This installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans,” was originally published on April 1, 2011.
The thunderous power of the dollar can obliterate nearly all barriers between consumers and the objects of our desire. If one is willing and able to throw out enough cash, there’s very little in this world that we can’t have. Sadly, this reach extends to a number of aquatic species that just aren’t built to cope with such pressure. In this month’s “4 Oceans,” we examine several seafood items that we just shouldn’t eat, even if we have the wherewithal to acquire them.
This is probably old news to a lot of readers, but the current state of the world’s bluefin tuna populations have been reduced to shadows of their former glory. The fish that fed Rome’s legions now barely ekes out an existence as it is hunted relentlessly to satisfy the top echelon of the world’s sushi industry. Bluefin prices soar while stocks continue to plummet, shackled to the twin lead weights of insatiable demand and ineffectual management.
I can answer that
Last year, a smattering of different countries attempted to grant the bluefin protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which would have effectively ended international trade in this animal. This push was mercilessly quashed by a larger and more committed cadre of governments led by Japan, which hosted cooperative delegates at a pre-vote banquet where they served – you guessed it – bluefin tuna.
Bluefin stocks around the world are verging on utter collapse and yet fishing pressure does not abate. Politics and short-sighted economic interests are nearly always victorious over science and environmental consciousness whenever this bluefin is involved. But even if we can’t depend on political processes, we can least put the chopsticks down.
Over the last four years, ten of the twenty largest seafood retailers in the United States have discontinued orange roughy. Some stores, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, even made public statements on the environmental impacts associated with this fishery when explaining their decisions to stop selling this species. It’s comforting to see for-profit retail enterprises taking stands that seem based more on ethics and long-game considerations than simple quick-fix cash grabs.
You're having a rough day, orange you?
Anyhow, orange roughy is a fish that has no business playing any significant role in our seafood industry. The animal simply isn’t built to withstand heavy fishing pressure. First off, it reaches market size well before sexual maturity – a lamentable characteristic, since this results in many roughy being eaten before they’ve had a chance to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. Second, the animal itself can live to a tremendous age – ninety-year-old roughy are not uncommon (at least, they weren’t before we started eating them all.) Fish that live that long are generally not built to reproduce in great numbers; they have evolutionarily invested in longevity rather than in quantity of offspring.
To worsen matters, orange roughy is caught using wantonly destructive bottom trawl nets, and its flesh is a simple, flaky white fillet (there are other, more sustainable sources for this type of product.) It’s best to avoid this species altogether.
Shark (and shark fin)
The more we learn about the role that sharks play in our oceanic ecosystems, the more bat-shit crazy we have to be to keep slaughtering them. Sharks are apex predators, feeding slowly from the top of the food chain and ensuring that the populations of other animals in their areas are kept in check. Without sharks, we see population explosions of their prey items, which in turn devastate the organisms that they prey upon, and so on and so forth. The removal of a single shark from the food system it polices is akin to hurtling a massive monkey wrench into the core gears of the ocean’s ecological stabilization machinery, and we are tossing out somewhere between 50 and 100 million of these wrenches every year.
While many sharks are killed accidentally as bycatch in longline fisheries that target other animals (longlined swordfish is particularly worrisome), the majority of annual shark casualties are perpetrated intentionally by those the shark fin industry. Shark fins – used for soup, especially for weddings and other significant events, by certain segments of the world’s Chinese communities – can fetch astronomical prices and are often used to convey a message of status and wealth. Luckily, the world is waking up to the damage that finning wreaks upon our ocean. Shark fin bans have been enacted in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan (Mariana Islands), and have been proposed in California, Oregon, and Washington State. If these landmark pieces of legislation pass, we will have taken a great step towards protecting these unique and mysterious creatures.
Chilean sea bass
The Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) are long-lived, slow-to-reproduce apex predators. Still, there are those that claim there is such a thing as a sustainable Chilean sea bass fishery. Some would argue that a particular population, under the guidelines of a particular management authority, governed under a certain catch quota, can in fact be fished sustainably, and that this particular fishery, cut off from the larger amorphous Chilean sea bass industry – dominated as it is by pirates and a rapacious gold-rush mentality – merits our support.
