.

Here’s the take of some environmental groups on aquaculture:  World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club of Canada, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and .  Their positions range from near-Luddism to guardedly open to the idea.

A book you might want to look for is “The Plundered Seas: Can the World’s Fish be Saved” by Michael Berrill, Sierra Club Books, 1997.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then following these links will halve the size of this diary:

A review article in PLoS Biology, “Troubled Waters: the Future of Global Fisheries,” has a photo of a cod from the remote arctic, demonstrating that before overfishing, cod were twice the size they are typically found today.  Two undersea photos also show a before and after look at the effects of bottom trawling.  The latter looks like it was bulldozered down to bedrock.

This chart shows the percentage of vulnerable marine species affected by various threats such as overfishing, aquaculture, loss of habitat, climate change, etc.   Overfishing is by far the biggest threat; pollution, invasive species, and habitat loss are mid-level threats, and aquaculture and acoustic disturbance of cetaceans are the lowest level threats listed. Not negligible by any means, especially locally, but this helps illustrate why I think overfishing is a much more serious problem globally than aquaculture, and why I think the latter could be made to work if we just clean up our act.  I probably need to do another diary on pollution / invasive species / habitat loss…

As part of your exploration, identify groups working on these issues and contribute to them.  It is through speaking with united voices that we can make ourselves heard as legislation and regulations are developed in this area.  Yeah, I know, another item on your do-good to-do list, but consider that slow moving quiet crises like these are the ones that we’ll still be dealing with a century from now.  Links in this diary alone will take you to nearly a dozen groups to check out.

If you have a piece of land, consider whether you can build a pond and stock it with fish. If you have a pond or know someone with a pond they use for recreational fishing, talk to them about managing it a little more formally as a food source.  County agents and state departments of agriculture are a good resource in this regard.  Mother Earth News type books accumulating in your attic or down at the used bookstore since the 1970’s may become in vogue again; think about getting yours now.  You may be glad you did, if economic collapse or political turmoil causes you and your family to have to rely on your own local food resources.  The more ambitious might specifically try ranching crayfish if in a warm enough area, or tilapia / catfish / carp, in a sustainable way modeled after Hungarian or Asian practices.  

As a teenager who liked to go fishing, my brother-in-law loosely “managed” the pond on their family’s farm by contacting the county agent and stocking the pond with sunfish, bass, and catfish and fishing preferentially for one or another species as needed to keep the pond “ecosystem” going.  This was someone with no ecological training and no special interest in the issue other than having a good fishing hole on the property.  If he could do it so can you.  This can be as high- or low-tech an endeavor as you make it.  You may want to consider this as a community project. Who says community agriculture needs to be limited to vegetables?  You may also be able to purchase locally raised fish from your local food co-op in the same way that you’ve been getting organic eggs and meat.  Talk to the operators there; have them discuss it at their next board meeting.

Even if you do none of the things I’ve mentioned above, I’d like to ask one favor: Eat with gratitude.  Eat with mindfulness.  Savor the experience of the taste, smell, mouth-feel of that fish you’re enjoying.  You may not always have that opportunity; the gift of having it today is a sacrament of the earth.  Many in this world do not have such a luxury even at this moment; fewer may in the future.

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