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Enjoy Your Tuna Sandwich

[ 61 ] August 15, 2011 |



Greenpeace is launching a major new campaign against the tuna industry
, built around the massive deaths to other species caused by the way albacore tuna is caught:

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.

The idea that it is somehow more responsible to eat fish rather than other meat has little relation to reality. While it is true that fish have far less of a carbon footprint than beef, the fish industry is literally wiping out the entire ocean. Some of the problem is overfishing of species. But much of the problem is also the widespread extermination of large ocean life, including sharks, dolphins, turtles, and birds, through getting caught in the industrial technology used to give us cheap cans of tuna.

But it’s the ocean, and like everything else in the ocean that you can’t see from shore, it’s easy to forget about it.

This leads me to a side point–how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.

If you connect social and ecological values to eating meat and you still choose to eat meat, I argue strongly that fish is the least moral choice you can make.

Update: In comments, Greg asks me to articulate the last paragraph further. I argue that fish is the least moral meat you can eat because it is the last wild animals harvested for the food market on a massive scale. Eating fish today is not so different from eating passenger pigeon or bison in 1870. On top of that, the harvesting of fish results in unbelievable numbers of deaths from other animals. It is certainly possible to argue that because the carbon footprint of eating beef is so high, that the same thing results in a less direct way. Perhaps that is so. But I would definitely argue that eating fish is, at the very least, not a better choice than eating other animals.

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  1. Joey Maloney says:

    This leads me to a side point–how did fish become not meat?

    Pure OT.

    • sam says:

      Yeah – I was going to point out that fish isn’t “meat” for Kosher meat vs dairy purposes either. Which is why the glatt kosher bagel place down the street from me can sell lox on its bagels.

  2. Greg says:

    I’m confused by this: “If you connect social and ecological values to eating meat and you still choose to eat meat, I argue strongly that fish is the least moral choice you can make.”

    Why is eating fish worse than eating other animals? I can understand “just as bad” (though I’m not sure I’d agree), but why worse?

    I find the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to be very helpful in knowing what fish to avoid for ecological and social reasons: http://bit.ly/mTgXgf

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Because fish is the last wild animal harvested for the food market, meaning that these are stocks being driven to extinction, not to mention the massive deaths of other animals involved in the process.

      • ajay says:

        not to mention the massive deaths of other animals involved in the process.

        This is a problem if you regard it as waste – which it is, at present, because the longliners just throw all those dead seabirds, turtles etc right back into the water, see pic.
        Greenpeace should not be embarking on a major stop-eating-tuna campaign. It should be embarking on a major start-eating-sea-turtle campaign.

        (Not serious.)

      • Greg says:

        That’s a good point. I’d never thought of it that way. But what about farmed fish? There are a lot of problems with farmed fish, and it’s interesting that the Monterey guide often says to avoid some farmed species, but would you say that morally and ethically eating farmed fish is a step up?

        • Greg says:

          My “good point” comment referred to Eric’s post, just to be clear.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          There are several problems with farmed fish from an environmental perspective, some similar to farming other animals, others different. From the perspective of this particular argument, one huge problem is that farmed salmon, for instance, require a huge amount of ocean fish to eat that is gathered in the same destructive methods used in the rest of the fishing industry. So while the salmon may not be eaten into extinction, the farming of salmon can cause huge fish die-offs in other species.

          • Greg says:

            Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that guide tries to take into account. (And sorry I misspelled your name above.)

          • gmack says:

            Right, but there are important differences depending on the species in question. Farmed salmon is awful (both environmentally and in terms of taste: as I recall, they use dye to give it a “salmon” color; because of the nature of the farming process, the salmon don’t exercise their muscles properly and the flesh becomes white). Farmed tilapia can be just as bad, but it isn’t always. It depends on where it’s from. Generally, the tilapia farmed in the U.S. is generally fine; the ones farmed in China tend not to be). As far as I remember, farmed mussels, clams, and oysters are in fact beneficial environmentally, though shrimp is terrible. In short, leaving aside the ethical questions about whether it is a good idea to eat other animals, category “sea food” is way too broad to make blanket statements about the environmental impact of eating it.

            (I’ll add that I’m going from memory here, and I don’t currently have the time to look up the links for all of this info; I could be wrong, or the information on which I”m relying could be out of date).