The face of overfishing?
Allow me to propose a slightly different line of thought.
The world is a finite place. I know it doesn’t seem as such, but the ocean is a contained area, and it has boundaries. It does not go on forever. It ends – and in more than one sense.
Over the past century, the way that we fish has changed. Decade after decade, we have pushed the boundaries of our oceans in every way imaginable – geographically (ships are going farther), bathymetrically (ships are fishing deeper), and temporally (ships are spending more time on the water). In our quest for seafood, we strain at the very boundaries of our food system, until we reach the ocean’s farthest-flung reaches in all three categories – by dropping hooks to the ocean floor off of Antarctica in the middle of winter.
That is how, where, and when we catch Chilean sea bass.
Sustainable fishing simply cannot occur in an area and at a depth that is so obviously a reaction to an overblown and exhausted food system — a food system that, because of its inability to balance itself, has cantilevered out into dangerous extremes. The very existence of a Chilean sea bass fishery is in itself evidence of an unsustainable fishing paradigm. To label a Chilean sea bass fishery sustainable only serves as evidence to the contrary, as the claim itself underscores our failure to grasp and to apply the true meaning of sustainability to our seafood industry.
It’s a bad time to be an ocean-dweller.
Nets of doom
First, we have the overfishing crisis, which continues virtually unabated. Every day, we yank hundreds of thousands of pounds of life out of the sea, often in strikingly inefficient and destructive ways – bottom trawls rake the floor of the ocean, pulverizing corals and flattening any animals that lack the locomotive capacity to evade them, while pelagic longlines indiscriminately slaughter curious seabirds, turtles, and sharks as collateral damage in our unrelenting quest for seafood.
To make matters worse, President Obama, who was elected in part by an engaged and hopeful environmentalist demographic, has completely turned his back on the oceans and their largest denizens – whales. His 2008 promise to strengthen the international moratorium on commercial whaling has been completely subsumed by an insidious new agenda that seeks to dismantle the moratorium, legalize whaling in the Southern Ocean (including Japan’s ongoing hunt for endangered fin, sei, and humpback whales), and create an unspoken tolerance among the world’s governments for this intolerable activity.
Nice work, slick
And above it all, offshore drilling has finally revealed itself as exactly what we have always feared it would be – an inevitable environmental cataclysm. The ruptured Deepwater Horizon pipeline continues to release untold amounts of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, strangling birds, fish, and any other life forms unfortunate enough to be caught within its suffocating expanse… which is currently the size of the State of Delaware, not to mention up to 45 feet deep in some areas.
Our oceans and their denizens are besieged on all sides. Given these seemingly insurmountable odds, it is difficult to maintain any sense of optimism when one considers the state of our world’s waters. Still, all is not lost. All three of the aforementioned menaces have sparked resistance, and with the right kind of passion and leadership, we just may find a way out of this mess after all.
Misleading labels: an endangered species
Although overfishing remains a tremendous problem, Greenpeace’s recent Carting Away the Oceans report highlights some significant progress: quite a few major retailers have taken strong steps towards the development of sustainable seafood operations. Companies like Target, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Safeway are making positive sourcing decisions that reduce environmental degradation and enable their customers to shop with a more confidence. Even Trader Joe’s, which earned both ire and infamy last year for its indifference to sustainability in seafood, has turned a corner. A recent announcement on the company’s website indicates that Trader Joe’s has discontinued orange roughy and is currently developing a sustainable seafood policy as well as more informative and transparent labeling. Beyond this, the company has called out the need for marine reserves in fishery management and has promised to use its purchasing dollars to support visionary leadership in industry (such as closed-containment salmon). The work has only just begun, but it is comforting to know that this company, which was once an incorrigible laggard in these areas, may now be in the process of becoming a true leader.
Our government’s efforts to legalize whaling and reward Japan, Iceland, and Norway for their continual disregard of international law and the will of the vast majority of the Earth’s population seem to have hit a snag as well. Monica Medina, the lead US delegate to the International Whaling Commission and the champion of the legalization effort, seems to be backpedaling a bit in the face of enormous public resistance. Opposition to this despicable initiative is so vocal, in fact, that a petition urging Congress to reconsider has received over 100,000 signatures – and the number is growing every day.
