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Want Fish? Ethics First, Please

Why we should worry about the upcoming fish apocalypse.

By | December 1, 2006

"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. gmcgee@the-scientist.com

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Comments

Avatar of: jill johnson

jill johnson

Posts: 1

December 14, 2006

need more detail about exactly which fish, and where, are the most and least endangered, so we can suitably adjust our habits and those of our friends.\nPerhaps there are refs available?\n
Avatar of: Richard Knight

Richard Knight

Posts: 2

December 14, 2006

Namecalling and predictions of doomsday are easy for anyone to espouse. Perhaps a little more meat in the way of statistics and possible solutions would make his position less shallow. Pun intended!
Avatar of: Jack Robertson

Jack Robertson

Posts: 1

December 14, 2006

Glenn McGee raises important issues not least that the users of the resource lack ethical forethought and indeed are not required (as they should be) to to do so by law. As a matter of interest, one of the very few recent ethically driven approaches of a major player towards fish stocks concerned Unilevers well structured desire to protect the food requirements of cod in the North Sea some 10 years ago, but they were pummelled by those industries who depended on the fish species eaten by cod. How right Unilever have since been proven in their prognosis of ecosystem disruption by unethical fishing practises and how laudable they were to take an ethical stance. If this paper helps to espouse the precautionary approach to enhance ethical understanding then it will have done a service to those who enjoy unengineered fishcells!
Avatar of: Erik Spande

Erik Spande

Posts: 1

December 14, 2006

Over fishing and the collapse and imminent collapse of fisheries was discussed in Jared Diamond?s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. While this is a book aimed at the general public it does have enough background and documentation to allow an intelligent discussion of this and related topics (hence, the subtitle of the book). \n\nTo me it seems obvious that if we don?t effectively manage our resources then our resources will, in the end, manage us ? and not to our liking.\n
Avatar of: Mary Max

Mary Max

Posts: 1

December 14, 2006

What about not eating fish at all? We certainly don't need to. Any nutrient, like the much talked about beneficail fish oils, can be found in plant sources like flax oil. Addtionally, recent reserach shows how intelligent and sensitive fish are. Why not leave them alone - let them have their lives - and we can live on the abundance of plant-food like beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating a plant-based diet is better for our health and the least damgaing to our environment. Have you read the University of Chicago report that shows that the most amount of energy is used to bring fish to out tables? If not you can read it here: http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~gidon/papers/nutri/nutriEI.pdf
Avatar of: Yong Q. Chen

Yong Q. Chen

Posts: 2

January 2, 2007

In a comment about the article "Want Fish? Ethics First, Please" by Glenn McGee, Mary Max suggested that we do not eat fish at all, and went on saying any nutrient, like the much talked about beneficial fish oils, can be found in plant sources like flax oil.\n\nActually, the omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil are primarily EPA (20:5; 20 carbons 5 double bonds) and DHA (22:6; 22 carbons 6 double bonds). In contrast, the omega-3 essential fatty acid found in Flexseed is mainly alpha-LNA (18:3; 18 carbons 3 double bonds).\n\nConversion from LNA to EPA is very moderate, whereas from EPA to DHA is poor, if happens at al, in humans. DHA is vital to neuron cells of the brain and other organs in mammals. We may not be able to function without eating fish. Therefore, preserving fish in our oceans may not only for ethics but also for survival.\n
Avatar of: Dan Healy

Dan Healy

Posts: 1

January 2, 2007

For the most part, the responses to this article are supportive of the facts surrounding the issue, namely that not only have we overfished irresponsibly and poisoned the water from more than one source, but our government overseers have sold our future in seafood to the big business lobby.\n I particularly enjoyed a couple of them, one implying there is a lack of research on this issue even though that is far from the truth (talk to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, duh), and another asking which species in particular we might avoid to help. \nAll of them, silly.\n All americans must face some ugly truths, and those are that we have burned five centuries of fuel in only two, that we have pumped all manner of excrement into every waterway and coastline near major cities to the point that there are many square miles of dead zones, that in our penchant for cheap fuels we burn coal with mercury compounds resultingly dropping into the Atlantic and hence into our food. The reality is that our unconscionable victimization of the environment has caused such damage that the piper is now demanding payment or at least the first installment. \n We are about to lose our vaunted lifestyle, our wealth, our endless food supply, our ability to waste, and had better be prepared in fifty years to party like its 1799!
Avatar of: Craig B.

