Heather Tierney: Plenty of Fish in the Sea?
Summertime dining means lots of chilled rosé and tons of fresh fish. If you’re in the city or out east this summer and faced with the decision of ordering the grilled NY strip steak or the pan-roasted local cod, most of us wouldn’t even hesitate — the cod gets the hook every time. We’ve been hearing about the fish depletion crisis for awhile — that within the next four decades we will no longer be able to eat fish. Because they won’t exist. Because we’ve consumed them all.
According to numerous scientific studies, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will be generating less than 10 percent of their peak catches, and therefore, die off. But how valid is this theory? Is it like global warming — a hypothesis originally considered egregious until incidents like tsunamis and killer heat waves meant that we couldn’t look the other way?
Unfortunately the truth is foggy due to fisheries lobbyists and economists — whose chief goal is to protect corporate fishing fleets and the income they generate. These groups traditionally work for government agencies, like the National Marine Fisheries Service, and have secured political sway and government subsidies to continue fishing at an unsustainable rate.
They also supply information to the public that seems optimistic at first glance, but upon closer inspection is hiding a larger problem. For example, a fisheries-backed scientist might report that cod has recovered or even doubled in abundance when, in reality, they have increased from only a mere one percent to two percent of their original population fifty years ago.
The rapid decline tracked in almost all fish species is due to a number of causes — from bycatch (throwing unusable or non-permitted caught fish back into the ocean) to global warming (increasing ocean temperatures are damaging the coral reef that fish feed on). And recently, there is another factor aiding the rapid extraction of fish from the ocean: China.
Over the years, the U.S. has lost ground as a manufacturing power due to emerging countries’ — like China — ability to make things more cheaply. And we are a country that likes to buy things — especially when we can’t afford to. Which means we must borrow to keep up our spending habit. China is happy to keep buying our debt as long as we keep buying their cheap products. It’s an endless circle that keeps America in debt and the Chinese economy healthy.
This cycle has led to something new sprouting up in China — a middle class. This burgeoning sector, with new-found wealth, are now purchasing more upscale products and food. A population that has lived on cheap grains such as rice and wheat for centuries is now lapping up lobster. This year, lobster exporters in New Brunswick expect to export $5 million worth of lobster to China, up from just $239,000 in 2009. The sudden emergence of China’s interest in U.S. fish has abridged the supply, which has in turn driven up the price and diminished the quality of lobster available for domestic purchasers.
But the main culprit of fish depletion is still that we consume more fish than nature can replenish. In the end, it is only government and legislators that can help mitigate the problem, as they are the ones who regulate the fisheries, and — aside from pumping billions of dollars in annual subsidies — allow them to continue a business model, that economically does not make sense.
So as an individual, while making a choice to forgo certain endangered species of fish at a restaurant is a start, a more viable action is writing a letter to your local legislator.