Apply lessons learned... please
It’s not easy to find something positive to say about the horrific oil disaster in the Gulf, but maybe – just maybe – we can find a way to coax a silver lining out of this mess. One can surmise that if it is this difficult to repair oil drilling mishaps in an area as accessible and temperate as the Gulf of Mexico, it would be infinitely more challenging in the Arctic. And there will be mistakes in the Arctic. There will be spills, fires, and other accidents – they are inevitable to some degree, as we have so painfully learned. So perhaps our government will read the writing on the wall and reinstate a total moratorium on offshore drilling, including the new leases in the Arctic. While this won’t quell Deepwater’s hemorrhaging, save Louisiana’s shrimp industry, or clean the crude off of any brown pelicans, it would certainly be a massive positive step towards precluding even more – and even worse – nightmares like this from occurring in the future. Even California’s Governor Schwarzenegger has heeded the harsh lessons of Deepwater Horizon and rescinded his support for a bill that would prompt new oil exploration off the coast of California. Now, I never thought I’d want Obama to take a page from the Governator’s book, but in this case, it seems like Schwarzenegger has the right idea.
So yes, things look grim for our oceans, no doubt about it – but there is hope. There is always hope. Countless people are struggling against the crises facing our oceans, doing their utmost to heal this planet that we are ravaging so blindly. And it is those people, and their efforts, and the possibility of a better future for us and for our children that keeps hope alive. It is undoubtedly a bad week to be a fish, or a whale, or a turtle, or a Louisiana shrimper – but next week just might be a little better.
It is a frightening concept to mess with success. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is alive and well in our modern economy, and the seafood industry is no exception. Many seafood purveyors, when confronted with pressure to change their ways, can be resistant – especially if they see success and growth in their businesses. Why change, if the status quo seems just fine?
The fact is, however, that all is not well. There are a plethora of rocks and growlers lurking in the murky waters of the seafood industry: overfishing, habitat destruction, IUU fleets, and more. Still, it’s not common that a business owner is able to see all of these obstacles clearly… especially if ones perspective is obscured by the constant back-and-forth of a ringing cash drawer.
Chef Hajime Sato, however, is different.
A tiny revolution
Mashiko restaurant has been operating in Seattle for fifteen years, and it is by no means an unsuccessful operation. Chef Sato has a line out the door nearly every night, and unless you arrive just as the restaurant opens, it’s almost certain that you’ll be waiting for a table. By all standards and appearances, this is a prospering business. And frankly, Chef Sato had all this to lose when, in August of 2009, he took his entire business model and turned it upside-down.
Mashiko is the first sushi restaurant in the world that has transitioned from a conventional operation to a sustainable one. With only minimal help from myself and the other players in the movement, Sato turned his restaurant into a sustainable operation. He bid good riddance to his bluefin, hamachi, eel, monkfish, and other unsustainable items. These days, he directs his efforts towards innovation, education, and the identification of local and sustainable options.
Moreover, Chef Sato is the first traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef to embrace the sustainable sushi movement. In his words, however, he is simply returning to the basic principles that gave rise to sushi over a hundred years ago: utilization of local and seasonal products, reverence for life, and interpretation of the bounty of the oceans in a respectful and reverent manner.
In the last few months, Mashiko has achieved a much greater degree of exposure than ever before. Interviews with Chef Sato have run on any number of popular food blogs; he received a glowing review of his operation from the Seattle Times and has appeared on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he discussed innovation in sushi, local seafood sourcing, and the amazing bounty of Puget Sound.
Through his bravery in challenging the conventional model, his determination to hold ethics and ocean conservation over the maximization of profit, and his contribution to the nascent sustainable sushi movement as well as the overall awareness of the consumer public in the Pacific Northwest, Chef Hajime Sato has brought a new spark to the sustainable sushi movement.
Good to have you on board, buddy.
In an absolutely heartbreaking turn of events, the European Union has decided not to support Monaco’s proposal to award the northern bluefin tuna the protections of CITES Appendix I.