Craig B.

Posts: 1

January 2, 2007

So how hard is it to post some numbers? If it is as bad as you say then it shouldn't be that hard to show it. This is not the crowd to "sermonize". Chicken Little is cute, but he doesn't really get the point across, does he?\n\nAlso, the solution of 'eating less fish and encouraging my friends and neighbors to follow suit' is not much of a solution. Why not subsidize fish hatcheries for the species we eat the most of?
Avatar of: Baxter Zappa

Baxter Zappa

Posts: 2

January 2, 2007

1) yes, hopefully the author will read the comments and follow up with some specific data that people can look at and act on if appropriate.... and i hope it includes some suggestions for new careers or techniques for the fishermen, or they will just become more desperate.\n\n2) there is a big campaign, at least from the New Age people, against farmed fish and in favor or "real fish". This needs to be counteracted. Properly safety- and ethics- regulated fish culture does something to take pressure off the ocean fish. On a personal note, I have had some excellent farmed salmon (and I would have been just as happy to eat it without any orange dye added).\n\n3) When Mary Max suggest that people don't eat fish at all, she is hoping that the choice is between fishatarian and vegetarian, but for most that is not the case. For most, the choice is between an intellegent sensitive fish and an even more intelligent, more sensitive cow / pig / etc. If she has conclusive evidence that a plant-only diet is healthiest for clearly omnivorous Homo sapiens, it would be great to see it.\n\n4) Yong Chen points out that fish oils are different than plant oils. However, his suggestion that humans "may not be able to function without eating fish" is contradicted by the fact than many people (and other mammals) live their entire lives without eating fish!\n\n5) Dan Healy is correct the humans are messing up the earth in many ways. But, if as stated, we had burned 5 centuries of fuel in 2 centuries, that wouldn't be so bad. In fact, we have burned tens of million of years of fuel in the past 2 centuries.\n\nYes we should start living *much* more energy efficiently, and use the precious remaining petroleum for important things like chemicals, and not as a fuel. As "rich" Americans, we can afford to make some changes and we should be the leaders. But, I hope Dan can figure out something to do about the other 95% of the world's population creating polution in China, India, etc. They will do whatever they can to survive. But, don't worry, eventually a lovely pandemic will set things right. Yeay!\n\nIf you have some conclusive evidence from Wood's Hole studies, paste in some links. The way to have a cheery 2007 is to set out with a plan to make things a little better this year.
Avatar of: Norman Geshenz

Norman Geshenz

Posts: 1

January 2, 2007

Dear Jill,\n\nAs to eat-don't eat, who, what and where from . . . go to http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp (Seafood Watch), a delicious and safe site. And if you want to take make it a true stewardship moment - while you are fishing for solutions, go to the Adopt a Reef® program at: \nhttp://www.savenature.org/. \n\nAll the very best for the future.\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: Pamela Lyon

Pamela Lyon

Posts: 1

January 3, 2007

There is a scene in the movie "The Last King of Scotland" in which the murderous dictator Idi Amin rails at his advisers for not preventing him from bringing down the opprobrium of the world on his head. But we warned you, they protest. "Yes," he says, "but you did not persuade me." \n\nStatistics for the worldwide collapse of fish stocks of which McGee writes are readily available and have been widely reported over the past five years. The major scientific journals have all run cover stories. A quick search of Google Scholar for 'fish stocks' 'collapse' 'oceans' yields plenty of peer-reviewed data. A 66-page file that begins with a 2003 Nature article and includes coloured slides that quite graphically show the collapse of predatory fish from the 1950s to contemporary times is available on . \n\nAs far as I can tell, the author is simply putting this voluminous data in an ethical perspective and spinning out some of the ecological consequences, with very little space in which to do it?like an op-ed piece in a newspaper. As with op-ed pieces, unless you're somewhat aware of the background, the foregrounding may be a bit hard to comprehend, or swallow. Surely, as researchers, we all know how to use a search engine. \n\nWith climate change we have seen that the public sphere does not move without mountains of stats and galvanizing language ? unfortunately, not even then. The mountains of stats vis collapsing fish stocks are in; McGee is rightly trying to provide some of the galvanizing language. If we feel moved to make a difference, and I hope some of us do, there is abundant information, peer-reviewed and otherwise, to suggest ways of making changes in our lives, and it is not hard to find. \n\nFrankly, it is up to us. The problem is, change is hard and most of us don't want to do it, myself included. But we must. Soon. Now.
Avatar of: Jan B

