4 Dirty Secrets Hiding in Your Tuna Can

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans, Serial Pieces


It may be in a can, and it may say chicken, but it’s still a fish. Seriously, Jessica.

Seafood isn’t only sold in the seafood section. Americans buy a tremendous amount our seafood from the shelves of our local grocer rather than from the freezers, including one particular item that we put in everything from sandwiches to casseroles to salads: tuna fish.

For decades, tuna was the most widely consumed seafood product in the United States. Although it has recently lost pole position to farmed shrimp, it is still massively popular, and even though it’s in a can, it is still fish, and thus merits scrutiny in terms of sustainable practices – or, in this case, its total lack thereof.

Here’s the issue: catching tuna in a manner that keeps the price hovering around $1-$2 per can is difficult. It’s a challenging process for a number of reasons, not least of which is that most species of tuna are constantly on the move across the vastness of the open ocean. Chasing these schools around is a time- and resource-intensive process – especially with oil prices on the perpetual upswing – but the tuna industry has found a way to cut some pretty significant corners. Unfortunately, this has led to any number of nasty consequences, and those smiling bumblebees and luxuriating mermaids on the tuna cans at your neighborhood grocery store have done a great job covering them up… until now.

The tuna industry’s got a dirty little secret – actually, it has four of them. And here they are.

1) Fish aggregating devices

Fish aggregating devices (aka FADs) are floating objects that tuna vessels cast adrift in the open ocean. They are generally attached to a radio beacon and can relay their position back to a given tuna boat. FADs work because fish in the open ocean find random flotsam absolutely captivating. Small plants and polyps anchor themselves to the physical body of the FAD, small fish use it as a hiding place, and larger animals flock to it as a source of shade and as a fertile hunting ground. After a few weeks at sea, a FAD can develop an entire ecosystem around it – which is wiped out entirely when the tuna boat returns and scoops the whole thing up in a seine net.

A juvenile bigeye killed in a FAD-associated skipjack seine. There were hundreds more under my feet... and that was just one haul on one ship.

The problem here is that FADs don’t just attract the target species of tuna (usually skipjack). They are similarly mesmerizing to sharks, billfish, and other animals – most notably juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna – that come swimming by wondering what all the fuss is about. By then, it’s generally too late.FADs increase bycatch in the skipjack tuna industry by between 500% and 1000% when compared to nets set on free-swimming schools (FAD-free seining.) To make matters worse, between 15% and 20% of the total catch of a FAD-associated skipjack seine is actually juvenile yellowfin and bigeye – two species of tuna that are in serious trouble and cannot afford to have their young purloined before they ever have a chance to breed. The total content of bigeye and yellowfin in FAD-free skipjack seines is less than 1%.

I’ll put this plainly – if we don’t stop using FADs, we will run out of yellowfin and bigeye tuna because we will kill all of the juveniles.

Rule one for sustainable canned tuna: When shopping for “light” tuna, buy pole-and-line or FAD-free seined skipjack.

2) Longlines

Cans of “white” tuna contain albacore, a temperate tuna species that is only popular in canned form in North America. Albacore isn’t caught with purse seines as often as it is caught on longlines – an equally destructive practice that incurs a tremendous amount of bycatch.

A turtle caught on a Korean longliner's tuna gear. It's dead.

Longlines are just that – long lines set by fishing vessels that stretch from buoy to buoy across the open ocean, sometimes for multiple miles at a stretch. Every few yards, a long lead ending in a baited hook dangles from the main line. When the ship circles back to reel in the longline and assess its catch, it contains far more than albacore tuna. This indiscriminate fishing method is one of the greatest killers of turtles (which get hooked nibbling on the bait, can’t return to the surface to breathe, and drown), albatross and other seabirds (which dive on the glinting hooks thinking that they’re fish and are subsequently snagged), and other non-targeted animals.

The total bycatch rate of this massively destructive operation is estimated to be somewhere just shy of 30% of the total take… that means nearly one third of the total global catch of the albacore fleet – thousands upon thousands of tons per year – is turtles, sharks, sea birds, and other casualties of the industry’s callousness and greed.

Absolutely unacceptable.

Rule two for sustainable canned tuna: When shopping for “white” tuna, buy pole-and-line albacore.

3) Unregulated fishing on the high seas

Outside of the boundaries of a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches two hundred miles into the ocean beyond the shores of any given state, there exists a lawless, oceanic “Wild West” known as the high seas. When it comes to fishing, most anything goes out there as there are no universally acknowledged enforcement bodies that can serve to protect our common resources.

The water runs red with the blood of the tuna. As a seine net closes, the plastic filaments cut into the fish, slicing them to ribbons. Mortality in a seine operation approaches 100% -- another reason that there's no such thing as an "eco-FAD".

Tuna vessels regularly park just shy of this two hundred mile line, inside what are often referred to as the “high seas pockets” – four areas of unregulated ocean that are fully encircled by the EEZs of any number of island states in the western and central Pacific that depend on tuna stocks for their economic livelihood. Tuna, of course, know nothing of international boundaries, and pass freely back and forth over these lines until they are netted up by a nearby predatory seiner. Since these vessels are operating in what are technically high seas areas, they have no rules to follow – no quotas, no maximum limits, etc. – and they don’t have to pay dues or access fees to the countries that actually own and manage the resources. Activities like transshipping (transferring fish from one vessel to another to allow for longer fishing times and less resource expenditure) are common, which further reduces the abilities of these nearby states to manage their tuna stocks sustainably.

