"Eat first, then ethics" wrote German poet Bertolt Brecht. But even Brecht would be horrified by the "fish apocalypse" of 2048 that Boris Worm of Dalhousie University predicts in the November 3rd issue of Science. As far as fish are concerned, we appear to be eating not only first, but without forethought, and we never get around to the ethics.
The problem of diminishing saltwater fish populations is not a new one; the United Nations has reported consistently since the mid-1990s that all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have been fished to the point that sustainability is seriously in question for many if not most of the commercially harvested species there. The most famous fishing areas of North American lore, such as the Grand Banks and Georges Bank, have been closed and reopened with hardly any planning, as environmentalist and commercial political lobbies each win their way for a month, year, or decade, but never in a process that ends in stewardship of the oceans.
Those at the top of the fish business' food chain aren't doing so well financially, despite the appearance that industry prevails in matters of regulation of fishing. Both large commercial fisheries and small immigrant families with one boat in places like New Bedford, Mass., find themselves unable to eke out a living from tuna and swordfish and scallops. Fishing doesn't really make much money even for those who have become adept at vacuuming fish from the sea. In response, governments provide subsidies. That's not enough, however, to sustain fleets and shareholders, so companies turn from fishing cod and the like to fishing the sort of creatures that emerge from the sea so unpalatable that one knows immediately that they will have to be, as Wendell Berry put it, "prettified" until they no longer "resemble anything that ever lived."
Either way, as stocks of fish that were once commercially undesirable have plummeted, large fish, marine mammals, and even birds have been robbed of a big piece of their food chain. And that means we too are affected, as some of our most intimate ecosystems - those that protect and nourish our food and water supply - become, in collapsing, a toxic abyss. Fish species that live near coastlines, reducing the risk of red tide and providing detoxification to water supplies, are disappearing.
The threat of the ocean's imminent collapse is a new kind of issue for bioethics, which you might call "disaster ethics." The problem is that the public is simply uninterested in the catastrophic consequences of decimating fish stocks. Debates about ozone holes, stem cells, and the intelligence of the design of life simply pale in comparison to what is likely to happen to our oceans.
The most visible evidence of the ?fish problem' is still invisible by comparison to Korean research fraud and votes on funding for stem cell research. But the fish story is more important by a long shot and requires actions far more simple than choosing a Senator: Stop eating creatures that are being fished to extinction, and tell your friends to stop, too.
Our species may not have crawled out of the oceans to build civilization, but our willingness to protect the oceans is a bulwark not just of the ethics of environmental stewardship but also of the responsibility to keep cities from being poisoned or falling into the ocean and millions from starving to death. It's a pretty high price to pay for sushi.
There's no time to do long-term studies of whether fish are disappearing. We can't eat before our ethics. The ethical decisions the human population makes in this decade about fishing will set into motion a way of thinking and acting about the earth and its ecosystems that will take ethics off the plate entirely for our grandchildren. They will live in a world where the decisions about fish and the oceans have less to do with whether to eat swordfish than about what kind of engineered fishcell they'd like with their chips. Our policy about fishing isn't just fishy; it's bad science coupled with bad ethics. And at the end of the day, that will mean empty nets.
Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds the John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics. firstname.lastname@example.org