Jan B

Posts: 1

January 3, 2007

I agree that the author is not obligated to provide statistics within this piece. He directs the reader to a scientific source in the very first paragraph - the purpose of this article is to provide an interpretation, not to spit out the statistics once again.
Avatar of: Kuol Awan

Kuol Awan

Posts: 1

January 3, 2007

Live is good to every living creature. War is to no one, sometime in the future, fishes will take the war against human.

January 3, 2007

It is a good and timely article in the web edition of the Daily Scientist. \nHowever, isn't it also true that the oceans are reported to have turned\nblue, indicating the disappearance of algae? If so, the food chain at\nthe bottom is disappearing, with dire consequences for predator fish,\nsea mammals and sea birds. The absence of the pump down of carbon by\nalgae also speeds up the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere,\nincreasing the average temperature. This, in turn, causes the release\nof methane from the thawed permafrost, rapidly increasing the average\ntemperature. The extinction of fish by mid-century will be but a\nchapter in the process of the extinction of all large animals on earth,\nincluding humans. By mid-century, the shortage of potable water and of\nfood will occasion social disruption, involving the considerable loss of\nlife of people. Think of that! It is only 43 years from now. I am not\nsure ethics is relevant anymore.\n
Avatar of: Naina Marbus

Naina Marbus

Posts: 1

January 3, 2007

Yong Q. Chen's comment that " We probably cannot live without fish" smacks of a \n"fundamentalist" mentality. There are millions of healthy educated well-to-do brainy Indians who have never eaten fish, and many millions more of healthy Indians who are strictly lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians only. \n
Avatar of: Charles E Jones

Charles E Jones

Posts: 1

January 4, 2007

I appreciated your article that I read in a recent issue of The Scientist. One comment, a phrase actually, in your piece riveted my attention: "governments provide subsidies". In light of this, I would suggest that you edit the concluding sentence in your commentary from "...it's bad science coupled with bad ethics" to "...it's bad science coupled with bad ethics and equally bad economics.\nI am not an economist by profession, but I have found that my wife's and my experience of raising five children in a one income household has imposed the science of economics upon me. The greatest economic lesson learned: with limited resources in the face of a large amount of need, one must always count the cost to avoid financial ruin. Choices have to be made.\nThe worst (or certainly one of the worst) effects of government subsidies is that they dull the impact of cost-counting. If the oceans' supply of fish is as threatened as your comments suggest, then the greatest safeguard to the oceans lies in the economic law of supply and demand. Faced with diminishing supplies of fish, economic reality will lead to a significant rise in the cost of fish. This will, then, lead to a decrease in demand, as people, used to eating fish three times a week,decide that the cost is too great and limit their intake to once a week, or give up seafood altogether. This decrease in demand will, at the same time, lead many fishery businesses to close and force many fishermen to change their livlihoods. The net result will be a decrease in the amount of fishing in the face of the slackened demand and the decrease in the size of the industry. Of course, as with all supply and demand scenarios, a balance will be reached that will reflect economic realities so that the fishing industry will survive, albeit in a smaller size. Hopefully, this will take some of the pressure off of the sea-creatures, allowing them to increase their populations. The problem comes in when the government pays fisherman to stay in the industry by offsetting their losses and encouraging them to stay in business. This, as it always does, leads to subsidized price controls that undo the law of supply and demand and lead to gross shortages, in this case, shortages of seafood, due to over-fishing in the face of increased demand fueled by artificially low prices.\nMy family gave up shrimp and scallops long ago and we hardly ever eat fresh fish, not for a noble cause, I must admit, but simply because they are too expensive.\nIt would be a great help to the issue if the government would abandon subsidizing the fishing industry and perhaps spend taxpayer funds in guarding our nations fishing grounds from foreign fisheries, thereby permitting the laws of supply and demand to impose reality into the fishing business and give the animals in the ocean a little breathing room.\n\nI know that I am not telling you anything that you don't already know, and I hope that my comments will be received in the appreciative manner in which they are sent. Thank you for a very informative piece.\nSincerely:\n