Rule three for sustainable canned tuna: Tuna should be caught in managed waters. Buy tuna from companies that refuse to fish in the high seas pockets.

4) Stolen fish, stolen future

Following on the above point, might tends to make right when there aren’t any overarching laws offering protection to those involved. The tuna industry has been the scene of an infuriating amount of bullying over the past decades, mainly by larger, more wealthy nations – countries like Taiwan, Spain, the United States – that have ransacked the waters of the independent Pacific Island states. Countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu have virtually no resources aside from tuna, and without a modicum of international law and market support to enable them to draw a fair and honest living from it, the established international tuna barons – companies like Thai Union (which owns the well-known US brand Chicken of the Sea), Fong Chin Formosa, and Dong Won – are able to pillage their waters with near impunity. Recently, a number of tuna-rich but cash-poor Pacific island states have banded together in an effort to take charge of their fisheries and to keep the tuna pirates out of their watery backyards. These states are known collectively as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), and they represent one of our best chances to foster a sustainable and equitable tuna industry that protects both the ocean’s tuna populations, and the peoples that depend on them.

For more information about the PNA and their struggle to wrest control of their own resources back from outside forces, please take a moment and watch this video.

Rule four for sustainable canned tuna: Buy tuna from companies that support the PNA.

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4 Surprising Places You Can Buy Sustainable Fish

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans, Serial Pieces

A dangerous path

This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 26, 2011.

Even as the plight of our oceans worsens, a large sector of the seafood industry continues to defend the status quo. Issues of grave concern like overfishing, bottom trawling, and piracy are swept under the carpet time and time again by the same tired argument: “sustainable seafood is too expensive.”

This adage comes in many forms. “Sustainability is just for the rich,” is a common one. Or maybe the scoundrels go for the jugular with pseudo-patriotic poppycock like “real Americans can’t afford to eat sustainable fish.” This scare tactic is designed to end the conversation so conventional industry can get back to slinging the same ill-gotten plunder that’s gotten us to this point of ailing seas and depleted fish stocks.

The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not sustainable seafood that’s too expensive – rather, it is unsustainable seafood, with all of its associated externalities, subsidies, and Faustian bargains that is out of our price range. It’s time to put this argument where it belongs: in the past.

This month’s 4 Oceans highlights several stores priced for mainstream America that are leading the charge on sustainable seafood in conventional retail. If these guys can do it, anyone can.

1) Safeway

It may come as a shock, but the 1700+ Safeway stores across the country are on track to become a powerful force for ocean conservation. According to Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, Safeway has the most sustainable seafood operation of any major market in the United States. With a score of 6.5 out of 10, Safeway has a long way to go yet, but has still managed to outperform stores like Whole Foods that are generally assumed to be more able to provide sustainable options thanks to more affluent clientele.

Safeway has recently discontinued some particularly unsustainable seafood items (like orange roughy) and is providing thorough in-store information about their commitment to sustainability. The company has also spoken out publicly in favor of global conservation efforts; their recent shout-out supporting Ross Sea protection is an excellent example of how mainstream retailers are rounding the horn on seafood sustainability and foraying into the highly political – and critically important – arena of marine reserve establishment.

Do the right thing

2) Target

The big-box retail titan from Minnesota tied for the #2 spot in this year’s rankings with Wegmans (a progressive high-end grocer that has also done some extremely impressive work on seafood sustainability).  This is actually a slight step down for Target – the company took the top spot in last year’s rankings, largely because of its willingness to tackle Matterhorn-like challenges that other companies refuse to even consider. A prime example is Target’s decision to discontinue all forms of farmed salmon throughout their entire operation. This initiative has greatly deflated conventional industry “farmed salmon is necessary because people want inexpensive salmon” fear-mongering.

Target has also evolved beyond the sale of unsustainable mainstays like Chilean sea bass, and continuing to press forward along other avenues of seafood sustainability. It’s true that Target doesn’t sell a great deal of seafood when compared to many other nationwide retailers, but this kind of progress still goes to show that even big-box discounters can do great things for environmental preservation when they commit to it.

3) Harris Teeter

The growing consumer demand for sustainable seafood is not only found in the leftist enclaves of Northern California or among patrons of trendy, feel-good East Village restaurants. The sustainable seafood movement is making headway all across the country, and in the American South, this has been spearheaded by the remarkable efforts of Harris Teeter, a household-name grocery store that has dominated much of the retail sector in Georgia and the Carolinas for decades. Even though Harris Teeter competes directly with price-focused grocers such as Food Lion and Walmart, the company has taken an aggressive approach to seafood sustainability and is becoming an undeniable leader in the sector.

Over the past couple of years, Harris Teeter has discontinued orange roughy, augmented their sourcing policy to take key environmental issues (such as pirate fishing) into account during purchasing, and created a comprehensive seafood information clearinghouse within their website to enable their customers to learn more about all of the various seafood options available at Harris Teeter. The company is currently #6 in Greenpeace’s retailer ranking, but with a score of 5.8/10 is less than three-quarters-of-a-point behind the current #1 (Safeway).

Lifting the veil

4) Aldi

Aldi’s no-nonsense approach to discount retail has earned the company appeal in the eyes of many bargain hunters across the Midwest. Still, it doesn’t often figure as a top destination for seafood shoppers… but maybe it should.Aldi doesn’t sell a tremendous amount of seafood, but for such a small category, Aldi’s seafood gets an impressive amount of attention and dedication from company leadership. Aldi has leapt up Greenpeace’s retailer rankings for the second year in a row, moving from a 1.9 out of ten in 2009, to a 3.9/10 in 2010, and now to a 5.5/10 this year (which has earned the company seventh place overall in the 2011 rankings).

