Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish

Paul Greenberg’s fascinating new book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, examines the reasons why humans chose to seek out salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the four staples of our seafood diet, and questions the sustainability of our efforts to continue doing so.  I recently lived in Japan for three years, and had my fair share of Toro sashimi, fatty blue fin tuna, along with other delicacies.   Having lived in that seafood-based culture, and having fished for salmon myself, I understand the appeal of the current staples of seafood.  I was really impressed with the background and the framework with which Greenberg examines these fisheries.

Greenberg grew in Connecticut, fishing along its namesake river (Connecticut comes from the Algonquin word quonehtacut, or ‘long coastal river’), and developed a love of fishing from an early age.  He understands fisheries management and aquaculture, and deftly explains how our fisheries came to be in their current state.  At root, the book is examining four fish, “Or rather four archetypes of fish flesh which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species for another.”  In fact that is where Four Fish is particularly insightful – Greenberg identifies some potential sustainable aquaculture candidates that are efficient and safe (for both humans and the marine environment), that you probably never heard of, like barramundi and Kona Kampachi.

I recently attended a public hearing about proposed fisheries regulations in Rhode Island, and what became immediately apparent to me was that most of the audience, stakeholders in the fisheries industry, spoke an entirely different language than the fisheries scientists, employees of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).  There were both commercial and recreational fishers of a wide range of aquatic species, ranging from soft-shell clams to cod, stripers to monkfish.  Their individual economic incentives often conflicted with each other; party boat captains relied on a large bag limit of tautog, because the state regulations were more liberal than in neighboring states; divers and waders for shellfish fought for different season opening dates, to get an advantage on each other.  The fisheries scientists spoke of maintaining sustainable fisheries through regulation, while the fishermen complained they would be unable to make a profit with ‘micromanagement.’

Greenberg’s Four Fish examines the economic aspects of fisheries as well, and he recommends that artisan fishers replace factory trawlers; subsidized fishing fleets should go away and in their place, respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species as well as catch them.  He also argues that blue fin tuna and other species that travel across oceans are unmanageable, and should be protected like tigers and whales.  Having seen the Japanese fish markets, I know how difficult that will be, but mercury-laden tuna is simply not sustainable or manageable.  Here in Rhode Island, fishermen at the hearing spoke of resources and jobs; while they may sometimes disagree with the fisheries scientists, both will need to work together in the long term to create sustainable fisheries, sustainable jobs, and sustainable seafood.  Ultimately, that will require “a profound reduction in fishing effort,” and open-minded consumers.

 

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Democracy in action

Last night I attended a public comment hearing on some proposed fishing management regulations, and I could hear the tension that exists between our economy, reliant on steady growth, and our diminishing resources.  The proposals, presented by RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) administrators, were framed by scientific assessments of the health of fisheries.  The fish were referred to mainly as biomass and resources.  The hearing was attended by 50 people, mainly fishermen and women, but also citizens concerned about sustainable fisheries.

Critics of DEM regulation  presented arguments about the rising cost of fuel, and the need to maintain a high harvest in order to make a profit; many of them did not agree with the DEM about their fishery assessments.  Ultimately, the administrators and the fishermen seemed to be speaking two languages, much like our national political discourse.  When the DEM administrator chairing the hearing referred to ‘management,’ fisherman recoiled as if the word meant ‘closure.’  The DEM assessed fishery populations scientifically, whereas the fishermen offered anecdotal evidence about days when the fish come and days when they don’t.  One shellfisherman asked a DEM scientist to explain where the evidence of soft-shell clam underpopulation was.

The hearing was an exercise in democracy, one that both sides seemed familiar with.  The DEM administrator chairing the hearing knew many of the fishermen by name, including several leaders of trade associations.  Those trade associations take different positions on DEM regulation, but the word ‘micromanagement’ came up many times.  Several members of an Advisory Panel, which worked prior to the hearing to offer recommendations to the DEM on the proposals, spoke of the long hours spent trying to identify the best path forward.  Several veterans, involved with RI fisheries and regulation going back to the 1970s, spoke of the ‘give-and-take’ that happens with these regulations over time.  The process itself offered by the hearing gave me some hope about the ability of our system of government to work ‘for the people and by the people.’  Ultimately, that is the only way we can move forward, especially with the great challenges we will face in coming years.