Niaz’ Top 10 Myths About Seafood, Fisheries, and Marine Conservation

This blog post comes from NAMA’s coordinating director, Niaz Dorry.
That’s me as a greenhorn in the early 90s.
I’ve officially passed the 20-year mark of working on fisheries and ocean issues. What I thought would be a short-term assignment as a Greenpeace campaigner has become my life’s work. Not because I’m enamored with the ocean and marine animals, but because the underlying problems, issues, and threats were the same as those I had to deal with when working on other campaigns. 

To me, from the start it was these similarities that were the untold story of the ocean and fisheries work. Some of the items on the list – like #1 – were clear to me from day one. Others emerged as I learned more. My convictions about this list are a manifestation of my instincts that are often reinforced through experience and information. A longer explanation of each item is included in the blog. Don’t worry if you can’t read those now; we’ll be running them as individual posts in the near future.
So here are my top ten myths…. drum roll, please:
10. We need stability, so we can’t change the current system.
9. We need an “economically efficient” fleet to feed people and save the fish.
8. People don’t want to think. They just want to know what they can eat.
7. There are not enough margins to pay fishermen a fair price.
6. US fisheries laws and policies are working.
5. There is not enough wild fish to feed people, so we need industrial aquaculture.
4. “But fisheries are so complicated” (said in the voice of Fran Drescher of The Nanny).
3. Fisherman must be able to compete in the global economy.
2. Only those who “own” the “resource” will take care of it.
1. There are too many boats chasing too few fish.
Want to go deeper into my thinking? Here you go:
10. We need stability, so we can’t change the current system.
This is code word for maintaining status quo. In some ways, they are right; we can’t change the current system. At least not in ways that will matter, so at some point we will need to start from scratch. It’s like a bad batch of dough. Nothing you do is going to fix it. In the end, you’ll have a loaf of brick. Time to start anew. And this time, learn from past mistakes so as not to repeat them.
9. We need an “economically efficient” fleet to feed people and save the fish.
“Economically efficient” is another code word. It stands for cranking out as much fish as possible with the lowest operating costs. This is an antiquated way of defining efficiency and perpetuates the high-volume/low-value single-species extraction mentality that has brought us where we are today. 

In my opinion, the most economically efficient boats are the ones who offer the highest returns to their communities, local economies, regional food systems, all the while having the smallest ecological footprint. 
8. People don’t want to think. They just want to know what they can eat.

The surge in demand for food from smaller-scale, regionally based and sustainable farms has already busted this myth. People of all backgrounds and incomes are making food purchases based on what they value. In seafood, we’ve seen a huge growth in the popularity of Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs). But there are still assumptions made about who is buying fresh local fish – and why they are buying it.

So let’s stop assuming that in communities of color, culturally diverse populations, and lower income communities, people aren’t interested in having access to fresh seafood because they just want as many calories that their dollar can buy. And let’s stop assuming that more affluent seafood eaters can’t think beyond the basics that a wallet card provides. It’s insulting all around.
7. There is not enough margin to pay fishermen a fair price.
I’m sure there is some truth to this when it comes to some of those in the seafood value chain. But much like any other part of our society, it’s the priorities, not the margins that dictate whether fishermen get a fair price for their catch. There are existing operations that buy seafood from fishermen and from there, deal with the rest of the supply chain with pre-determined profit margins built into their calculations. 

We’ve spoken with some of these operations and we have yet to hear a good answer that explains why the same profit margin isn’t offered to the fishermen. After observing this business for over 20 years, I’ve come to believe there are ways to ensure fishermen get paid a fair price if not their cost of operation. We can’t keep hoping that volume of fish caught will make up for not getting paid a fair price. Under this scenario, fishermen have no option but to ask for more fish. And let’s not forget those who work as crew, on docks, and in processing factories. 

