You might think, given all the information out there about how badly man has overfished the world’s ocean, that we would slow down, give the sea and the fishes a break.
Photo: Jack Snavely/Getty Images
For a prime example of just how the arrogance of man continues to over-plunder nature, with seemingly little regard for the day when we may pull the last fish from the sea, take the Lafayette, a 700-foot, $100-million processing ship currently trolling the South Pacific.
The mothership of a fleet boasting a dozen more big ships, the Lafayette is seven times the size of a normal processing ship. It currently processes—which means grading, sorting and flash freezing—more than 1,500 tons of fish a day, mostly Chilean Jack Mackerel.
Say No to ‘Frankenfish’
That’s three million pounds of fish. Every single day.
Watch the ship in action here.
The enormity of what has been dubbed “the world’s largest floating fish factory” defies comprehension. It is fed by a squadron of five super-trawlers and another seven catcher boats. Once each of those is full of fish, they pull alongside the mothership and pump the daily catch into one of 32 refrigerated holding tanks. From there the fish are sucked by vacuum to conveyor belts, where they are graded for size and freshness. Given the once-over by a human eye as they slide into one of four slots, 15 tons of fish are sorted every hour.
Frozen into 45-pound cubes, the fish are ferried to shore by transfer boats. The Lafayette rarely docks; its profitability comes from staying at sea. Its market is focused on West Africa, where the fish sells for $1,000 a ton. If you’re still doing the math, that’s a $1.5 million take every day.
“From there the fish are sucked by vacuum to conveyor belts, where they are graded for size and freshness.”
No wonder the ship’s owner, Pacific Andes International, likes to keep the ship at sea year-round. Previously, the company’s focus had been Alaskan Pollock, widely used by chains like McDonald’s for fish filets. Pollock, included on the Marine Stewardship Council’s “sustainable” list, has been added to Greenpeace International’s red list, suggesting it is on the verge of being overfished. Given the Lafayette’s success, the verdict is still out on just how long Chilean Jack Mackerel will be abundant.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to TakePart.com)
For the next two weeks I’ll be in the Maldives participating in a pair of very cool eco-symposiums. I’ve been to the Maldives three times before — the first, in 2005, on assignment for the New York Times post-tsunami (attached here) — and find it one of the best informational grounds for a variety of environmental issues currently challenging the world’s ocean. Obviously climate change and resulting rising seas are an every day concern in a place where 400,000 people live just a few feet above sea level. As are concerns about its vast system of coral reefs, which are suffering due to warming seas, and the impacts of overfishing even in a most-isolated part of the Indian Ocean. Check out the programs for both the first-ever WaterWoMen event to take place on Laamu atoll and the third annual S.L.O.W. Life Symposium at the Soneva Fushi resort. Both events are sponsored by the Six Senses Resorts and Spas and hosted by owner Sonu Shivdasani.
In person at the WaterWoMen event will be a mix of some of the world’s great ocean athletes (surfers, free divers, kite boarders, windsurfers) and ocean conservationists and non-profit thinkers; the S.L.O.W. Life Symposium will feature presentations by President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, Sir Richard Branson, climate change writer Mark Lynas, Ashok Khosla, president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and many more. I’ll be posting from the Maldives for the next couple weeks, so please stay tuned!
Who would have guessed, but in Europe it appears that McDonald’s is outshining the finest French restaurants when it comes to promising to serve sustainable fish.
In recent reporting by Fish2Fork—the website conceived by Charles Clover, author of the book End of the Line, on which the provocative documentary of the same name about overfishing was based—only 23 percent of French fish restaurants earned four “blue fish” (out of a possible five), while 70 percent rated five “red fish skeletons,” its lowest rating.
Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters
In the same breath, the site reports that McDonald’s has signed a guarantee that the 100 million servings of its Filet-O-Fish sandwich sold in 39 countries as part of its European operation will come from sustainable sources. The guarantee is taken seriously enough that the prestigious U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) awarded the company the right to carry its blue-flag MSC label, a highly sought eco-certification.
