On the front page of ScienceBlogs.com this weekend is a series of posts by blogger Jennifer Jacquet (of Guilty Planet) on the debate raging over seafood consumption. Although I applaud her willingness to take a strong stance and to provide a wider spectrum of voices on the issue, her stance that people need to cease consuming seafood entirely is, in my mind, counterproductive.
It’s becoming clear that we are on the road to the collapse of the fisheries industry due to intense and unsustainable overfishing. Individuals concerned with this trend have been making informed decisions about their seafood consumption with the help of sites such as Seafood Watch run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This site provides information about which fisheries are implementing sustainable techniques as well as information on fisheries that are being overexploited. Seafood eaters can make informed decisions about the types of practices that they want to support based on this information.
The blog Guilty Planet argues that it is not enough for people to switch to eating only particular seafood species as an increased demand on these species would result in their decline due to overexploitation. The blog proposes that the solution is to cease eating seafood altogether. This stance isn’t going to make an appreciable dent in seafood consumption and is likely to alienate the very people that we need to be working with in order to bring about effective change.
An extreme stance such as this is likely to appeal to only a narrow range of supporters, limiting its overall effectiveness. The vast majority of seafood consumers do not even abide by the guidelines for sustainable fish consumption, suggesting that an even smaller handful will be willing to give it up entirely.
To be fair, Guilty Planet concedes that few people will likely adopt a no-seafood policy. She hopes that by providing a more extreme position newcomers to the debate will find other solutions (such as eating fish from sustainable fisheries or cutting down their consumption) more palatable. I worry that publicity for the “Stop Eating Seafood Movement” will scare away the newcomers who are starting to become concerned with the decline of overexploited species and are looking for an easy way to make some positive changes. When they see the sacrifices that we’re asking them to make by cutting seafood out entirely, I worry that they’ll give up on making changes altogether. Let’s be honest, we’re not going to get the majority of Americans onboard unless you make conservation seem easy (although it clearly isn’t).
But the real problem lies in the message that this stance sends to the seafood industry and, in particular, the message that it sends to individuals in the industry that have been working hard to implement sustainable techniques. They were once “rewarded” for their sustainable behavior by the increased patronage of sustainability-savy individuals (with the help of sites like Seafood Watch). The new message that we’re sending with a call for a boycott of seafood is that we’re abandoning the industry altogether (including those working on making positive changes) and we’re unconcerned with their situation. After all, the fishermen would also prefer that marine species were not in decline as this business feeds their families.
The small decline in consumption that this stance may generate will certainly put a bad taste in the mouths of the industry with which we need to cooperate. They need to feed their families and we need them to change the way that they do their job. Without collaboration and wide-scale changes in practice, the overfishing problem will not be resolved.
There are people all over the world who rely on seafood as an important protein source. To me this implies that the solution can not be reached by pleas for a removal of seafood from one’s diet. As long as there are fish to catch, there will always be fishermen. Coming to terms with this fact necesitates that we keep lines of communication open with the seafood industry so that they will be open to our suggestions and technologies in the years to come.
To reiterate, Guilty Planet and I on the same side. We both want to see major reforms in the way seafood species are collected and consumed so we can reverse the trends of decline. I also agree individuals should think carefully about the diet choices they make as well. I personally limit my seafood consumption and consult Seafood Watch before making a purchase. Jennifer and I simply differ in the method in which we think is the most effective in bringing about change.