Aldi sells no farmed salmon, has already eliminated the worst of its unsustainable species (like orange roughy), and currently offers only seven red list items (where most markets average around 12 or 13). The company also provides a substantial amount of information to consumers through comprehensive seafood labeling practices. Interested customers can discern where any given Aldi seafood product was caught (FAO catch area), the precise species in question (latin name), and the method used in capturing the fish (gear type indications) just by looking at the label. It’s refreshing to see a discount retailer selling fish without obfuscating it under market monikers; hopefully this is a trend that will continue as seafood sustainability continues to enter the mainstream.

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Why I went to Safeway for my birthday

That's what I'm talking about

I am king for a day

In my little world, celebrations and holidays just aren’t complete without copious amounts of food. My birthday is no exception – I look forward to it every year as an excuse to throw caution (and, perhaps, responsibility) to the wind and to indulge myself. I like to get together with loved ones and either cook up a feast or dine at some up-and-coming restaurant that I’ve been salivating over for months.

I realize I talk a lot about moderation on this blog — staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that — and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.

Anyhow, my thirty-second rolled around last week, and as per my usual routine, I decided to celebrate with a feel-good dinner. This time, though, I went about things in a slightly different way.

This year, I went to Safeway for my birthday.

I know that sounds like a bit of an odd place to celebrate, but I felt it was important to pay Safeway a visit. See, the company had just done something very special – something that deserved celebration far more than me surviving another trip around the sun. But by a fun coincidence, both events happened to occur on the same day.

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

Out of sight, but no longer out of mind

On April 7, 2011, Safeway went public with a commitment to avoid purchasing seafood from the imperiled Ross Sea – the world’s last remaining relatively pristine ocean ecosystem. The company then took a second step by publicly encouraging all countries involved in Antarctic fishery governance (this takes place within under the aegis of a management authority known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine and Living Resources, abbreviated CCAMLR and confusingly pronounced “cam-lar”) to designate the Ross Sea a marine protected area.

This is huge.

Of all the major seafood retailers in the United States, only one other company – Wegmans, a well-regarded and progressive grocery chain in the Northeastern United States – has made such a statement in support of the Ross Sea. It’s nearly unheard of for a retail operation to foray into the political sphere in the name of the conservation movement. And Safeway, with the buying power of over 1700 stores, is an extremely powerful voice – just the kind of voice we need on the side of ocean conservation if we are to have any hope of protecting and resuscitating our ailing seas.

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

Chilean sea bass: seal food, not people food

I admit to being a borderline fanatic when it comes to Ross Sea conservation, but it’s of critical importance. Not only is it a unique and invaluable ecosystem for a myriad of reasons, both scientific and ecological, but sending fishing vessels to this far-flung area raises a host of red flags from a sustainability perspective. It goes beyond issues relating to discrete fishery management and into a larger philosophical realm, which is where the core battle for sustainability needs to be fought.

I know I’ve said this before, but it merits repeating: sustainable fishing simply cannot occur when the fishery in question exists only as a reaction to an out-of-balance food system. We have depleted the fish closer to our homes and cities, so we sail ever outward in search of more – but there is a limit. The Earth is finite. Industrial fishing in the Ross Sea – or anywhere so far from human habitation and so close to the “end of the world,” as it were – must end if we are to develop a balanced and healthy relationship with our food and our planet.

One small step for Antarctica

So, here’s to you, Safeway. Your public commitment to this key initiative was one of the reasons you took the top spot in Greenpeace’s most recent seafood retailer ranking, and I salute you for your drive and courage. The Ross Sea — and the entire ecosystem that depends on it, including migratory whales, krill blooms, and countless other animals — is a little closer to safety because of you.

Thanks for standing up for the planet, and thanks for such a nice birthday present.

Oh, and check it out – I got myself a present, too.

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It’s about responsibility, jerk

Posted by Casson in News and Announcements

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Mine! Mine! All mine!

In an age where we are pushing our planet’s limits in search of resources, we find more and more poignancy in questions of corporate social responsibility. What obligations, either ethical or legal, should govern an a extractive operation as it roots around in the rainforest, slurps up the oceans, or grinds its way into the Earth’s crust in search of coltan, cod, or crude oil?

We have reached a point where the simple ability to access a resource can no longer be interpreted as right to do so. This kind of anachronistic thinking has gotten us into a world of trouble. The fact is that we are an incredibly powerful species, with the technological capacity to perform jaw-dropping feats. We can build immense transit tunnels below the ocean, launch intricate networks of satellites to enrich communication, and splice vegetable DNA into a chicken. This kind of space-age tech lends perceived legitimacy to business plans which make endeavors like offshore oil drilling appear safe and massively profitable. A few people make a lot of money, something goes horribly wrong, and we all pay the price.

Crude behavior

The toxic results of this kind of unmitigated rapacity have been spurting into the Gulf of Mexico for weeks now. A small group of people decided that they were willing to gamble with the health of our planet for their own personal gain. We should be furious. Who do these pompous egoists think they are, and why, for God’s sake, are we allowing them to compromise our future for their own profit?

This appallingly selfish approach to business must be stopped. Given that we live together on a finite planet, the corporations of the future must be those that are willing to take responsibility for their actions.