January 4, 2007

I am wondering if the author recently saw Happy Feet - my kids don't want to eat fish now either. \n\nSeriously, as the world population continues to grow we will need to be more carefull evaluating our food supply. Late last year Congress reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act which increases industry oversight, sets schedules and goals for rebuilding fish polulations, and stiffens penalties against illegal fishing. But surely, more can and probably should be done. While we are at it, we should be increasingly concerned about the toxins being dumped into our oceans - if we preserve fish populations, but the fish aren't safe to eat it doesn't help us humans much.
Avatar of: Yong Q. Chen

Yong Q. Chen

Posts: 2

January 5, 2007

Labeling people by names such as "fundamentalist" is not necessarily making a better argument. Please remember, one does not need to eat fish directly to have fish omega-3 fatty acid. For example, new born babies never eat fish. Yet, they will ingest all their EPA and DHA from mother's milk or formula supplemented with omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. I don't know about the cows in India. In America, cow feed often contains biomass directly from fish or from other animals that fed with materials from fish. We are all connected by the "Food chain".
Avatar of: Robert Spies

Robert Spies

Posts: 3

January 5, 2007

Just a few points:\n\n1. Supply and demand--There is no reason to pre-suppose that the waxing and waning of fish prices will actually fit into the dynamics of fish populations in a way that high prices and fewer fish will work to really restore the stocks of valuable fishes that we have historically depended on. That is gambling with a resource that we cannot replace if we are wrong in our freemarket assumptions.\n\n2. Consumer action--Plese do not reject wholeheartedly all marine fishes. Fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska, e.g. all species of Pacific Salmon are very well managed, and not overfished. Shop intelligently. Use the guidance from the Audobon Society, available from the Montery Bay Aquarium Website among others, and shop wisely. I carry a card in my wallet that lists fihseries that are not overfished and I share this with the managers of seafood counters and waiters with surprisingly good results.\n\n3. What to do-In view of the difficulty of actually changing people's habits and beliefs, the best use of our efforts might be to support the teaching of the science of conservation in our schools. \n\n"A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."\n\n - Maxwell Planck
Avatar of: Robert Spies

Robert Spies

Posts: 3

January 5, 2007

Just a few points:\n\n1. Supply and demand--There is no reason to pre-suppose that the waxing and waning of fish prices will actually fit into the dynamics of fish populations in a way that high prices and fewer fish will work to really restore the stocks of valuable fishes that we have historically depended on. That is gambling with a resource that we cannot replace if we are wrong in our freemarket assumptions.\n\n2. Consumer action--Plese do not reject wholeheartedly all marine fishes. Fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska, e.g. all species of Pacific Salmon are very well managed, and not overfished. Shop intelligently. Use the guidance from the Audobon Society, available from the Montery Bay Aquarium Website among others, and shop wisely. I carry a card in my wallet that lists fihseries that are not overfished and I share this with the managers of seafood counters and waiters with surprisingly good results.\n\n3. What to do-In view of the difficulty of actually changing people's habits and beliefs, the best use of our efforts might be to support the teaching of the science of conservation in our schools. \n\n"A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."\n\n - Maxwell Planck
Avatar of: M. Staff

M. Staff

Posts: 2

January 7, 2007

I know people often do not want to even mention fish farms because of the negative connotation that bring the ecological impacts resulting from the practice, however it is also known and there is enough research and evidence that demonstrates that engineered wetlands have proven to be good enough at biofiltering fish farm effluents. Natural systems are protected and regulated by environmental agencies, at least in the US, and throughout the country several constructed systems have served as basis for improving water quality of fish farm effluents.

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