          • Phil K says:

            Not necessarily true. Much of the most modern aquaculture doesn’t use wild-caught fish for feed; there are actually salmon being raised right now in land-based, closed-system tanks outside Washington that live on vegetable and soy feed and live their whole life cycle in, essentially, industrial swimming pools, never once interacting with the natural marine ecosystem.

            Almost any farmed fish is better than land animals, from the feed conversion ratio perspective. Additionally there are all the other resource consumption concerns that don’t show up in aquaculture (emissions, water use, etc). On top of that seafood is a nutritionally superior protein for humans.

            Lastly, you have some species, such as barramundi, who are effectively vegetarians and have extremely fast grow-out times. This combo is the killer app: Unlike anything in the history of animal husbandry, farming barramundi is a net protein producer for the planet, as it takes less than 1 lb of feed protein to produce 1 lb of human food protein.

      • Ed says:

        In addition, because it is difficult to enforce regulation standards in international fishing because of jurisdiction issues, there are areas that are relentlessly overfished and so far not much that can be done to stop it. There are some ecologically responsible forms of fish farming and a great many others that are not.

        On top of that seafood is a nutritionally superior protein for humans.

        There are other options for getting the protein you need. The simple fact is that in our current situation it would be better to dial back on eating fish as some are already restricting their meat consumption. That will be better for everyone in the long run, not least the fish and the oceans.

        • bill says:

          I love cats, but when I look at the cat food shelves of the local Safeway, with canned salmon, whitefish, you name it, I want to cry, especially when I multiply that by every grocery store in America.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            Yep–there is a tremendous amount of fish that goes toward feeding other animals. It’s a less well known part of our fish-industrial complex.

            • Phil K says:

              Actually most cat food is made up of fish caught for human consumption, but that didn’t make the cut for various food safety reasons. The cat-food industry is in reality a fantastic way to make use of fish that have already been caught & killed, but that would otherwise have gone to waste because it’s not fit for human consumption. Fancy feast and all of them provide a valuable Buyer of Last Resort service to the seafood industry, and play a valuable conservation role by increasing the edible yield of the fisherman’s catch. “Don’t feed fish to pets” is another way of saying “let’s put more of the fish we catch into the trash”

      • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

        “Fish” isn’t an undifferentiated category. Not every wild fishery is being mismanaged. By and large, even endangered fish aren’t the equivalent of late days Passenger Pigeons because fish stocks collapse when harvesting becomes commercially unsustainable, not when the species ceases to exist entirely. For example, there are still cod off the Grand Banks, just not enough to make it worthwhile an entire population to fish for them commercially.

        Yes, eating wild fish raises the risk that a species will be over-exploited. Then again, the health of the fishing industry depends on the health of the ocean. I’d rather support sustainable seafood and thereby build a multi-billion-dollar industry with a vested interest in keeping our oceans in good shape for the sake of the wild fish.

        It’s true that commercial bycatch (collateral damage creatures other those you were fishing for) is a threat to innumerable species.

        Today, the Hillman Foundation, where I work, gave its monthly Sidney Award for excellence in socially conscious journalism to Tom Gogola for a story on how millions of tons of bycatch fish is wasted every year around the world because of regulations that prevent fishermen from eating or selling bycatch fish: http://bit.ly/pOLc8K

        • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

          I meant to say that a fish stock collapse usually means that the population has fallen to the point where the resource is no longer commercially exploitable, not that the species has literally gone the way of the Dodo bird.

          • Phil K says:

            Very cool Lindsay. Also worth checking out is SeaShare, a non-profit that many of the huge seafood companies now use to get rid of product they don’t want (one pallet too many for the truck, so they’d rather donate it than pay storage at the warehouse, etc). It was originally started as a way to get bycatch from the Alaskan Pollock fishery into soup kitchens and food banks.

    • gmack says:

      The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s sea food watch stuff is really good, but only of limited practical use. A great many of their recommendations depend entirely on where and how the fish was caught. Frankly, there aren’t that many purveyors of sea food that make this information available to customers. Just try it some time. Next time you want the fish and chips, ask your waiter or worker at the local grocery store: “Where is this fish from? Do you know if it was caught using a long line, trolling, or dredging?” There may be some who can answer these questions, but at least where I am, I would think they are few and far between.