I am gutted.
A continental disappointment
Even though a majority of countries within the EU – specifically those of Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles – voted to co-sponsor, an uncompromising and hostile block of Mediterranean countries were able to defeat the process. Because of convoluted EU law, these southern countries were able to demonstrate enough dissent within the Union that the mighty juggernaut of European bureaucracy creaked to a halt.
While 21 European nations seemed ready to support the ban, the unceasing whine generated by six short-sighted members – Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus – was able to derail the process. Without EU backing for Monaco’s proposal, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the bluefin tuna will find succor. Rather, it will probably fall back under the domain of ICCAT – the very organization through whose lack of potency this magnificent fish has found itself in such dire straits.
This is not progress.
Want to point the finger at someone in particular? No problem. This nauseating story boasts two particularly villainous figures.
Environmental enemy #1: Joe Borg
It's all about the euros
Joe Borg, Maltese, is the EU Commissioner of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. Though his political savvy, the bluefin tuna mafia of Malta, Italy, and the rest of the Mediterranean was able to accomplish its shockingly myopic goal of keeping this fishery open. It’s probably not necessary to be reminded that northern bluefin tuna populations have crashed to such a level that, if current fishing trends continue, they will be commercially extinct within two years. Someone please explain to me why countries that depend on fishing for their livelihood would strive to eliminate the very lifeblood of their economy through an unabashed short-term cash grab?
Environmental enemy #2: Nicolas Sarkozy
Bye bye bluefin
Remember all that nice stuff I said about Sarkozy a couple months ago? I take it all back. France’s first citizen has proven himself the worst type of turncoat; a traitor to his people and his planet. France was the first country to step forward and support Prince Grimaldi’s proposal, but in recent weeks, Sarkozy has reversed his position and allied with the Mediterranean states. If France had not switched camps, the proposal would have most likely been endorsed by the EU. From a certain perspective, the actions of one individual may have doomed the world’s largest bony fish to an ignominious demise.
Want to tell Sarkozy what you think of his actions? Send him this letter. It’s in French — here’s an English translation, courtesy of Greenpeace UK.
Fortunately, all is not lost. We can still save this animal – but yes, it is going to be more difficult that in otherwise would have been.
First of all, there is a chance that Europe will reverse its position. Lobbying efforts are underway in France and other key countries, and if the balance of power can be swung away from the Mediterranean, the European Commission may vote in favor of the proposal after all. Unfortunately, we most likely won’t know how this will fall out until early next year. So, in the interim, Monaco’s proposal needs a new champion.
Crimes against nature
There is a meeting in Brazil in November that will revisit this issue. Before it kicks off, we need to convince the government of a major world power to take a stand on this – and frankly, the best candidate is the United States. If we can get Washington to step up, we can still save the bluefin tuna from extinction.
We’re gaining momentum here in the States. The Coastal Conservation Association, a major recreational fishing association, has taken up the banner and is pushing to have Northern bluefin listed under CITES Appendix I. President Obama’s Ocean Taskforce is traveling about the country holding open hearings on ocean issues, and the administration seems receptive to the idea of pushing this issue and creating marine reserves in the Gulf of Mexico to protect the bluefin spawning grounds. And numerous environmental groups and activists soldier on, waving the flag and shouting to the rooftops.
Dying for a miracle
Please, spread the word and get involved. If we can create a groundswell of support, we can regain momentum.
Tell your friends and co-workers about this critical issue. Support Greenpeace’s actions in France and help us get Paris back on track. Avoid sushi restaurants like Nobu that serve endangered bluefin tuna. Most importantly – don’t give up on this amazing animal just yet. We can still turn things around.
It's getting hot in here
I’m back from a much-needed vacation and ready to get cracking.
As you are likely aware, the oceans are continuing to heat up (both literally and figuratively, unfortunately.) we’re seeing an ever-increasing number of articles in the mainstream press about overfishing, piracy, fishery collapses, acidification, trade disputes, and more.
I’ve got several pending articles on my plate but I do want to float a suggestion so we can better get at the issues that are of the biggest concern to you, the sustainablesushi.net readership.