The concept of sustainable seafood is predicated on the idea that seafood purveyors, which have for decades served as implements of oceanic destruction, must start standing up for the planet regardless of traditional consumer preferences. The fact is that the average seafood diner or sushi patron simply does not have the time to educate him/herself on the environmental impacts of the vast and ever-changing array of seafood options available to consumers in today’s world. Diabolically efficient fishing technology coupled with cheap refrigeration and well-organized global freight networks allow us access to countless seafood items for all corners of the globe, some environmentally acceptable and some quite the opposite. As such, chefs, merchants, and restaurateurs that take the initiative to defend the ocean and its future. After all, if you work in the seafood industry, it is the ocean that is providing your paycheck.

The face of the future?

The face of the future?

Thankfully, we are seeing a gradual shift towards this more responsible way of thinking. In the seafood world, I can think of no better example than Martin Reed and his sustainable seafood delivery business, ilovebluesea.com. Reed shoulders the burden of sorting the proverbial wheat from the chaff himself, so his customers really can’t make a mistake in terms of the environmental repercussions of their choices. Ilovebluesea.com refuses to offer seafood items that are in the Seafood Watch “avoid” category or on the Greenpeace red list, and demands transparency and traceability on the part of his suppliers. Gear type, catch location, and other important information must all be provided before ilovebluesea.com agrees to offer the fish. The company is even addressing packaging and shipping issues by using recyclable and/or biodegradable containers rather than Styrofoam and similar petro-synthetic nightmares.

A much larger company also recently took an impressive step towards corporate social responsibility in the seafood world. Maersk, the shipping giant, has declared that it will not transport any whale products, any shark products (including fins), any Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish, or any orange roughy on its ships due to concerns about the sustainability of these products. This is a very powerful message, especially when one considers that Maersk ships about 20% of all of the world’s internationally traded sea-borne seafood products.

Full steam ahead

Full steam ahead

The Greenpeace seafood retailer rankings also help to shed some light on seafood purveyors that are – or are not, as the case may be – doing the right thing. Companies like Target and Wegmans are taking positive steps and working towards truly sustainable seafood operations, while others, like Costco, are charging full steam, hands clapped over ears and yammering loudly, propelling us all in our mutual handcart down to Hades.

We obviously do not have the legal framework in place to reign in this kind of behavior. Otherwise, one could surmise, we would never have had a Deepwater explosion, and Costco wouldn’t be selling Chilean seabass and orange roughy in the first place. Given that, it is up to us as consumers to act.

We need to reward businesses that are making the change towards legitimate corporate social responsibility. Buy seafood from honest purveyors that don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes. Some companies are willingly selling out our oceans to line their bank accounts – so why are we shopping there?

If you want to make your money from my ocean, you’d better treat it with respect. It’s about responsibility, jerk.

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License to krill

Mountingly meaningless

Increasingly meaningless

Two days ago, the gavel came down in an adjudication decision which may, more than any other recent hammer-strike, determine the future of fishing: The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) officially bestowed its blue-and-white fish-check label to a massive factory operator that targets Antarctic krill.

This is not a good thing.

Antarctic krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that cluster in vast multitudes (known as “blooms”) in the waters of the Southern Ocean.  They form a critical building block in the oceanic food web: small fish consume the krill before being eaten themselves by seals, penguins, toothfish, and other animals.  Krill are also a primary source of nourishment for migratory whales — in fact, the majority of the world’s baleen whales journey to the southern ocean to feed on krill and replenish their energy supplies after depleting their reserves during their mating and calving seasons.

While krill in their vast numbers do seem on the surface to be an “inexhaustible resource,” one would hope that, by this time, we have learned that this mindless assumption will never be accurate in regard to any of the inhabitants of our finite planet.  There is no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.  Ask any great auk or passenger pigeon, they’ll tell you.

Oh, wait — you can’t ask them.

Because there aren’t any left.

Because there’s no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.

Trouble bath

Trouble bath

There are a few things that we are certain of about krill.  The first is that the tiny animal, like many other sea creatures — especially crustaceans — is vulnerable to climate change, especially through the ocean acidification trends resulting from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  Nowhere in the Marine Stewardship Council certification system are the potential effects of climate change even discussed, let alone taken into account by the methodology.  Strike one.

Next, we know that Antarctic krill exist in the Southern Ocean – an area adjacent to a land mass that is uninhabited by humans.  The simple fact that we are sending fishing vessels into this area bespeaks an unsustainable paradigm, known as finite expansion.  There is a certain amount of ocean on this planet.  That we continue to fish farther, deeper, and longer simply underscores the fact that we are not approaching the management of our oceanic resources from a sensible and comprehensive standpoint that would account for the idea that one day – one day quite soon, actually – these fishing boats are going to bump up against the ice shelf.  No more expansion.  What then?  The Marine Stewardship Council methodology again fails to even consider these perspectives, concentrating instead on discrete management techniques that do not consider the idea that sustainability is more than a fishery-by-fishery label – it is a way of looking at the world.  Strike two.

A tiny mystery

Little critter, big mystery

Finally, we know that we have only a very rudimentary understanding these tiny animals.  Krill have been studied only cursorily and we have almost no knowledge of their life history and behavior.  It is irresponsible in the extreme to proceed with the certification of a fishery that is so cloaked in mystery – we have no idea what kind of damage we could be doing.  Strike three.

