There's an eye-opening piece in the NY Times on the absurdities of American food fish policies. Global trade, labor economics, sustainability - all of these things collide in a mish-mosh of insanity. Paul Greenberg has the details.
That and more below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Why Are We Importing Our Own Fish? is the question Greenberg asks.
...According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, even though the United States controls more ocean than any other country, 86 percent of the seafood we consume is imported.To hit the high points, we've done a number of things that don't make sense. We've done a swap and replace thing several times, in which a locally available species has been decimated and we've ended up replacing it with imports instead of trying to sustain and restore native fisheries.
But it’s much fishier than that: While a majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what Americans catch is sold to foreigners.
The seafood industry, it turns out, is a great example of the swaps, delete-and-replace maneuvers and other mechanisms that define so much of the outsourced American economy; you can find similar, seemingly inefficient phenomena in everything from textiles to technology. The difference with seafood, though, is that we’re talking about the destruction and outsourcing of the very ecological infrastructure that underpins the health of our coasts. Let’s walk through these illogical arrangements, course by course.
Where we do have abundant stocks on hand, we've been exporting them and importing others, chiefly from Asia. We're doing things with salmon that make no sense, exporting it in large numbers - and then we re-import it. The economics of global trade have us freezing it, shipping to Asia where cheap labor processes it, refreezes it, and ships it back to America. And the trade laws covering this are even stranger.
...So, for example, when fish sticks are cut from blocks of imported “white fish” in an American facility and exported to a foreign country, they are classified as American domestic production. Meanwhile some of our imports, as with an unknowable portion of our salmon, are taken from American waters, reprocessed elsewhere and brought back home. Do these percentages cancel themselves out? We don’t know.emphasis added
And that’s my point. Globalization, that unseen force that supposedly eliminates inefficiencies through the magic of trade, has radically disconnected us from our seafood supply.
Of course, there is a place for the farming of shrimp, just as there is a place for the farming of oysters. There is a need for efficient aquacultured species like tilapia and Pangasius, just as there is a need to curb the overfishing of Atlantic cod. There is even a place for farmed Atlantic salmon, particularly if it can be raised so it doesn’t affect wild salmon.
But when trade so completely severs us from our coastal ecosystems, what motivation have we to preserve them? I’d argue that with so much farmed salmon coming into the country, we turn a blind eye to projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which would process 10 billion tons of ore from a site next to the spawning grounds of the largest wild sockeye salmon run on earth.
Read the whole thing. The picture Greenberg paints is a compelling challenge to a lot of the assumptions underlying trade policies and market 'solutions'. The assumption that we can always get fish from 'somewhere else' contributes to attitudes that ignore local environmental issues - to our peril.
And it's not just about the fish WE eat.
The Menhaden - the fish you've never heard of that so much depends on.
Atlantic menhaden are a small fish that do some important things. They live on plankton - meaning they're near the bottom of the food web; they can help prevent or reduce red tides for example. A member of the herring family, they are not a popular food item - for humans - not directly. Instead, we benefit from them second or third hand, as it were. Menhaden are an important food supply for a number of fish: bluefish, striped bass, cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, swordfish, and tuna.
If Atlantic fisheries are in bad shape, one reason is the supply of menhaden is not what it used to be - and that gets into the other way we eat them by proxy. Menhaden are subject to Industrial fishing, where they are harvested for use in such things as fish oil, fish meal, and fertilizer. In a word, they have been overfished. As of 2011,
By weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish on the East Coast, and about three-quarters of this catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters. A single factory in Reedville, Va., takes in and grinds up this haul, reducing it to fish meal and oil destined for dietary supplements, fertilizer, farm animal feed, and pet food.An infographic at the link above notes that in the past 25 years, the numbers of Atlantic menhaden have plunged by 88%. The factory cited above is Omega Protein. Without menhaden, all of the fish that prey on them are in trouble. Without menhaden to keep plankton in check, coastal waters are more subject to algae blooms that can deplete oxygen and result in fish kills. The situation has become so dire, action is finally being taken.