One of the ideas that I received a couple of weeks ago was to allow readers to ask direct questions that would then be used to formulate articles. I think this is a great idea, as I do have a tendency to get a bit off-topic and this would serve to keep my pen reigned in a bit and to ensure that the entries I’m writing are indeed of interest to folks that visit this site.
Have you heard the news?
So, let me ask — what’s on your mind? Concerned about the bluefin tuna hullabaloo going on in Europe? How about the New York Times front page article on hoki? Maybe your interest is piqued by all the new money the Canadian government is pouring into aquaculture? Is it the ongoing crisis within the Chilean salmon farming industry (they brought it on themselves) that’s got your attention? Or maybe something else entirely?
Please either post your questions and topics of interest here or send them to email@example.com, and I’ll take it from there. Looking forward to hearing from you!
The end is nigh
When the trials and tribulations of our modern age just get to be too much, people do different things to cope. Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond. The Drifters went up on the roof. Kurt Cobain ate the business end of a shotgun.
Personally, when I find myself frazzled and worn down by this age of rampant overfishing and the pronounced abuse of our ocean, I want to grab Father Time by his cold little cajones and order him to turn back the clock to a simpler age.
Back in the good old days – and I’m talking about Biblical Egypt here – we didn’t have to worry about things like seafood sustainability and ocean conservation. It was enough to simply get through the day without being killed in battle, sacrificed to an animal-headed deity, or working your slaves to death while they built your pyramid.
We're here for the kamut
But this carefree Golden Age didn’t last forever. The ancient Egyptians eventually found themselves on the wrong side of an angry old-school God, who, in retaliation for the mistreatment that they had visited on their enslaved Jews, started pulling all sorts of nasty stuff out of his Bag of Lordly Vengeance.
Imagine the fear and confusion on the faces of the Egyptians when they found themselves smitten by one plague after another. These river-dwelling elitists woke up to find locusts in the fields, frogs in their houses, darkness at noon and boils all over their bodies (the Bible doesn’t mention this final affliction occurring right before the Prom, but I’m sure that God took advantage of the timing.)
I, for one, had hoped that all of this divine retribution had run its course. Unfortunately, 4000 years after Pharaoh let Moses’ people go, a plague with an undeniable Old Testament feel to it has struck the Western Pacific.
You can't be serious
The seas of Southern Japan are boiling with giant poisonous jellyfish. I’m not even joking about this.
Nomura’s jellyfish (echizen kurage in Japanese) is a formidable animal. Able to exceed six feet in length and grow to a weight of over 400 pounds, this invertebrate is no spineless wimp. These enormous cnidarians are massing in the East China Sea in greater numbers than ever previously recorded (even more than the great jellyfish invasion of 2005), forming a massive toxic flotilla that is gently drifting towards the Japanese coastline.
These humongous blobs are appearing in unheard of numbers. Recent surveys averaged their density at 2.41 jellyfish per 100 sqm (up from 0.01 per 100 sqm in 2008). And I’m not talking about square miles – that’s 2.4 jellyfish per 100 square meters.
These jellyfish cause a whole litany of problems for the local fishermen. Not only do they devour any fish that gets too close to their gigantic tentacles (these lethal ropes are thicker than the internet cable that transmitted this article to your terminal), but they also are easily tangled up in fishing nets and sting any unfortunate soul tasked with removing them.
To make matters worse, it’s very difficult to fight back against these gelatinous monstrosities. Killing the jellyfish by disrupting its physical structure merely results in the creature releasing thousands of polyps that, if left to their own devices, will grow to become mirror images of their late predecessor. This is a good system for perpetuating the species, but a terrible problem to those who would eradicate it.
As of now, no one has carved in stone the reasons behind this infestation, but we can venture some guesses. Ocean acidification is a likely culprit: we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, which is captured by the ocean and, through a chemical process, lowers the pH of the seawater. This process, plus global climate change, have created warmer, more acidic surface temperatures in the ocean, which are ideal for incubating jellyfish. Moreover, our perpetual quest to remove the largest fish from the oceans and either plop them on our Weber grills or nail them to the billiard room wall has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. With 90% of the oceans’ large predatory fish in severe decline, the jellyfish simply doesn’t have as many predators as it once did. Thus are these lovely but biologically primitive (and dangerous) animals running amok.