And yet in the face of all these worries, the rubber stamp comes down and the MSC pronounces the krill fishery to be sustainable.  Let’s not forget that vehement objections to this certification have already been lodged by the Pew Environment Group and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.  These objections were overruled — but let us not forget that the three strikes listed above were not taken into account in the decision, as they are simply not part of the MSC methodology… and if something isn’t part of the system, it apparently doesn’t have any relevance on reality.  Or so the adjudication decision would lead one to believe.

In search of pink gold

In search of pink gold

There is a conceptual concern here too.  The certification of this fishery gives an unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice.  In reality, it’s not.  Even the United States fishery management authorities banned fishing for krill in US waters, specifically to allow it to remain in the ocean as a food source for other organisms.  Legitimizing and expanding Antarctic krill fishing is simply transferring our unceasing resource demand to a hitherto unrecognized protein source.  This is not the way to move forward – in fact, pulling too hard on this loose yarn just might unravel the whole tapestry.

The certification of krill makes no sense.  It’s a minuscule building-block animal on the other side of the world that simply doesn’t belong to us.  We can’t even eat it – the krill will just be used to make oil, fish food, and other rendered products.  And for this, we may end up short-changing whales, toothfish, seals, and other animals – all because the powers that be refuse to look at the entire issue from a larger perspective.  Fishing for krill will not feed the world — but it just might end up starving it.

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1 comment

The 2010 Seafood Summit

The rainy saison

Last week, the world’s fish geek community converged on a frigid, misty Paris to form the 2010 Seafood Summit, an annual event organized by the Seafood Choices Alliance and designed to facilitate discussion about the current state of the seafood industry and the future of our planet’s fish.  Over 600 representatives of industry, academia, the environmental movement, government agencies, and intergovernmental bodies came together to exchange ideas, intelligence, and insults while firmly ensconced in a Parisian conference hotel.

A wide swath of topics was covered by a diverse medley of panels and presentations over the three days of the summit.  Fisheries were analyzed, certification schemes were compared and contrasted, and environmentalists sparred with industry hardliners. Through it all, gossip ricocheted down the corridors of the conference center, partnerships were forged in the fires of crisis, and luminaries rained wisdom down on a parched audience.

Fortunately for seekers like myself, the conference was blessed by the attendance of the most illustrious group of aquatic icons since the cast reunion of Finding Nemo.

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Pauly pulls no punches, people

Dr. Daniel Pauly, preeminent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, opened the event with a keynote speech that magnificently wove candor, charisma, and the statistical equivalent of howitzer fire together to illustrate the grave state of our oceans.  He pulled no punches.  Notable quotes from the address include: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as a sustainable trawler,” “[Carnivorous] aquaculture is robbing Pedro to pay Paul,” and my personal favorite, “You are all too fat!  You don’t need to eat so much protein!”

The peaceful yin to Pauly’s blood-and-thunder yang came at the end of the summit in a gentle, supportive, and passionate closing speech by Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a chairman of the ocean-worshipping Packard Foundation.  Packard’s words helped to sooth nerves rubbed raw by the energy and fervor that had electrified the Summit.  Eco-freaks, ocean plunderers, and everyone in between sat in silence during the address, thankful for the clarity and the solace in Packard’s words.

Clover condemns this creeping catastrophe

Clover combats culinary catastrophe

Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line and one of the planet’s most valiant defenders of the bluefin tuna, brought his mission to the Summit as he engaged in any number of discussions with key figures from the industry, academia, and the environmental movement.  His unique ability to meld the twin facets of his personality — “dashing eco-warrior” and “stodgy old tory” — into a surprisingly charming duality worked wonders as he promoted his newest venture, the environmentally-oriented restaurant review website fish2fork.

There were a number of themes that influenced the general direction of discussion.  Target’s decision to eliminate farmed salmon was a major focus of discussion, as was the progress being made in France towards the inclusion of Northern bluefin tuna under CITES Appendix 1.  The was a great deal of interest in the emergence of new and lesser-known fisheries, such as salmon runs in the Russian Far East, and there were some powerful discussions comparing and contrasting various sustainable seafood “approval” schemes and certification systems — this proliferation of rankings, stickers, and seals is clearly one of the most important issues facing the industry today.

While some of the same old baggage was trucked in yet again — I found myself in yet another hard-headed shouting match with a salmon farmer, for example — there was actually a great deal of progress visible at this year’s summit.  People were actually discussing real issues.  An entire day was devoted to tuna, and while some of the weaker industry-WWF collaborations (such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation) did receive an inordinate share of unjustified back-slapping, there was some positive, reality-oriented talk as well.  No one stood up to defend ICCAT during the discussion on bluefin stock management, for example.  One can only hope that those days are over.

A light in the darkness

A light in the darkness

As we move forward into 2010, I am optimistic and full of hope.  There was a genuine, palpable desire for change rippling through the attending body at the Summit.  Our patience for the plausible (and implausible) denial of the changes our planet and our oceans are undergoing seems to be at its end.  I sincerely believe that if we work together and challenge old, broken paradigms without fear, we will be able to capitalize on this desire for change, and rebuild the seafood industry into something that works.

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The year in review: 2009


Days gone by

It’s been quite a year.

As the last few heartbeats of the year 2009 fade away, it is natural to take stock of how far we have come.  It’s important to recognize our victories, as well as to isolate and examine our shortcomings.  After all, there’s certainly no need to make the same mistakes again in 2010.

