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Supply Side Conservation Redux

January 5, 2010

can fisheries be saved?

The Guilty Planet blog has a novel proposal for the New Year: Boycott Seafood. No, not just unsustainable seafood, not just environmentally destructive seafood, ALL seafood.

My New Year’s resolution was to finally write this blogpost compile a list of people that will boycott seafood (all farmed and wild caught marine and freshwater animals) for 2010 to:

1. demonstrate serious admonition for current fisheries practices (on the whole; we know there are a few localized examples of good management);
2. demonstrate strong support for seafood alternatives to encourage restaurants to make more vegetarian offerings (such as the Cha-Ya vegetarian Japanese restaurant in San Francisco);
3. test the viability of as a tool (more on that to come).

If you do not know why you would ever want to give up seafood, you can read this
or this or this. To summarize, the main reasons anyone should consider giving up seafood are:




(Yet, despite this third fact, I was just reading this eye-opening article in Conservation Biology, which discusses the very few CITES listing of marine taxa– in part because fisheries are not considered part of the wildlife trade).

Need a Resolution? Boycott Seafood

Last year we talked about Supply Side Conservation and why these kinds of efforts ultimately don’t work:

Something that’s been bumping around in my head since ScienceOnline’09 is a conversation I had with the brilliant and zen-like Mark Powell, from blogfish. The basic premise is that many fisheries are completely supply limited. Even if we were to reduce 90% of the demand for certain fish, the remaining demand would still be great enough to consume 100% of the supply. If 100 people all love grouper, but only 10 grouper are being produced at any given time, then even if you convinced 90 people to never eat grouper, the other ten would still eat the 10 grouper being produced, and nothing would change. I was surprised that it’s taken me this long to start understanding what that means.

You see, I was indoctrinated into the idea that any reduction in demand would be good for a fishery. One of the reasons I’ve been against Sea Shepard is that, more often than not, they’re targeting people who are producing the fish, instead of tackling the market forces that make such fisheries a viable way to earn a living. But if Mark is right, and I’m beginning to think he is, we can’t always go after the market, because it won’t have any effect on the supply.

What needs to happen is not for people to stop eating fish, but for people to care enough about the fish they love to eat that they’ll demand changes in the way those fish are harvested and processed. I’m still struggling with the concept. Personally, no matter what the economics say, there’s many fisheries that I stay away from.

Supply Side Conservation

There are a few solutions to the problem. We can manage fisheries through laws and regulations that make it too expensive to fish, but that not only drives people out of jobs, but drive the fishery to a country where those regulations don’t exist. We can change the demand, so that it becomes more profitable to sell sustainable seafood then unsustainable seafood. We can educate people about their seafood choices and help them make better informed decisions. But for any of those solutions, we have to instill in the general public a value for fish that is more than just the cost of consumption. The one solution that doesn’t do that is to leave the table.

Which is exactly what this boycott does. If the solution is to stop eating fish, it only works with 100% compliance. Anything less and it’s a total failure. But beyond that, if everyone who cares about fisheries cuts bait, then the only market will be people who don’t care where their fish are from, and there won’t be any pressure towards sustainable fisheries.

So this New Years, don’t boycott seafood. Get informed about sustainable seafood. Support initiatives to improve fisheries. Avoid unsustainable seafood. Makes informed choices. But don’t silence yourself.

~Southern Fried Scientist

UPDATE: Rick Macpherson of Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice and Sunsets responds!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. rantingcynic permalink
    January 5, 2010 11:53 am

    I always thought, it’s not what we eat, but what we do to what we eat. The poisons we use, the way we harvest, and the amount we eat. How can we think nothing is wrong with the way, what and how much we eat if over 75% of the problems we have involve diet?

  2. January 5, 2010 2:25 pm

    It’s simply silly to tell people not to eat fish. Not to eat certain fish – maybe. But no fish at all? That’s way too much of a shift in diet for most people to manage. In America, home of the reddest meat diets around, over 1/3 of us still eat fish every week, and in other countries, it’s the staple source of protein that simply cannot be cut out. You’re 100% right when you say education about the good options – what’s sustainable, what’s not, what’s high in mercury, etc – are what people need, not to try and boycott fish entirely.

