The Seafood Consumption Debate

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.

Fish_on_TrawlerIt’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).

Essaouira,_Fish_MarketBut 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.

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7 thoughts on “The Seafood Consumption Debate

  1. Very, very good post. Jennifer’s extreme stance is unappealing at all, although her reason is understandable. But telling everyone to stop eating seafood is not going to happen.

    There’s so many similar extreme stances in current issues, and these extreme-stance-supporters don’t seem to care about the other side of the argument. And even if they do, they just want to get their voice out and grab attention. Either way, it is not appealing at all and I doubt everything’s going to work the way they expect it to.

  2. The problem with the extreme approach is that it tends to promote thinking of either a) Eat fish and kill the planet, or b) don’t eat fish at all. Anyone who looks for a c) feels like they’re going it alone and wastes all this time and effort reinventing the wheel. As for saying “increased demand on sustainable fishing species will result in over-exploitation.” uh, last I checked the whole point of sustainable farming of any kind is to not take too much so as to avoid over-exploitation, regardless of demand.

    There’ve been similar concerns raised by Norway and Japan (I think it’s them) over the role of the International Whaling Federation; said nations want to farm a number of whales, and the IWF is saying no, you can’t kill any whales. The problem is this gives no room to negotiate, and rather than being able to come up with an acceptable compromise that allows everyone to get some of what they want, you get two sides who can’t communicate on the issues at hand because neither side is able to offer anything.

    The Camp David treaty/accord (too lazy to Wiki it) between Israel and Egypt worked because both sides were able to give something to get what they wanted; Israel gave the Sinai, Egypt promised not to put troops on it; thus Egypt had all its territory back and Israel no longer had to fear a land assault by Egypt.
    Applying that to fisheries, if I decide to only buy sustainably fished fish, Fishermen can go “Okay, I can fish as I have and sell to n people, or I can fish sustainably and sell to n+m people.” Thus it can be WORTH changing habits. On the other hand, if I go “I AM NOT BUYING FISH EVARRRRRRRR” then fishermen have nothing to work with, nothing they do will make you buy fish, thus there is no incentive to change their habits, and since you’re taking an absolute approach, people who like fish but wish it could be done better are less likely to be able to find a sustainable fishery because the pressure to fish sustainably is less.

    [/rambling!]

  3. Great post! But what I find fascinating about this topic is that the message from various organizations promoting sustainable fishing has been restricted to which fish to eat/not eat, and never to eat less fish. For some reason the call to eat less meat (the Meatless Monday campaign, Pollan’s ‘eat mostly plants’ guidance) has no parallel when it comes to fish consumption. Cutting fish completely out of our diet may be extreme, but I’m curious why promoting lowered fish consumption — in areas where fish is a luxury, of course — appears to be an untouchable message?

  4. This is an excellent post. However, I really think that in the interests of sustainability, cutting down on seafood consumption, while not necessarily eliminating it, is crucial. Unfortunately, asking people to consume LESS is contrary to the interests of the seafood, or any, industry.

    • It’s a lot more palatable (ha!) to the industry than not buying any fish at all though. Cause then they can ask “What do we have to do to sell more fishes: Farm them more sustainably.” and there’s the potential, if Fish stocks increase, to sell more fishes. If people are buying none, then it’s a bigger step for them to buy some fish, than for someone who eats some to buy more.

  5. This is an area where human nutrition is at odds with environmental health. Fish consumption, especially lately, is encouraged because of its health benefits beyond just as a protein source. After reading through some of what Jennifer Jacquet had to say, I feel she dismissed this without even considering it as important downside to advocating a no-seafood diet. Every week, more and more studies are published that link fish consumption to beneficial health outcomes, and list only seems to be growing longer in the variety of systems affected. Most of these benefits are attributed to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which unfortunately are not readily available from non-seafood sources. (The omega-3’s found in things like flax and walnuts are shorter-chained, and only very small amounts are converted in the body to the longer-chain fatty acids that have the greatest impact on health.)

    I guess I just wanted to point out that advocating people stop eating fish completely, or even encouraging people to eat it rarely is going to meet some resistance beyond that of the seafood industry.

  6. Hi,

    I find this article a bit like those rabbinic discussions on whether god can create a stone so large that He (She) can’t move it. I never even *heard* about “sustainable seafood consumption” and I am a pretty well-read person. I did hear about overexploited fisheries, to be sure, but I think it’s mostly a regulation/enforcement problem rather than a consumer education problem. You can’t expect people to question everything they eat along multiple dimensions (ethics, ecology, energy efficiency, blah blah blah). When I am hungry I even eat deep-fried twinkies.

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