  3. Ben says:

    I’m not quite sure if this is what you’re talking about, but the inhumane conditions of factory farming certainly seems to cause more suffering to the animal than fishing does.

  4. David says:

    I would add that, from what I can tell, catfish and crawfish do not suffer from the same issues. Catfish are farmed in environmentally friendly ways, and crawfish are caught in ways that do not kill huge numbers of other wildlife.

  5. Barry Freed says:

    I’m as wary of GM foods as the next Luddite, but really: Fuck Greenpeace

  6. Phil K says:

    I should say that the real long-term concern about aquaculture isn’t the OMG FISH HAZ FEELINS stuff or the feed conversion stuff(in which category seafood already beats out all other tasty animals). The issue worth hand-wringing about by high-horsed people is biodiversity. Salmon have existed for eons, living through ice ages and continental drifts etc. They did so because of all the diversity within the genome. An Alaskan coho is very different from a Canadian coho, is very different from a Scottish Atlantic is very different from a Norwegian Atlantic etc. Right now, however, fish farming has created a situation where the vast majority of salmon swimming today are effectively genetic clones of eachother, with dire ramifications for the species going forward.

    That is why it is a serious concern when a pen breaks open in a Norwegian fjord and thousands of farmed salmon swim free into the rivers inland. They start breeding with the wild salmon and, before you know it, their bred-to-be-superior genes wipe out the natural bio-diversity in the gene pool. At the moment the number of farmed salmon pumped out to fish markets in boxes DAILY from just one major fish-farm in Norway roughly approximates the TOTAL number of wild salmon left in the whole country (a few hundred thousand), so it doesn’t take too many escapes for the wild gene pool to feel the impact. Even when you buy a “wild caught” salmon, there’s a solid chance that its family tree contains a healthy dose of farmed salmon genetic material, as most fish farming takes place in areas popular with wild salmon (Alaska, Canada, Scotland, Norway and the Faroe islands). This is also why land-based aquaculture is such a good thing: You keep the food fish fully segregated from the wild fish, so that wild stocks can rebuild and at not at risk of being out-competed by escapees.

    • Ed says:

      They start breeding with the wild salmon and, before you know it, their bred-to-be-superior genes wipe out the natural bio-diversity in the gene pool.

      I’ve also read that farm-raised fish are dumb even by piscine standards, so they’re lowering the IQ level of the wild salmon as well.

    • ajay says:

      They start breeding with the wild salmon and, before you know it, their bred-to-be-superior genes wipe out the natural bio-diversity in the gene pool.

      I have serious problems with the genetics and evolutionary science involved in this statement. Link please.

  7. Sam Clark says:

    how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.

    It makes sense if, like me, your problem with eating meat is complicity with the suffering and premature death of creatures who understand themselves as selves over time, make plans, recognise other individuals, and love their children. ‘Fish’ is too broad a category to make judgements here, but I think it very unlikely that tuna have those capacities, and very likely that pigs do. So I’m OK with eating tuna but not pigs.

    That doesn’t answer your main point about the destructive impact of fishing technology, which has given me pause. But the distinction between fish on one hand and cows, pigs, etc. on the other does make sense.

    • Ed says:

      I don’t think fish love their offspring (I rather doubt that pigs do, either), but I am bothered by the hideously cramped conditions that some farmed fish live in, regardless of whether or not “they don’t feel it like we do.”

      But then I recently rescued an unhappy-looking character from a Chinese grocery store, where he and his fellows were packed in so tightly they could barely move. (He seems much cheerier in the pond but even if he isn’t at least he can move around and engage in normal fish activity.) So I could be biased.

      • Sam Clark says:

        I didn’t mean to suggest that nothing bad could happen to tuna: they can feel pain, be frustrated in pursuing their normal activities, be ill, have their potential stunted, etc. The idea is that these bad things and more can happen to pigs, and that it’s the more that makes the difference between creatures which one shouldn’t gratuitously hurt, and creatures whose lives one shouldn’t unnecessarily shorten.

        If ‘love their children’ is too strong, how about ‘reidentify and care for their children’?