The current system has left many in the fishing industry in the red, while few are in the black. And it’s all about our priorities.
6. US fisheries laws and policies are working.
No. They. Are. Not.
What’s wrong with the US fisheries management system deserves its own Top Ten list. I’ll name the first three that come to mind as of this writing and will go deeper on the top 10 specifics later. Here they are:
·    Current policies promote privatization and consolidation, and are leading to excessive consolidation of fishing rights in the hands of fewer and fewer people and companies. This is not just a social issue, as some say. This strategy undermines our collective ability to protect the marine ecosystem. Each time a sector of our society has been forced to get-big-or-get-out under similar strategies, it has failed at its core mission. Privatization, consolidation and concentration of our financial, healthcare, education, housing and land-based food production systems have universally failed. Yet similar policies are being pushed on the water and the vehicle is the national fisheries legislation – the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. We’re renaming it the Fish Bill because just try remembering that long name. And calling it the “Magnuson Act” just doesn’t do it for us. We’re not trying to work on Mr. Magnuson; we’re working on what lives in the ocean and how we interact with them.
·      Health of fisheries is mostly determined in a single species context. In other words, under the current regulations, the health of the cod is determined in the absence of the health of its environment, its prey, its predators, water temperature, etc. We’ve had to work hard to push for true ecosystem based ways of managing the ocean, but until that becomes fully integrated into the law we’ll only see short lived trends on graphs not long lived, real change on the water or below its surface. I would venture to predict, that most of the so called “recoveries” we hear in the news will be future “overfished again” if we continue to treat the ocean as single species of fish magically swimming solo in a sea of other creatures and multiple impacts. I will acknowledge that some efforts are underway to adopt “ecosystem based management.” But these efforts will likely hit a wall unless mandates are articulated in the Fish Bill.
·      Under the current Fish Bill it is not required for fisheries managers to address impact of non-fishing activities such as climate change, persistent pollutants, mining, deforestation, toxic pollution, etc. When push comes to shove, fishing effort is the lever used to “correct course” when populations of marine animals show signs of trouble. Have you heard any public officials requiring oil drilling to be banned, more regulated, etc. to help the Bluefin tuna populations? Yet we know the fish was hit hard post BP Horizon disaster. And let’s talk about mercury. We know what it’s doing to us humans, but what is it doing to the tuna? Is it affecting its ability to find food? Hone in on its migration patterns? Have babies? Why doesn’t International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) demand an end to coal burning power plants or chlor-alkali facilities or PVC manufacturing to reduce mercury that ends up in the tuna’s flesh?
It’s worth noting that the Fish Bill is undergoing a reauthorization process in Congress. Although some believe the train has already left the station, we should remember that this train is known to make multiple stops, sometimes even back up, and often face major delays. Most of the time these stops, backups and delays are used as tactics for not taking action. I believe we can use these strategies to make sure we take the right course of action not just perpetuate a bad bill.
5. There is not enough wild fish to feed people, so we need industrial aquaculture.
I believe we catch enough fish to feed people. Just as we grow enough food to feed people. Just as with farming, access to seafood is more political than ecological. Just check out the food myths put out just this week by Food First. It was a happy coincidence that I wrote this when Food First’s piece came out. Some might even call it serendipity!
There are those who are deciding – and sometimes recommending – that we manage for the needs of those who already have other options. Below is the call to action from Environmental Defense Fund’s recent report. EDF is calling for a strategy of harnessing fishing rights to first and foremost benefit the “increasingly affluent and urban people…” Hm. Not sure where the rural fisherman fits into this picture who caught the fish, often having to lease the rights to fish from absentee “landlords,” and with shore side prices under tight control, and most of the money to be made from the seafood comes from this point forward, finding themselves arriving at the dock already in the red. 

Sounds familiar? Much like the farmers who aren’t getting their cost of operation and who can’t afford to eat their own crops or meats, fishermen aren’t paid prices that cover their cost of operations and most of their catch leaves their community headed for those urban populations EDF speaks of. Policies such Catch Shares promoted by EDF have added other layers of costs to the fishermen making especially the small and medium scale fishermen to decide whether they get big or get out.