    What bothers me most about the idea of a boycott is that it completely ignores the other side of the issue – what replaces fish? Red meat? Poultry? Those take up valuable land and farming them is just, if not more, ecologically damaging than fishing practices. Is it really better to clear-cut forests for cattle than to throw nets into the sea? The truth is, there isn’t an easy choice here. Since we aren’t photosynthetic we have to get our food from other creatures in our environment, and one way or another we damage something in doing so.

  3. January 5, 2010 3:21 pm

    Their reasons not to eat seafood weren’t all that great, either. Seafood IS good for you and eating other meat in place of seafood also has negative ecological consequences.

    • Alec Chalmers permalink
      January 6, 2010 7:37 pm

      Isn’t the mercury toxicity level in seafood quite high? The body can’t break down mercury right?

      • January 6, 2010 8:11 pm

        Mercury level is more a question of how high up the food chain you’re eating. If you eat top predators like tuna or tigers, you’re going to get more mercury than if you eat herbivores like tilapia or cattle.

  4. January 5, 2010 3:29 pm

    A boycott doesn’t actually need 100% participation to be effective, since any decrease in demand will lower the price to some extent. In the case of fisheries, though, the limited supply of fish means the price won’t change that much with small changes in demand. I think what makes a bigger difference is going out of your way to find sustainably-caught seafood (and being willing to pay more for it). If seafood as a whole is demand-limited, then sustainable seafood is especially so. Small increases in demand will increase price a lot, providing a strong incentive to the industry to sell more sustainable seafood. This actually works–many fisheries are scrambling to be certified as “sustainable,” because they know they can charge more for a sustainably-caught pound of flesh.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      January 5, 2010 6:42 pm

      “any decrease in demand will lower the price to some extent.”

      The goal here isn’t a decrease in price. The goal is to get everyone to stop eating seafood. Getting everyone to do something does indeed require that everyone does it.

  5. Jim permalink
    January 5, 2010 5:19 pm

    1. First, all evidence shows increasingly that INFORMED consumption of fish is not only ok for wild and farmed populations and delicious but also very important for human health, particularly for infants;
    2. and also, you are probably wasting your time, because a recent, scientific, expensive poll (I forget if it was Pew or Packard or Monterey) revealed that all the “green card” efforts to date have had absolutely zero impact on consumer purchasing habits (except briefly for swordfish, which was very unfortunate for the hapless fishermen, since the stocks were completely rebuilt).
    3. If you want to obtain more science-based information about a wide variety of common fish species, please check out your taxpayer-paid Fishwatch at

    I do enjoy your blog.

  6. whysharksmatter permalink*
    January 5, 2010 6:47 pm

    “Yet, despite this third fact, I was just reading this eye-opening article in Conservation Biology, which discusses the very few CITES listing of marine taxa– in part because fisheries are not considered part of the wildlife trade.”

    Also, very few fish species are both endangered and traded internationally, both of which are necessary to be listed under CITES.

  7. Sarah permalink
    January 5, 2010 7:03 pm

    A boycott on seafood is a good idea in theory, but tell that to all the people who make their livings fishing, or to the countries where seafood is 75% or more of their diets. We just need to create more sustainable fishing methods, and to regulate more effectively how much is caught. You always need to look at a problem from all sides. That being said, I do not eat anything from the marine environment. Its a personal decision that people could make, but I don’t necessarily feel like my decision not to eat seafood really helps the problem out much. I get a lot of strange looks from people when I tell them I am a Marine Biologist who doesn’t eat seafood, but when I explain my reasons for it I think it educates them a little bit as to what is happening in the ocean.

  8. dconnors permalink
    January 6, 2010 2:08 am

    I finally decided to stop eating fish a couple of months ago. I have been a ‘vegetarian’ for years, but thought that perhaps fishing was the least of evils in the food production world. I was wrong, and now I can’t believe I ever thought otherwise.

