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Being humanistic about fish


Bigeye Tuna catchIn 2007, Greenpeace in the United States held a competition to name a humpback whale. There were over 11,000 entries, and the eventual winner (with almost 120,000 votes) was 'Mr Splashy Pants'.

It's hard to imagine a similar competition taking off for the less-glamorous inhabitants of the deep blue sea. Harry Wetnose the Bigeye Tuna will probably never adorn any T-shirts or diligently hand-painted calico banners. Harry is frankly ugly, and it's hard to anthropomorphise him with a personality or little hat.

Nevertheless, the Bigeye Tuna (and six others of the 23 species of commercially-fished tuna) is in big trouble and could do with some help. The disaster of overfishing calls for a broader examination of the role played by markets in mediating our relationship with nature.

The statistics on tuna fishing are easily accessible. The Atlantic (or Northern) Bluefin Tuna stock has decreased by 70–80 per cent in the last 40 years. The Southern Bluefin Tuna is in an even more desperate situation. A scientific report released last year concluded that spawning stock of the critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna has declined by 95 per cent from 1940s levels.

Greenpeace International has a 'seafood red list' which lists species commonly sold in supermarkets 'which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries'. The Northern, Southern and Pacific Bluefin, the Bigeye, the Yellowfin and the Albacore Tuna are all on the list.

Even the Skipjack, which has a healthier population, can't be consumed uncritically: many companies are using unsustainable Fish Aggregation Devices which cause unacceptably high levels of by-catch, including sharks and turtles.

The news for the rest of the ocean world is also alarming. UN figures show that over 70 per cent of the world's fisheries are 'fully exploited', 'over exploited' or 'significantly depleted'. The overall global fish catch has been declining for the past two decades.

And, the UN concluded in 2008, 'the large number of stocks that are either fully or over-exploited indicate that the maximum potential for the world's marine capture fisheries has been reached'.

Although scientific evidence that overfishing is a serious problem is pretty overwhelming, the world response to the crisis has been slow. The End of the Line, a 2009 film described by a UK newspaper as the maritime equivalent of Rachel Carson's expose of pesticides Silent Spring, depicts overfishing as 'the biggest problem you've never heard of' and predicts that seafood could be extinct by 2048.

Despite the tangle of international bureaucracies and agreements designed to ensure that our oceans are fished sustainably and responsibly, the world isn't even close to solving the problem. So why is this issue so hard to tackle?

To an extent, the answers to this question are unsurprising. Corporate pressure, national interest and the achingly slow pace of international efforts to combat environmental degradation are familiar to anyone who has campaigned on any environmental issue from banning CFCs to climate change.

The Atlantic Tunas have the particular disadvantage of being looked after by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which has consistently allowed the dangerous overfishing of the creatures it was designed to protect (memorably, an independent review commissioned by ICCAT itself described the organisation's tuna management as an 'international disgrace').

Additionally, not all tuna fishing is regulated. Pirate fishing presents a massive affront to efforts to combat over-fishing. It is estimated by the World Wildlife Fund that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing 'accounts for up to 30 per cent of total catches in some important fisheries'.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) aims to keep illegally-fished tuna out of the supply chain by certifying companies (and allowing them to display an MSC logo) that can show 'seafood traceability'. The MSC, however, has had a few credibility problems of late.

In September 2009, The New Republic published an article by a professor at the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia who accused the MSC of bending to pressure from Wal-Mart and the Walton Family Foundation to consider certifying reduction fisheries (when fish are caught to be reduced to fishmeal to feed to fish in fish farms) as sustainable.

The Australian Government, for its part, has also been letting down Team Fish. Earlier this year, then Environment Minister Peter Garrett opposed the listing of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which would have prohibited international trade in that fish.

The Minister's reasoning was in part that such a listing would undermine international fisheries' management of the species — that is, that it would undermine ICCAT. ICCAT's performance over the past years however has proved that they could do with, at the very least, some undermining.

Despite the problems described above, Paul Cleary (writing in the Weekend Australian in June) makes the case for optimism when it comes to fishing stocks. He asks us to consider scientific evidence that over-fishing of some types of fish has declined, and pleads that we allow individuals, markets and governments to 'work together to sustain common wealth'.