Sure, the driving force behind this jellyfish explosion may have more components than just those two aforementioned issues, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the overarching cause is anthropogenic. We did this. We have that kind of power.
Through the way we have treated the planet, we have invited this scourge upon ourselves – and it is up to us to fix it. We must change our ways: decrease our fishing capacity to lessen overfishing, and reduce our carbon emissions to keep acidification at bay.
To save his people, Moses led them into the waters, which parted before him. We must realize that we, too, have tremendous control over the sea. If we are to save ourselves, we must no longer be slaves to a system that has our entire ecosystem careening out of control. We must find the courage to confront reality, and to cross this desert we have created.
On Friday the 19th, I was invited to participate in a short Q&A session directly following the release of The End of the Line, a new documentary about the state of our oceans, at a movie theater in the East Village.
Even though Greenpeace has been engaging in rigorous cross-promotional efforts with the producers of this film, including campaigning against Nobu restaurant and taking to the water to expose the repugnant activities of bluefin tuna pirates, this was the first time I actually saw the movie in its entirety… and I’m now more convinced than ever that it merits our unconditional support.
The End of the Line is a masterful work that details one man’s crusade to save our world’s oceans. The author and subject of the documentary, Charles Clover, found his love of the ocean as many of us do: at the end of a line.
While fishing in Wales, Clover snagged a very lonely salmon – a salmon that turned out to be the last one ever caught in that river. Overfishing, rampant development, pollution, and habitat loss have combined forces to annihilate a population that once made annual pilgrimages to the Welsh highlands.
After witnessing the melancholy fade-out of this salmon run, Clover began to ask that simple question that so many of us are struggling so mightily to ignore: Why are our fish disappearing? His quest to find an answer became an odyssey that took him from Senegal to Tokyo and a thousand points in between.
You should see my older brother
The movie is replete with dazzling imagery; shots of Almadraba, a traditional bluefin tuna hunt undertaken by Spanish fishermen in the Strait of Gibraltar capture the true vitality and power of this regal animal. During the sequence, I overheard a woman in front of me convey her astonishment over the bluefin’s massive size to her companion in hushed expletives.
The irony is that the bluefin pictured in The End of the Line aren’t large at all… maybe 150 pounds. Just a short decade or two ago, there still were bluefin swimming about that had reached sizes closer to their true potential – upwards of 600 pounds. That’s three or four times larger than the “massive” fish in the movie.
Our baselines have shifted. Aside from the wrinkled old seadogs that haunt the docks of towns like Gloucester, MA, no one remembers a truly gargantuan bluefin. No one remembers that there used to be alligators in Chesapeake Bay. No one remembers the true nature of a healthy ocean.
"When I was your age..."
A number of aging fishermen appear throughout the film, underscoring this issue by weaving an old salts’s lament into the story. With their greybeard perspective and sun-stroked skin, these old men of the sea decry the waste and rapacity of the modern fishing industry, citing our rampant overfishing as a glaring example of today’s generation cutting its own throat in search of a quick dollar.
Near the conclusion of the film, an unnamed woman sums up the problem when she smiles into the camera and candidly delivers the line, “I like to eat fish. To me, fish are food.”
Those who have read some of my previous articles and blog entries on this subject know that I do not necessarily dispute this statement. I don’t have a problem with the concept of a human being feeding on a fish. The problem arises with the strange assumption that once an animal is relegated to the status of “food,” it no longer merits any kind of respectful treatment. It does not deserve to be treated as a living thing; rather, it exists for the lone purpose of one day graduating to the status of fish finger, salmon burger, or 2-piece nigiri plate.
Speaking to this issue (albeit somewhat indirectly) is Dr. Daniel Pauly, a UBC professor who is prominently featured throughout the movie. Pauly is one of the most well-known fisheries scientists in the world. He speaks at conferences and symposia in cities across the globe. The particularities of his theories are often disputed within academia, but no one would deny the man’s brilliance and devotion to the planet.