I’m also happy to say that it was Sustainable Sushi‘s first birthday at some point in the last few weeks.  Over this past year, this website has afforded me with the opportunity not only to explore many  fascinating issues, but to discuss them with people commenting from all across the globe.  It has been a wonderful experience, and I thank you all so very much for helping to make it happen.

So, 2009: a tumultuous year by any standard.  The oceans have had a tough time of it, but in other ways, we’ve achieved more than we could have possibly hoped for.

There have been times over the past twelve months when things have seemed bleak.  It is beyond debate that the oceans took some major blows this year, and some of the ominous clouds on the horizon have grown even darker:

  • das

    We will rue the day

    The Copenhagen climate change conference missed the mark and fell short of setting any global reasonable emissions goals, paving the way for the increased acidification of the world’s oceans.

At the same time, we’ve seen some incredible successes this year.  All across the planet, people stood up for the oceans, bringing their passion for a better planet with them as they cooked, shopped, wrote, worked and marched:

  • dsas

    Unwanted attention

    The End of the Line, a documentary on overfishing and the state of the world’s oceans, was released.  This led to increased pressure on Nobu restaurant to discontinue the sale of endangered Northern bluefin.  This momentum manifest in celebrity petitions, dozens of articles in trade and mainstream press, and a Greenpeace campaign.

  • It's finally over

    It's finally over

    The Cove, a shocking documentary about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, was released worldwide.  Broome, Australia, discontinued its sister-city relationship with Taiji over the fiasco.  Taiji has temporarily halted its dolphin drive, but other communities in Japan continue to hunt dolphins.  The Cove has even been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.”

  • 2009 marked the first year in a world beyond the grindadrap: the annual Faeroese pilot whale drive that had caused much consternation among environmentalists.  In response to warnings by their chief medical advisors, the Faeroese practice of slaughtering pilot whales and distributing the meat throughout the community was halted permanently in November of 2008.

The majority of these positive changes are part of a greater pattern: an accelerating increase in our overall awareness of the problems faced by our oceans.  Movies, magazine articles, and activist campaigns have brought the health of our fisheries to the headlines and to the tips of our tongues.  The amount of conversations we are having at coffee shops, in grocery stores, and around backyard barbecues about seafood sustainability and environmentally responsible fish consumption has never been higher – and rising faster than ever before.

Stand and fight

Stand and fight

Yes, it’s true that the bluefin tuna is in dire straits.  It is true that eel poaching continues unabated, that bottom trawlers still prowl the seas, and that we are on pace to empty the oceans of all seafood in less than forty years.  Still, as menacing as these threats are, they are not the most important issues at hand.

The single most powerful and meaningful thing that happened to our oceans this year is that we truly began to wake up to the truth of what we are doing to our planet.  We are more aware.  We are more alert.  And we are much more energized and focused.

Hundreds of new ocean activists are standing up every day to make a difference.  Maybe they write a check, or they buy a different kind of fish, or they have a conversation with a chef or grocer.  Maybe they simply have coffee with a good friend and spread the word.  It doesn’t matter – it all helps.  Every day we come closer to achieving critical mass, a fully realized awareness that will mobilize our true potential to save our oceans.

Brave New World

A brave new world

So let’s make 2010 the year that we redouble our efforts.  It is time to capitalize on our momentum and push even harder, accomplish even more for the sake of planet and our future.  There is still a tremendous amount of work to do, but make no mistake: we are stronger than the forces that would hold us back.  And on those particularly gloomy days, when bad news comes crashing down and the future looks insurmountably bleak, just remember: you are not alone.  We’re all in this together – you, me, and the millions of other people that are out there fighting every single day, working to make this world a better place for all of us.

Take heart — we are winning.

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Blubbering and wailing


Battlestar Impractica

Last week, the black-hulled Nisshin Maru, public enemy number one of ocean worshipers around the globe, steamed out of an oddly quiet Japanese harbor.  While traditionally its departure has been the cause of much revelry in the local port of Inoshima, this year saw no fanfare, no sendoff ceremony, no parades – just a shame-steeped ship, skulking southward, bound for the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.

Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year again, the season when the Japanese whaling fleet descends upon the Antarctic whale sanctuary and slaughters hundreds of peaceful cetaceans in the name of research.  The scientific papers drawing from this annual festival of brutality are not publicly released, but the Japanese government is unequivocal in stating that these mysterious and inconclusive studies are a more than valid reason to massacre over a thousand whales each year.  It is odd, however, that no other country engaging in cetacean research seems to need to butcher these animals in order to learn about their habits, behavior, social networks, and physiology.  Strange.



Anyhow, the Nisshin Maru and its sidekick fleet of spotter boats and kill ships return to the Antarctic every year to revisit their dubious mission of butchering whales in the name of science.  These ships were designed for one purpose, and one purpose only — the wholesale destruction of cetacean life.  The Nisshin Maru in particular is equipped with all facilities necessary to completely disassemble a perfectly functional minke, humpback, or fin whale.

Once the whale has been speared with an explosive harpoon by one of the kill ships, it is transferred to the Nisshin, whereupon it is hauled up onto the deck.  A team of specialists eviscerates the whale right then and there, all the while holding up signs with asinine messages like “We are conducting scientific research,” just in case there’s a Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd helicopter around.


Don't worry -- they're scientists

The whalers transform the carcass into hundreds of bricks of whale meat, which are then frozen in a specially designed refrigeration unit.  The ship rinses and repeats, and when it has fulfilled its quota, it transports its illicit gains over seven thousand miles of ocean, from the Antarctic coast back to Japan.  Minus the infinitesimal percentage claimed by the scientific research program, the whale meat is either sold on the open market or purchased and held in deep storage by various appendages of the Japanese government.