He argues that we should avoid the creation of marine reserves, which are in his view a signal that we have given up the fight for sustainable commercial fishing.

The arguments for marine reserves, however, remain persuasive. Marine reserves can be good for fishing, increasing catch in the areas adjacent to them. They can form part of a precautionary and eco-system approach, ensuring that the protection of tuna stocks is considered in the context of the protection of the whole marine ecosystem.

The argument against marine reserves hinges on the point that the default attitude towards natural resources should always be that they are there to be consumed, that people want and have a right to the 'choice' to eat whatever kind of fish we want, when we want, and that such consumption should be governed by the market (government only intervening when the market fails).

But what if we don't? The way we relate to fish raises some important questions about what it is to be a responsible person in the world.

The fish problem indicates the limits of ethical consumerism: when we are talking about food that is caught out in the wild seas, where the only, occasional observers are Greenpeace, it's hard to have enough information to make the right decision. Perhaps, then, it is time to look beyond the markets.

In the UK, the main parties of both the left and the right have started to talk about the politics of a new kind of community. The conservative Philip Blond (who, in the lead-up to the election campaign became a darling of now-Prime Minister David Cameron) wrote of the damage that had been done by the UK Tories' unquestioning acceptance of what he calls 'neo-liberal' market ideology, and the way in which it has led to an atomised and starkly individualist society.

On the left, Neal Lawson from the think tank Compass has written in his book All Consuming about the cultural malaise that has arisen from unchecked consumerism: the anxieties that go with unlimited choice, the pressure to work harder and longer to achieve status based on material wealth, and the damage done to local communities through the loss of small businesses.

In Australia, its not fashionable (despite the global financial crisis) to talk about the limits of consumerism or the politics of restraint, and political leaders haven't latched on to ideas of the reinvention of community in the way that some have in the UK. It's time that this changed.

There should be room in the fish debate for a re-consideration of the way in which we interact with nature. You don't have to go as far as the deep ecologists to think that there might be a better way to co-exist with the other creatures on this planet than eating them and eating them until they're all gone.

A humanistic and ethical approach should make possible a challenge to the idea that individual liberty and choice (mediated by the market) are the most important public policy considerations.

We may be surprised to learn (as Ross McKibbin recently argued in the London Review of Books) that the so-called aspirational middle-classes whom politicians are always trying to win over 'do not always demand choice or pursue their own interests at the expense of everything else'. Perhaps citizens will be more willing than we predict to give up eating endangered fish.

Earlier this year, a Greenpeace activist got a grappling hook in the leg when French commercial fishermen were caught on video reacting with what appeared to be extreme violence to a peaceful (although no doubt irritating to the fishermen) attempt to interfere with a bluefin catch. Activists are risking serious injury to protect dwindling stocks of fish. It's time the rest of us stepped up to help them.

Susie ByersSusie Byers has worked as a welfare rights advocate and tenants advocate at a community legal centre in Perth. She is currently researching a PhD in History at the University of Western Australia and is a former President of the UWA Guild of Undergraduates. This essay won First Prize in the 2010 Margaret Dooley Awards.

Topic tags: Susie Byers, over-fishing, mr splashy pants, greenpeace, margaret dooley award



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Existing comments

Thanks for this, Susie. I eat and enjoy tuna but don't want catastrophic disaster to the fish world. Those setup to protect numbers should be incorrupt and protect it.
Roland Leach set out your thesis poetically:

Plea from a lobby of marginalised, oppressed, disempowered and persecuted tuna.

I am not sleek and intelligent
like a dolphin,
nor have their constant grin.
I am not cute and furry
like a harp seal.
Lack the size of a whale or elephant.
I am not high up the chain of being
like an orang-utan.
I'm lost in great shoals
without the charm of identity.
OK I am cold-blooded
like a snake.

and even vegetarians
find little harm done eating me

but my mother
(since netted, gaffed and canned)
loved me
and always told me that I
was just as good
as any son-of-a-bitch mammal.

Caroline Storm | 19 October 2010  

That is a great poem Caroline, thank you!

Susie Byers | 21 October 2010  

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