On Fish, Fishing, and Over-Fishing

Sadly, the Bluefin Tuna Interpretive Centre was not yet open for the season. I wanted to learn how to interpret tuna! Photo by me.

Sadly, the Bluefin Tuna Interpretive Centre was not yet open for the season. I wanted to learn how to interpret tuna! Photo by me.

When I was little, seafood didn’t do well with my taste buds. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little less picky, but haven’t really explored seafood, and it’s still pretty rare for me to eat. There’s no sole (teehee) reason for that, but a big part of the picture for the past three years has been a better understanding of state of fisheries as a not-particularly-well-managed resource. It’s a tricky number to calculate, but the standard number thrown around is that nine out of ten fish have disappeared from the oceans. Particular fishing methods, especially trawling, long-line, and shrimp aquaculture are especially problematic (the first destroys oceanfloor ecosystems and kills many non-target animals, the second kills many non-target animals, and the third destroys mangrove ecosystems).

Usually my opinions on seafood are a pretty moot point, but when I started planning a trip to Nova Scotia, it was something I knew I needed to think about. Fishing was historically a key sector of the economy there, and it’s still a major cultural factor. I could tell I would get a different sense of the place depending on whether or not I tried the seafood.

The three blue boats are commercial scallop trawlers, of the very few left based in Lunenberg. The red building is the headquarters of a scallop processing company. Photo by me.

The three blue boats are commercial scallop trawlers, of the very few left based in Lunenburg, on the south shore of Nova Scotia. The red building is the headquarters of a scallop processing company. Photo by me.

I did eat seafood while I was there–scallops, haddock, shrimp, and salmon all told–and it was delicious. But I also looked for a better understanding of the past and present fishing, particularly in the region.

More than two years of working for environmental organizations plus some extracurricular reading meant I had a decent understanding of the story arc:

  • Centuries of large, plentiful fish create a mistaken sense of unending stocks.
  • Technological developments in ships and fishing gear increase supply; population growth increases demand.
  • Overfishing leads to population crashes, even as political pressure prevents or slows the imposition of catch limits that could allow stocks to rebound.
The trick to identifying Atlantic cod is the little pharoanic beard thing it's got going on.

The trick to identifying Atlantic cod is the little pharaonic beard thing it’s got going on. Photo from NOAA.

In Nova Scotia and its surroundings, the poster child for fisheries collapse is the Atlantic cod. In the 1980s and ’90s, after four centuries of well-documented plenty (which was a key factor in the British and French being interested in Atlantic Canada in the first place), the fish more or less disappeared. There’s been some evidence in the past couple years that cod may be bouncing back, but they certainly aren’t on safe footing yet.

Cod was certainly popular at a few of the museums we visited, but it wasn’t the only fish that will stick in my memory.

A guide on a boat tour based in Lunenburg, on the south shore, noted the heavy decrease in fishing boats based at the harbor: particularly scallop trawlers, but those in search of other species as well. He also noted that it’s been a good year for lobsters–but a bad year for lobster fishers, who aren’t getting good prices for their catch.

Most of all, however, I was surprised by his frankness in blaming the fishing community itself for its problems, characterizing its motivation for over-fishing as “greed.” I don’t think it can ever be that simple, at least not when fishermen have their own families to feed, but it’s important food for thought–and an issue that won’t be going away any time soon.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, with printable pocket guides and an app, is the most prestigious reckoning of how healthy specific fisheries (considering species, catch method, and region) are, for fish and humans. Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) guidelines, another common system, has been under scrutiny recently.

Last week, the E.U. agreed to major fisheries policy reforms–it will be interesting to see what comes of it.

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