It’s difficult for many Americans, Australians, and Europeans to not see whaling as an inherently evil activity.  Numerous western cultures have a sort of reverence for these gentle giants.  We admire their playful, intelligent nature, and spend our hard-earned dollars to head out to sea in little skiffs in the hope of seeing one or two whales breach nearby, sending small geysers of mucus and salt water skyward as they break the surface.

o bba

Why are you picking on me?

Still, it’s important to realize that this respect for whales is both cultural and recent.  The United States was a major whaling nation up until the early 20th century, and some would argue that just because we Americans have some new-found appreciation for these animals doesn’t mean that there’s any kind of intrinsic reason why a whale merits more consideration than, say, a hagfish.

It’s in this spirit of equality that many Japanese, as well as numerous residents of other whaling nations such as Iceland and Norway, see these animals.  There’s nothing special about a whale that disqualifies it from being dinner.  What is the difference, one might ask, between a whale and some big fish?

I mean, well, yeah, sure, they’ve got lungs, and a complex evolutionary history, and an intricate social network… oh, and faculties for speech and song, and a larger cranial capacity than humans, and even a fourth cerebral lobe that’s unique to cetaceans, the purpose of which we haven’t even begun to understand… but besides all that, what’s the difference?

So bear with me for a moment and let’s assume that there is no inherent reason why whales merit more respect than any other life-form.  Is that reason enough let the Japanese whaling industry off the hook?


Maybe if I have a half-off sale...

Well, no.  See, we still have to contend with the fact that whale meat has been falling out of favor in Japan for decades, and that the government uses tax revenue to subsidize not only its production, but the consumption of whale meat as well.  Moreover, Tokyo has been implicated in any number of vote-buying scandals at the International Whaling Commission, which has caused even more humiliation for the Japanese leadership.  So why do they do it?  The scientific excuse is as bogus as they come, and even the strict economic argument makes no sense when the losses are put alongside the gains.  What’s the reasoning here?

The fact is that behind the sham of scientific research and beyond the crude excuse of simple profit lies a deeper truth, a miasma of old neuroses and insecurities that bedevil anti-whaling efforts and lash the albatross of this anachronistic industry to the necks of the Japanese leadership.  The awful truth of the matter is that whaling has virtually nothing to do with whales.  In fact, whaling is more about all the other animals swimming in the ocean – especially tuna.


Mouths to feed

We’ve already established that a fishing nation may or may not discriminate between whales and fish based on its cultural value system.  If said nation does not do so, then a whale is, for all intents and purposes, a very big fish.  With that in mind, consider the following:

Japan is an extremely densely populated island nation, with nearly 200 million people in an area the size of the state of California.  It has little arable land and traditionally takes the lion’s share of its protein from the ocean.  Japan is also wealthy nation with a strong middle class, as well as the world’s largest consumer of seafood per capita.  A tremendous amount of Japanese GDP is reliant on the seafood industry due to unflagging consumer demand.  As such, Japanese companies must be able to access oceanic resources with as little interference as possible.

Without a cultural reason to discriminate between whales and fish, Japanese leadership can easily interpret multinational opposition to whaling as a precursor to similar efforts that would address other, more valuable (and more endangered) species – such as bluefin tuna. The Japanese bluefin tuna complex is a massive global enterprise worth billions of dollars, and it dwarfs the whaling industry by orders of magnitude.


A whale-heavy Diet

Efforts to protect or manage whale stocks are therefore seen as the ominous foreshadowing of a world where Japanese fleets wouldn’t necessarily be free to ransack the oceans as they pleased.  This idyllic vision is, of course, anathema to the policymakers in Tokyo.

Add this to the fact that the men in power (and it is men, overwhelmingly) in the Diet are the same who spent their formative years in the unfortunate era just after World War II where food security really was an issue in Japan.  People were starving in the streets; Japan’s infrastructure and traditional social networks had been eradicated by the twin tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was at this point that the American occupational force introduced large-scale whaling to the Japanese as a manner of providing protein to the hungry.  Whale meat was used in school lunches, government meal programs, and other subsidized institutions.  One could argue that at the time, the consumption of whale meat actually helped to beat back starvation and to invigorate a populace that was in the grip of malnutrition.

But that was then.  This is now, and the Japanese are healthy and wealthy.  Whales aren’t important anymore.  The principles of sovereignty and food security, however, still are.


Thou shalt not cross

So a line is drawn in the sand.  The Japanese government will fight the battle here, with whales, so no precedent is set for tuna, or for eel, or for crabs and urchin.  Never again shall Japan face the humiliation of starvation, and never shall the outside world again be allowed to interfere with Japan’s sovereign right to exploit the oceans in order to feed its people.  And if a few whales have to die in order to protect this status quo, well, so be it.  Right?


This is unacceptable.  Whales are dying, and I’m not objecting because I think whales are special, or because I think that the Japanese need to be more like Americans, or anything like that.  This is not a racial issue, so anyone who’s planning to come at me with some bogus “you’re a racist” argument, just give it up right now.  It’s a contrived, tangential distraction, and you know it.  (Seriously.  I’m a sushi blogger, for God’s sake.)