At one point during the film, Pauly offers a frighteningly simple answer to Clover’s overarching question about the fate of the world’s fish. When Clover asks, “Where are the fish going?, Pauly responds, “We are eating them!”
- ALL YOUR FISH ARE BELONG TO US
Fish may be food to some, but that does not mean that they are not still fish first and foremost, living organisms with which humans have a delicate and complex relationship. This relationship is being abused to a terrifying extreme. Factory trawlers, dynamite fishers, bluefin tuna pirates, absurdly greedy corporations (et tu, Mitsubishi?) and corrupt politicians have stretched the ability of our oceans to nurture healthy fish populations to the breaking point.
I beseech all those who read this message to make a point of seeing The End of the Line as soon as possible. It depicts the reality of the state of our oceans better than this blog ever could.
- Pronunciation: \pə-ˈsi-fik\
- Function: adjective
- Etymology: Middle English pacifique, from Latin pacificus, from pac-, pax peace + -i- + -ficus -fic
- Date: circa 1548
1 a: tending to lessen conflict : conciliatory b: rejecting the use of force as an instrument of policy
2 a: having a soothing appearance or effect <mild pacific breezes> b: mild of temper : peaceable
All that being said, the Pacific Ocean may be veering away from its job description.
A new report just released by the Center for Ocean Solutions (in partnership with the IUCN and the Ocean Conservancy) showcases that the Pacific Ocean is, unfortunately, anything but. The report, entitled the Pacific Ocean Scientific Consensus Statement, was produced by a gathering of leading scientists from over 30 countries that drew on over 3,400 peer-reviewed scientific publications. This omnibus treatise is both a synopsis of the critical environmental status of the Pacific as well as a litany of potential steps that could be taken to address its myriad woes.
The report breaks the vast Pacific into sectors and analyzes them individually. This is an interesting and useful approach, as it helps to identify and pair particular countries (the Pacific borders nearly 50) with particular environmental issues. Each sector is afflicted by its own unique combination of offenders — overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, etc. The report does an admirable job of identifying the severity these negative influences and associating them with the actual issues at hand.
It’s not a pretty picture. The Pacific Ocean is in a great deal of trouble, and the situation is getting worse. For example, the northeast Pacific — the oceanic expanse that graces our coastline here in northern California, also extending north to Alaska and south to the Panama Canal — is one of the most devastated areas, due to overfishing and tremendous pollution problems. In fact, it is this area that is home to the notorious Pacific Gyre, aka the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — a quagmire of flotsam and jetsam that is now twice as large as the state of Texas.
The northwest Pacific comprises the seas around Japan, Korea, and the far eastern reaches of Russia, which are some of the most heavily exploited areas by the global fishing industry. These were at one time some of the most productive waters on the planet, especially the vibrant, nutrient-rich areas of coastal Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. There is a tremendous demand for seafood among the many coastal metropolises in this area of the world; overfishing has devastated many of the fish populations in the area and continues for the most part unabated. Chinese waters are particularly at risk due to high levels of waste, unchecked aquaculture, and coastal development.
The other areas of the Pacific also face significant challenges. Micronesia is struggling against overfishing and climate shift that is leading to unprecedented land loss, while its southern neighbor, Melanesia, is faced with land-based sedimentation that threatens to choke inshore habitat. The East Asian Seas around Indonesia and the Philippines are losing their coral reefs to destructive fishing methods (like dynamite and cyanide fishing) and unchecked pollution. Polynesia, potentially the least bedeviled of the identified sectors, is nevertheless under attack from coastal development, land reclamation projects, and other negative influences.
But it’s not all bad news. The report suggests a number of options to address these problems, and it’s this that really makes the document worth reading. These “Solutions” sections help to connect the dots and blaze trails through what would otherwise appear a hopeless morass of trouble and tragedy. Most specifically, the authors stress the importance of forward-thinking actions such as the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) and the creation of international legal schema to manage transient and migratory fish populations.
I highly suggest taking a look at the executive summary first, and then delving into the report itself. Please feel free to post your thoughts and comments here.