Because menhaden are mainly caught in state waters (less than three miles from the beach), they are managed by the ASMFC and are not governed by the requirements of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which I’ve described in earlier posts. There is no catch limit for Atlantic menhaden, only an unenforceable cap, with no accountability measures in place.
In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to establish the first ever coast-wide catch limit for the Atlantic Menhaden fishery, after urging from fishermen, conservationists, and many of you to protect Menhaden. Menhaden are one of the sea’s most important fish because they provide food for many larger ocean species. For decades prior to this, fishermen were allowed to catch unlimited amounts of Menhaden, and because of this the Menhaden population declined by around 90%.Preliminary results are promising.
Now, a year later, the catch numbers for Menhaden are in and it’s good news. The 2013 catches remained just under the coast-wide catch limit in its first year of implementation! This means that around 300 million more Menhaden were left in the sea to feed fish like striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish, as well as seabirds and marine mammals. This helps ensure the maintenance of ocean food-webs. And in turn it helps support commercial and recreational fishing and also eco-tourism, like whale-watching.The menhaden story is an important piece of the larger puzzle of sustaining Atlantic fisheries in general. First steps have been taken, but the effort must continue. Meanwhile, we have a problem of too many of the wrong kind of fish in the wrong places.
The Alien Invaders in the Heartland
If we don't have enough menhaden, we do have too many of another kind of fish. The Scientist Magazine recently featured several stories about the problem of Asian carp. Imported to this country decades ago to clean retention ponds, they escaped into the wild where they had few natural enemies or diseases to restrain their numbers. They multiplied enthusiastically and have displaced a lot of native fish. Illinois fisherman Clint Carter is working on the problem.
This stretch of the Illinois River—once commercially fished for catfish and a genus of carp-like fish called buffalo—is chock-full of invasive carp originally introduced from Asia. Carter can’t remember it any other way. Asian carp were brought to the southern U.S. decades ago to clean retention ponds, but floods allowed the fish to escape and spread throughout natural waterways, where they quickly dominated their new environs and outcompeted native fish for food. The biggest concern now—aside from getting whacked in the face by the silver carp, which are notorious for their aerial shenanigans—is that they will make it into the Great Lakes, where they could potentially decimate native fish populations. Carter proposes ridding waterways of the alien fish by harnessing a force that has had unintended success at reducing populations of countless other species, from bluefin tuna to diamondback terrapins: cultivate a human appetite for invasive carp.The video below gives an idea of the scale of the carp problem. http://www.youtube.com/...
Others agree. “When we decide something is pretty good to eat, we run right through it,” says Jackson Landers, a hunting educator and author of Eating Aliens. “There’s definitely precedent for human beings deciding to hunt something down in a systematic way, especially if we apply industrial harvesting methods.”
There is serious concern that if Asian carp reach the Great Lakes, it will be an economic and environmental catastrophe. There are serious efforts to keep that from happening.
New efforts to be launched this year include increased sampling downstream of the electric barriers, the hiring of commercial fishing crews to target at-risk areas of the upper Illinois Waterway; a heightened telemetry monitoring program for the fish; and testing the off-target effects of water gun seismic pressure waves, which can divert the fish away from stationary or mobile barriers.Carter's culinary approach, as the video makes clear, has several problems. The amount of edible filets per fish is small, and a bit labor intensive. There's too much leftover fish that still has to be discarded. A possible solution suggests itself.
If Asian carp could be harvested in large numbers economically, they could be substituted for menhaden in the production of fish meal and fertilizer. Omega Protein's model of one huge processing facility would not work for a carp population distributed along numerous waterways across many states; however a more localized, smaller scale approach might work, with regional processing facilities. It's definitely worth investigating, assuming processed carp could adequately replace menhaden. There's certainly no shortage of them.
As these news stories illustrate, there are a lot of things we could be doing with regard to our fisheries that would make more sense than what we have now. It's clear market-based solutions alone will not and can not solve this puzzle. It's going to take regulatory actions and policies that look beyond immediate profit and loss to the bigger picture.