  9. Alec Chalmers permalink
    January 6, 2010 7:31 pm

    I stopped eating seafood after educating myself on the effects my eating habits were having on the planet. When I decided to become a vegetarian, that included fish. Vegetarians that eat seafood always baffled me, even as a meateater.

    I really don’t care about people who make their livelyhoods from fishing, by that logic people shouldn’t stop smoking because of the poor people who grow tobacco.

    • January 6, 2010 8:13 pm

      Which is totally fine on a personal level, but when you’re talking about changing an entire industry, it doesn’t work. The problem is much more complex than “just say no” can solve.

      • Alec Chalmers permalink
        January 7, 2010 8:32 am

        You’re half right, personal decision’s won’t instantly change an industry, but saying that your actions have no impact is rather shortsighted as well.

      • January 7, 2010 8:49 am

        I’m not saying personal actions don’t have effects, I’m say the decision not to eat seafood won’t change the industry because it doesn’t put any pressure on fishing practices to change. Deciding to only eat certain sustainable seafoods drives demand for those products and can change the way fisheries are run. In order for a boycott to work, you need enough participation to reduce the demand for seafood below the supply, which would be a massive group action the would have to involve probably more than a quarter* of the total US population before you’d see an effect.

        But beyond that, the people leaving the table (boycotting seafood) are the same people who would be promoting sustainable seafood, so those that continue eating fish are going to be the people who don’t care how the fish was caught and what you’re left with is only the worst fisheries.

        From a personal moralistic view, a abstinence is perfectly valid and rational response to the nightmare that is US fisheries, but from a practical view, it’s not going to affect the kind of changes we need in fisheries management.

        personal choices: abstinence only, just say no to drugs, don’t eat seafood
        effective policy: comprehensive sex-ed, drug rehabilitation programs, conservation-based fisheries management

        *no support for this number

  10. Carol permalink
    January 6, 2010 9:10 pm

    On December 29 & 30, 2008 we watched several documentaries about the over-fishing of our oceans. I am a scuba instructor and have been an active diver for over 15 years. It breaks my heart to see the alarming decline in the fish and shark populations in our oceans in just those few years. After watching those documentaries I decided right there and then my resolution for 2009 was to NOT eat fish, to help promote awareness, and to document what I see underwater, including reefs with very few fish, injured sharks, and coral bleaching.

    I love sushi, but I stopped eating all but chicken sushi. One day a couple of months ago we went to our favorite sushi bar and I accidentally took a bite of a piece of sushi that contained fish. I honestly thought I was going to be ill … It didn’t even taste good to me! I’m continuing not eating fish in 2010 and beyond. I just cannot bring myself to eat it.

    For those of you who want to help do some good, but want to continue eating fish, the Monterrey Aquarium has put together a program called “Seafood Watch” that is supposed to help you choose fish that is plentiful and has been caught or farmed correctly. You can find their list on the web.

    The more people that take a stand, the louder our voice will be. Eventually we WILL be heard. I just hope it’s not too late.

  11. Craig Nazor permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:32 am

    I just got the DVD of The Cove, and there is a very interesting extra short documentary included called Mercury Rising that is well worth a watch. There is also one of the most beautiful underwater short films I have ever seen featuring the freedivers in the movie – truly exquisite.

    I became a vegetarian a few years ago, and I do not eat seafood for all of the above reasons, even though I think it tastes good. But you can go one step further – if you own a cat, carefully read the ingredients of your catfood, and choose a catfood that does not include ocean fish. Ocean fish were NEVER a diet item for the ancestor of housecats – they do fine without it. A whole lot of ocean fish goes into catfood, because it’s high in protein, they will eat it, and it’s (too) cheap.

    Farm-raised salmon should definitely be avoided!

    • January 7, 2010 7:16 am

      I was a little disappointed that an otherwise truly amazing documentary jumped on the vaccines caused autism bandwagon – though very glad it was in the DVD extras and not the feature. They missed the ball just a little bit with mercury in general, but were otherwise dead one. One of the best marine conservation documentaries I’ve ever seen, in part because instead of the general global doom and gloom story, they tackled a problem that was “small” (in geographic scale and number of people involved, not ‘small’ in importance) enough to be thoroughly and convincingly covered in the span of the doc, but also symbolic of a much larger problem.

