Energy & Environmental Policy

Five More Reasons to Lay Off the Seafood

Last week, we covered the first five reasons to lay off the seafood: 1) Predator loss disrupts the food web, 2) current fishing practices reduce biodiversity, 3) industrial fishing is cruel, 4) seafood has a high carbon footprint and 5) seafood contains toxins. These reasons focused on the environmental impacts of conventional seafood harvests.

This week I’d like to share five more reasons to rethink your seafood choices, focusing on the economics of the fishing industry.

6. Ocean exploitation creates intergenerational inequity. It is likely that future generations will inherit a barren ocean (see last week’s essay). Most of the world’s stocks are overfished or have already crashed, and scientists are concerned about the additional pressures that climate change, ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures will place on fish stocks. What does continued overfishing mean for future generations? We are not sure, but it doesn’t look good.

7. Industrial fishing displaces local fisherman.The absence of a central government in Somalia since 1991 has left its people and resources vulnerable. According to a December 2008 article in The Economist, European fleets have taken advantage of this situation by aggressively overfishing Somali waters, robbing local fisherman of their livelihoods. Subsistence fishing was the only option for many of these local people, who live in a poor and war-torn country with few opportunities. How did Somalis react? Some turned to piracy.

8. The fishing industry is propped up by government subsidies. Subsidies create the illusion of profit. The widespread use of subsidies has created a global market overloaded with fishermen who compete for subsidy dollars as much as they compete for fish. According to the World Bank, global fisheries subsidies exceed $10 billion annually, promoting overfishing as well as fleet overcapacity on the order of twice as many boats as needed.

9. Poor fisheries management results in a massive economic loss. The gap between predicted and actual economic benefits from marine fisheries is $50 billion annually, according to the World Bank. Over the past three decades the cumulative loss from poor fisheries management has totaled about $2.2 trillion. These estimates actually understate true losses, since they do not include damage to related industries like tourism and restaurants.

10. The system keeps fisherman poor. Under conventional fisheries management, fishermen harvest a fish simultaneously, which means all the fish are brought to port at once. The market is then flooded with specific fish only during the times of the year that coincides with their capture season. This drives down the prices of those fish, creating the need to catch more fish in the following year in order to make a living. Fishermen then lobby to increase subsidies that will reduce the cost of fishing; this strategy, however, only results in more competition, not more fish.

The good news is that some fishermen are already trying to do the right thing. Alaskan halibut fisherman have successfully used rights-based management, also known as “catch shares,” to bring both the species and fishery back from the brink. Rights-based fisheries bring an incentive system similar to private property rights to fisheries. As a result, catch shares eliminate the “race to fish” phenomenon that dominates conventional fisheries by allowing fishermen to buy, sell and pass on their fishing rights to others.

The federal government has made some encouraging gestures as well. President Bush placed 340,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean under protection between 2006 and 2008. President Obama has made ocean policy a top priority. NOAA and the Council on Environmental Quality have taken marine issues long ignored, like the Treaty of the Sea and catch shares management, off the shelf for reevaluation and implementation. NOAA also supported the unsuccessful attempt to add blue fin tuna and sharks to CITES. These are promising first steps.

Voice your support for managing fisheries using catch shares by contacting the National Marine Fisheries Service. The public comment period to support the new catch shares policy ends April 10. You can also contact your congressmen to voice your support for policies that protect biodiversity, repair damage to ocean habitats, encourage sustainable fishing practices and enhance enforcement of fishing regulations at home and abroad.

As consumers, our seafood choices matter. Don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or fishmonger how and where your fish was caught. If they cannot give you a satisfactory answer, then choose something else for dinner. Visit the following organizational Web sites to learn more about sustainable seafood choices: the Marine Stewardship Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Blue Ocean Institute or Seafood Watch.

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