The deal begins in October and involves 7,000 restaurants that attract 13 million customers a day. (There are more than 32,000 McDonald’s globally, with nearly 14,000 of them in the U.S.)
Fish2Fork was forged from Glover’s experience with both book and movie, which graphically illustrate how man has taken or overexploited 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks. The site’s goal is to rate restaurants around the globe on how they’re doing when it comes to being knowledgeable about and serving sustainably caught or grown fish.
The listings on its site are based on questionnaires filled out by the restaurants themselves or on online menus. The goal is to better educate both restaurateurs and consumers alike.
In France, the highest-ranked restaurant surveyed was Paris’ Epi Dupin, where chef/owner Francois Pasteau reacted to learning about the crisis of overfishing by buying fish from the market twice a week and skipping over anything considered at risk. Fish2Fork calls him a “true national hero.”
On the downside, Fish2Fork also found restaurants in France blithely selling critically endangered European eel, wild caviar from Caspian sturgeon, and endangered bluefin tuna on skewers. In some restaurants, servers knew exactly where the pigeon on the menu came from or the specific breed of beef it served, but had no idea where its cod came from.
“What future are we creating for the next generations of French chef if many species of wild fish become a thing of the past and come off the menu because we have let them go practically extinct in the wild?” wondered Glover.
The European McDonald’s, by comparison, will focus on buying cod from the Barents Sea and Eastern Baltic, haddock also from the Barents, Alaskan pollock, and hoki from New Zealand.
The biggest concern regarding the McDonald’s promise is what happens if/when the company can’t get its hands on enough sustainable fish? Where will it turn if demand outpaces supply? Some environmentalists have been critical of the MSC certification because of all the bycatch (including seabirds and seals) resulting from the sizable industrial catches necessary to satisfy McDonald’s appetite.
In Europe the chain has decided its customers will respond to its doing the right thing. For the time being, its 14,000 U.S. brethren are treading water a bit longer before taking the hook.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)
The news this week that a “mass extinction” of marine life is already underway is both frightening on the surface and simultaneously tricky to visualize. The notion that we may one day figuratively take the last fish from the sea has always been hard to comprehend, to imagine.
A new graphic created by the Pew Research Center helps focus on what may be the most easy-to-comprehend issue: overfishing. Want to see just how badly man has hammered fish populations in North Atlantic in the past century? This is the best illustration yet—as close to a 100-year-long time-lapse video—of how man has abused marine life in one big corner of the planet’s one ocean. Of course, what man has wreaked in the Atlantic, he has repeated in the other four geographic oceans too (the Indian, Pacific, Arctic, and Southern).
The illustration shows the sizable biomass/tonnage of big fish (bluefin tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, Pollock, salmon, sea trout, and more) that spread off Atlantic shorelines from Florida to Greenland, Iceland to Spain in 1900. Those stories of pulling buckets full of fish straight out of the sea were not exaggerated; there were more than enough fish to support boom fishing industries in North America, Europe, and down into Africa through the early half of the 20th century.
But today, 100 years later, evidence of any big fish populations has literally been erased except for a thin line running along the eastern coast of North America. The rest of the Atlantic has essentially been emptied, one commercial fishing boat at a time.
This new illustration goes hand-in-hand with last year’s first-ever, 10-year-in-the-making, global Census of Marine Life (COML), for which 360 scientists around the world logged 230,000 different species living in the ocean. The report also predicted the mass extinctions of the big predator fish that man has traditionally pursued.
Today the so-called “charismatic species”—whales, sea lions, turtles, and sea birds— account for less than two percent of the species dependent on the world’s ocean. The study reported “major collapses” in fisheries around the world, where only five to ten percent of once-dominant species still existed, largely due to overfishing and lack of management. The North Atlantic was its prime example.