It's over

No, I object because these whales are being slaughtered simply to fuel a political pissing contest that has nothing to do with them.  They don’t die in the name of science, or cultural preservation, or even the dollar and the yen.  No, these whales die to appease a small group of powerful old men, riddled with insecurities, whose fear of economic disenfranchisement and aversion to political humiliation is apparently more important than the lives of these magnificent animals.   They die so the Japanese government can continue to deny the fact that if we’re all going to live on this planet, and if we’re going to save the ocean, we’re going to have to work together.

End whaling now.

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Skipjack, seiners, and the sea – Week 3: Signs of life

This article continues from a previous post.

Come together, right now... under me

Come together, right now... under me

So another week has passed, and life aboard the Esperanza goes on relatively unchanged.  The air is muggy and heavy, tempered only by an ephemeral breeze, weak to the point of being almost imaginary.  The furious equatorial sun rises above the bow and slices the bridge open in the morning, spends the day beating its chest high in the sky, and finally tires itself out, slipping astern, red and exhausted beneath the indigo sea.

We still press on eastward, slowly gobbling up the massive distance between us and our final port, keeping watch for the purse seiners that ply these waters.  We also have daily watches that consist of various crew members staring at the sea, searching desperately for fish aggregating devices (FADs) — small rafts or buoys used by skipjack seiners that draw many different kinds of fish together, causing the bycatch problems that brought us out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the first place.

The problem is, we haven’t been able to find any of these things.  At least, not until a few days ago.

Ghost ship

Ghost ship

On Wednesday night, a blip appeared on the Esperanza radar screen.  It was over twenty miles out, moving quickly, and in completely the wrong direction, so direct confrontation was out of the question.  Still, we were able to raise the ship on the radio.  A short conversation confirmed that we had indeed found a purse seine vessel.  It was steaming northwest, off to find FADs that it had deposited earlier.

Since we were not going to be able to intercept it, we elected to use some subterfuge.  Without disclosing who we were, we mined the seiner’s radio operator for information.  A cordial discussion yielded some excellent direction about where we could go to “find some fish,” and where a “private vessel” such as ourselves could reasonably expect to find “productive fishing grounds.”

We cross-referenced the information we got from the seiner with our charts.  Everything was matching up — climactic anomalies, plankton blooms, underwater topography — and it all highlighted one particular area as a potential magnet for neighborhood skipjack poachers.  Luckily, this target zone was directly on our course, about a week away at full steam.

What're you looking at?

Aww.. you say such nice things

At present, we’re only about three days away.  The crew is energetic, and standard watches on the bridge have been augmented with volunteer labor by officers and deckhands that are eager to see some action.  We’ve seen increased signs of life as well in recent days, with pods of spinner dolphins cavorting off the bow and innumerable birds circling off the foredeck.  Flying fish continue to provide a beautiful distraction, especially when entire shoals of the delicate little creatures rise from the waves in unison, hundreds of  glimmering pairs of wings stretched akimbo, tiny shining bodies gliding effortlessly into the air as the ship splits the water just behind them.

More next week.  At the risk of being overconfident, I’m quite certain that I’ll have something more substantial to report by the time next Monday rolls around.

This article continues in a subsequent post.

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Skipjack, seiners, and the sea – Week 2: A painted ship

... and all the boards did shrink

This article continues from a previous post.

Ahoy there.  Apologies, but I don’t have much to report.

For the last week, the Esperanza has been steaming through the Doldrums, a notorious latitudinal band of weak currents and unpredictable weather that straddles the Equator, reaching from about 5°N to 5°S.  Historically, sailing ships dreaded entering this nefarious swath of ocean for fear that they would be becalmed – that the wind would suddenly die, leaving the crew to languish in the unrepentant equatorial sun, baking in their bunks and making no progress.  Ships would roast in the Doldrums for weeks at a time, where the heat and hopelessness would incite disease, madness, and mutiny.

So all hail the modern age, where internal combustion assures that such a fate shall no longer befall an intrepid group of seafarers daring to traverse the Equator.  Still, the presence of an engine changes neither the terrain nor the weather.  Indeed, we may be moving, but for all intents and purposes, we are not.  Each morning brings a sunrise that is a carbon-copy of the one previous, the tiny yellow eye of the tropical sky burning with fever, floating up from waves that are indistinguishable from those which we have watched glide by again and again, day after day.

Same as it ever was

Water, water everywhere

Although we keep a constant watch both to port and starboard, not one FAD has been located over the past week.  Not a ship has been glimpsed on the horizon, nor has a single flicker of life and movement cast its green-lit ghost upon our radar screen.  The Esperanza trudges resolutely along, utterly alone, hunting its phantom quarry in the untellable vastness of the Pacific.

Still, we do not lose hope, and morale remains high.  All of our information suggests that we are moving into the thick of the seining grounds.  Indeed, as each day passes, it becomes more likely that we will encounter our target.

Born free

We also take heart in knowing that our inability to locate a fishing fleet is not for lack of prey.  There are shoals of flying fish constantly taking to wing along the bow, and we’ve even seen skipjack tuna – the very fish whose dilemma has brought us here in the first place – launching skyward from the waves in an effort to snag their winged meals from the air.  Pilot whales, too, have graced us with their presence on more than one occasion.  It’s nice to be noticed.

In truth, everything is proceeding apace, minus the fact that we really haven’t yet had the chance to do much in terms of accomplishing our mission and documenting the actions of these seiners.  That will change, however — and soon.

Rest assured that I will report when I have something to report.  Until then, please remember to enjoy all those things that land-based life has to offer — for the lot of us.

This article continues in a subsequent post.

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