And where does the urban or rural poor fit into this picture?
4. “But fisheries are so complicated” (said in the voice of Fran Drescher of The Nanny).
I’ve come to believe the complications of fisheries management are all contrived to make everyone believe things are just sooooo complicated that the best solution is to throw in the towel and lap up whatever we’re sold.
Honestly, I think it’s pretty simple. Ignore everything you hear, figure out your values, and apply them to fishing and seafood. 

If you think it’s important who grows your lettuce, how farm animals are treated, what’s in your food, who your banker is to your money’s safety, whether an absentee landlord is a good thing, whether fair pay is part of your sustainability definition, etc. then only buy seafood or consider fisheries/marine conservation policies that match those same values. 

This means for the near future we have to become better critical thinkers, but that’s okay. We all can use the mental, and in many ways spiritual, exercise.
3. Fisherman must be able to compete in the current global economy.
No, they don’t. The current global economy is what brought us agribusiness. So we know that at least when it comes to our food, we are better off keeping an eye on fitting into our local and regional economy. 

We now have new models – starting with Community Supported Fisheries and now expanding into the healthcare, schools, universities, and other institutions – that are creating opportunities for fishermen to think first about their role in the regional economies and food systems, and if there is anything left pump it into the global seafood market. To date, we have been doing the opposite, and that’s not sustainable, equitable, profitable, or ecologically responsible.

2. Only those who will “own” the “resource” will take care of it.
First, let me start by saying that the Koch Brothers are amongst those who are investing heavily in the push for “ownership” based policies in fisheries and seafood. I encourage you to browse through this presentation of Seth Macinko of University of Rhode Island for a quick primer about “Who Are These Guys?”
Ownership is another code word, this time in favor of privatization of the ocean commons. It’s this argument that’s used to advocate for Catch Shares, or what used to be called Individual Transferable Quotas till rebranded a few years ago. Let’s once again take stock of other aspects of our society that first started to consolidate into fewer and fewer players to later become privatized with the promise of better service: banking, healthcare, real estate, and agriculture. 

We’ve lost our money, we’re sicker, homeless, and for one of the first times in history eating food that is actually killing us. And somehow we think the same kind of consolidation and privatization will save the ocean and our access to healthy seafood.
1. There are too many boats chasing too few fish.
No there aren’t. The Green Revolution argued there were too many farms, and they should be replaced by scales of operation that are “economically efficient” enough to feed the world. We got mega-farms that have left our soil drained; our wells and reservoirs tapped; food full of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, hormones and whatever else; animals raised in unspeakable conditions and under horrifying cruelty; seeds locked up by corporations; toxic runoffs; food that often travels halfway around the world to get back to where it started; and, all the while pumping out unidentified food objects with the wrong calories. But hey. It’s cheap.
What the tide against the Green Revolution has taught us is that we need many more farms. Diversified farms. Farms owned by those rooted in their communities. Farms that treat the animals with love and respect. Farms that prioritize feeding people within a fathomable radius of where their food comes from. We need farmers like Jim Goodman who told Occupy Wall Street “they tell me I must feed the world. But I’m not going to. I wanna feed you. I want the world to feed itself. And they can.”
Let’s not confuse fishing with extracting, just like we can’t confuse farming with agribusiness. There is a difference between those who fish and those who extract seafood. My call to action to you is to make it your business to learn the difference and, if your aim is to save the wild ocean and you don’t oppose fishing for food, support those who fish.
We need more community based fishing operations. Small and medium scale boats, fishing for diversity of species, marketed to communities within a fathomable distance from where they tie up their boats. We need fishermen who bring awe to their work, and love for the marine animals they interact with even if they are headed to our dinner tables. We need policies that support these fishermen, the infrastructure that keeps them going, and markets that honor whatever their gear brings to shore. We need fishermen, who like Jim, aren’t fishing to feed the world because they know the world can feed itself if given the opportunity for self-determination.

Our call to action is not to capitalize on nature to feed the overfed.

Our call to action is to honor community connections, generations of experience, intimate connection with the ocean, and deep culture of caring about the web of ecosystems that make up the global ocean commons that often graces us with the food we need.