The bright spots for the future of marine life highlighted in the report were along the coasts of Australia and Japan, which are regarded as the most biologically diverse in the world. Of course the COML was released before the nuclear reactor at Fukushima began leaking into the Pacific.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse ….
A new report to be released via the U.N. this week strongly suggests that the ocean is in far worse shape than we even imagined (“a shocking decline”) and that marine life is entering a phase of extinction “unprecedented in human history.”
Earth has already experienced five “mass extinction events,” going back some 500 million years, thanks to catastrophes like asteroid impacts and various big bangs. But it has long been considered fate that the next extinction, the sixth, would be thanks to man’s heavy footprint, as we continue to alter the planet’s physical landscape, overexploit a host of species, introduce alien species and pollute.
According to the panel comprised of 27 of the world’s top ocean experts – coral reef ecologists, toxicologists and fisheries scientists, assembled by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — if trends are accurate this particular extinction will happen more quickly than previous ones.
Its conclusion does not mince words: “The findings are shocking,” says Alex Rogers, the group’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”
When it comes to scary reports, this one even outdoes the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2007 report, surpassing even its worst, worst-case scenarios.
The new panel took a big, collective step backwards and looked at the whole ocean scene at once. What it saw was not pretty. It was not one particular abuse or man-influenced evolution that was most worrying but the cumulative impacts of the combination of melting sea ice, sea level rise, the release of methane trapped in the sea bed, the amount of plastic in the ocean, toxic algal blooms (dead zones) caused by nutrient-rich farm runoff, ocean acidification, warming of the seas, a myriad local pollutions and overfishing.
Rather than criticize-only, the report makes some specific – if broad – recommendations necessary if ocean life as we know it is to be preserved:
1. Stop overfishing … now!;
2. Map and then reduce pollutants, particularly plastic, fertilizers and human waste;
3. Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” said Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and co-author of the new report.
“And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems.”
The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi, or not to sushi?
Photo: Stone/Getty Images
There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it’s going to survive, we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.
Others, attempting to choose wisely, try to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads them away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.
But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the “safest” fish on the menu.
With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean, the question is even more relevant. Two weeks ago Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Blue Rage” sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor the waters and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.
“Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” said Sea Shepherd’s boss, Paul Watson, as his boats steamed away from the coast of France toward Libya. “We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”
A decade ago it became clear that bluefin would soon be extinct if the hunting continued apace, and little has been done to slow the take, even as the popularity of the species booms in sushi restaurants around the globe, from Stillwater to Moscow (and particularly in Japan, which is said to consume 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin). Some marine protectors stick with the prediction that bluefin will be commercially unavailable by 2012…next year!
A small and hopefully growing number of chefs and restaurants have taken bluefin off the menus. At the same time, necessary further protection for the species continues to erode. In May the Obama administration refused to list it as endangered, which conservationists were calling for; late last year European quotas for tuna were reduced, though by just a few tons, even as worries that any decrease in legal takings would result in a rise in illegal fishing.
New York Times food critic Sam Sifton got into the middle of the debate a couple days ago when reviewing the New York City restaurant Masa Masa, which he revealed serves “an enormous amount” of bluefin, and which he admitted to happily sampling during several visits.
So back to the question: To sushi or not to sushi?
Casson Trenor’s book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time) and website (sustainablesushi.net) may be the best place to start building your argument. He operates San Francisco’s only sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and recently hosted a sustainable seafood feast at the National Geographic Society in D.C.
On his recent birthday (32) he blogged: “I talk a lot about moderation on this blog—staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that—and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.”
- Photo: Stone/Getty Images
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a list of “good sushi” and “bad sushi.” Or should we simply put it all off limits…for now? Where do you fall?
Sifton’s review elicited a slew of responses. A majority, but not all, sided with the fish. Others suggested that if you don’t like what’s on the menu, vote by not walking through the door. Have a look for yourself, and weigh in here.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)