      Pet food and “fishmeal” is a huge problem that is largely overlooked because the fish involved are Menhaden (which most people have never head of). Interestingly, menhaden were the very first american fishery to collapse (in the 1890’s) and Brown’s “A History of the American Menhaden and their Uses” was the first truly ecologic scientific study ever conducted. Up until that point, biology involved studying organisms as discrete units, not in terms of how they interacted with both the natural and human environment. Menhaden was the biggest fishery in America before 1900, produced more oil than whaling at it’s peak (menhaden are oil fish), drove agriculture since before colonization (menhaden were the fish from the apocryphal stories of native Americans teaching pilgrims to plant fish with their corn), and who’s collapse crushed New England fisheries for generations.

      As a testament to how truly huge the menhaden fishery was, with only one company still producing menhaden (Omega Protein in NC) and a fish population reduced to less than 1% it’s 1850 size, menhaden is still second only to tuna in pounds of fish caught every year. And yet most people have never heard of it. But that’s what ends up in cat food, animal feed, and those omega-3 pills people take, and it’s probably the worst fishery in the world in terms of ecologic impact because menhaden were the primary prey species for just about every predator in the ocean and removing them from the equation changed everything.

      One of the best books I’ve ever read on a fishery is “The Most Important Fish in the Sea”, required reading for anyone concerned with American fisheries.

  12. January 7, 2010 2:36 pm

    A boycutt of seafood sounds like a stupid idea.
    First of all, it will reduce the demand of saving the oceans to a lunatic idea, that most of the world population will not have any sympaty for. Secondly what else should we eat?? Meat is a very bad subsidy, since eating more meat will increase the greenhouse effect, and thereby speed up the destruction of the coral reefs. I therefore suppose the suggestion comes from someone who is already a vegetarian.

    But even if this is the idea, it’s not very smart. In many parts of the world (Like at the Baltic sea where I live) the ocean is heavily polluted whith nitrate and phosphate from the farming industry (They use nitrate and phosphate as fertilizer, and even the ecological/biodynamic agricultures are not nitrate-free).

    This make huge and increasingly parts of the Baltic sea die from deoxygenation every summer – not a good way to save the oceans.

    The only way to save the oceans in this manner is therefore human cannibalism, since totally sustainable and ecological agriculture is very far out in the horizon – especially because the planet is getting increasingly overpopulated. This is not an acceptable way to go for me, so count me out – Sorry.

    Let’s instead concentrate on solutions, who can get widespread support, and is possible – A demand of sustainable fishery, more ecological/biodynamic agriculture, and much less meat for the developed part of the world. A worldwide ban on private pets, would’nt be a bad idea either.

    The only 100% sustainable food I can think of, is if the whole world got their food from seaweed (Which I guess is not included in the term seafood?) , but even this would probably have some side effects, if it should be intesified enough to feed the 10 billion people, who is soon populating the earth. Lets not be naive, there is no easy solutions.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      January 7, 2010 7:29 pm

      Dude, did you just propose that we shouldn’t save the oceans because it will make people want to save the oceans less? Success often has that effect, and I’m really sure how it’s a bad thing. How many people in the United States consider themselves abolitionists these days? How many people consider the reduction in abolitionists since slavery was abolished to be a bad thing?

      • January 7, 2010 8:20 pm

        I believe what he’s saying is that if we somehow get to the point where we declare “mission accomplished” on saving the ocean, but don’t deal with agricultural runoff into the sea, then the ocean is still FUBAR.

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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

    bluegrass blue crab

    Amy is a graduate student in North Carolina studying local ecological knowledge within the blue crab fishery. She spends half her life studying the most charismatic of organisms - humans - and the estuaries on which they depend. While not contemplating grand social theories, she enjoys a good jam session and watching sunsets over the estuary. Follow her on Twitter @bgrassbluecrab.

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