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Supply Side Conservation Redux

can fisheries be saved?

The following was posted at the old website on January 5, 2010. It is reposted here as a response to the question “Why would you encourage people to consume any kind of seafood when bycatch is always an issue? Would it not be better simply to avoid any seafood whatsoever when we can live perfectly healthy lives without?” raised in Reader Mail: Aquariums, seafood, and my shark documentary. Old comments have be stripped but can be found at the original post here.

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 Stickk.com 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:

EATING SEAFOOD IS NOT THAT HEALTHY.

EATING SEAFOOD HAS NEGATIVE ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.

TO EAT SEAFOOD IS TO EAT SOME OF THE PLANET’S LAST REMAINING WILDLIFE.

(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 nearly 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!


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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