  8. Hogan says:

    This leads me to a side point–how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.

    Usually the point of a taboo is not to make sense. It’s to mark off an identity.

  9. BW says:

    Should we be differentiating between eating top predators and lower down on the food chain? Seems like it – as far as I know the herring fishery is not nearly as destructive as salmon/tuna etc. One’s more like eating bugs and the other is more like eating bears.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      There is something to that, but a) the methods used to catch small fish in huge quantities are also going to snare larger creatures and b) while small fish stocks are still high, don’t underestimate the human capacity to eat a species into extinction with shocking speed.

      • Phil K says:

        BW is correct about the food chain idea, but you are being far too broad in your condemnation of trawling Erik. Yes, tuna is extremely wasteful, with 30% by-catch and all that, but some other practices are far more advanced. The Alaskan Pollock fishery (aka Gorton’s fish sticks and McDonald’s fillet-o-fish) nets almost 99% target specie.

        • mds says:

          The Alaskan Pollock fishery (aka Gorton’s fish sticks and McDonald’s fillet-o-fish) nets almost 99% target specie.

          Though certainly a good development, this doesn’t necessarily contradict Mr. Loomis’ point, as ~1% of a colossal number can still be non-negligible.

      • Jeremy says:

        The California sardine fishery is a good example of humans rapidly depleting a stock. Not extinction, but close enough.

  10. Scott de B. says:

    Eating fish today is not so different from eating passenger pigeon or bison in 1870.

    What’s wrong with eating bison in 1870? The bison herds weren’t decimated by hunters seeking tasty, tasty bison meat. Given that the bison are going to be killed whether they are eaten or not, I fail to see how it would be immoral to eat the meat of a dead bison.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “What’s wrong with eating bison in 1870? The bison herds weren’t decimated by hunters seeking tasty, tasty bison meat. Given that the bison are going to be killed whether they are eaten or not, I fail to see how it would be immoral to eat the meat of a dead bison”

      Well, hell, by this rationale, we might as well all eat some tiger penis soup. The tigers are all being killed anyway, so why not?

      • rhino says:

        I regret that you have proved his point. In a world populated by 10 billion humans, there is no room for tigers. Or, most likely, any other wide ranging carnivores like grizzlies (technically an omnivore), lions, or sea lions.

        I don’t like it, anymore than I like knowing I will never see a magnificent herd of bison on the virgin great plains… But it’s fact.

    • mds says:

      What’s wrong with eating bison in 1870?

      Causality violation?

  11. Anonymous says:

    how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal?

    I don’t know about the quasi-vegetarians’ rationale, but wasn’t the real reason for the Catholic no-meat-on-Friday rule just to prop up the fishing industry? So, basically a distinction was created between “meat” and “fish” that wasn’t inherent to those things themselves, but related to the industries that produce them.

  12. Holden Pattern says:

    Also, there are some fisheries which are very well managed — the Alaskan salmon fishery is well-managed for sustainability, and there is not very much bycatch.

  13. rhino says:

    The main reason I feel free to eat large pelagic fish, beef, pork, lamb, rice, wheat, and all the other products of modern civilization is that I am convinced it is far too late, and I might as well enjoy some tasty swordfish, ribeye, bacon, rack, risotto, and baguettes before they are all gone anyway.

    Earth is headed towards a radical simplification of the biosphere, a biosphere that may or may not continue to contain a human civilization.

    The fact that sea turtles are adorable doesn’t help us with that inescapable fact, and Greenpeace is pretty disingenuous in implying that somehow if we were better people the turtles wouldn’t be dying.

    • Bill Murray says:

      nice, the Bob Knight rape case study, if it’s going to happen you might as well enjoy it.

      • Rhino says:

        Your analogy is both offensive and wrong. Rape is something which can be fought against, guarded against, and prosecuted. Environmental destruction of this kind is a battle that was lost decades ago… It would be more like digging up the bones of Henry Viii and prosecuting him for murdering Anne boelynn.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      Enjoy Soylent Green before the price becomes prohibitive.

      • Rhino says:

        More truth there than any of us are comfortable with.

        I’ll be kind of amazed if human civilization still exists at all in 500 years.

        Aside from tribal subsistence groups skulking in ruins, that is.

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