I've been reconnecting with my longtime love of all things ocean lately, which I detailed recently in an extensive post on my other blog. But I wanted to reprint some of the material here because even for a self-purported ocean-lover like me, most of the time I have thought about the sea, it's been followed by the word food. I'm sure this is true for many of us. But my biggest revelation from reading a series of books and articles about the sea lately is how ignorant most of us are about the oceans from a scientific perspective and as consumers. It amazes me that when it comes to mapping the ocean depths, the age of exploration is far from over - only a tiny percentage of the ocean floor has been surveyed in detail by geographers or sampled by biologists.
Another shocker was how weakly regulated the seafood industry is. While there have been a number of exposés about the evils of factory farming, seafood typically comes off with a healthy patina. But because fishing occurs even further from our daily consciousness (as well as the prying eyes of regulators) than farming, and even more because the most waters fall under international jurisdiction, creating incentives for every fisherman to maximize his haul at the expense of the long-term sustainability of fisheries. Thus, the continuing abundance of inexpensive fish at our local supermarkets belies the imminent collapse of many important populations as well as the greed and wastefulness of an industry at sea.
With all the reading I’ve been doing, perhaps the biggest thing that has changed is my view of seafood. Although I’ve been quasi-vegetarian for nearly fifteen years now, a big fraction of that time I’ve felt fine about indulging in the occasional seafood meal. One thing that has always struck me as funny about the vegetarian movement is the inconsistency of the distinction between animal flesh and foods derived from animals, namely milk and eggs. Although most vegetarians consider seafood verboten, eggs and dairy are staples of the standard (ovo-lacto-)vegetarian diet as most people understand it. But does the distinction make sense on a moral or ecological level? It doesn’t seem obvious that chickens and dairy cows suffer any less than fish or shellfish. Furthermore, the negative impact of large-scale farming on the environment has been well-documented. In fact, many farm animals living in industrial farms seem to suffer more cruelty and contribute even more to environmental degradation than wild seafood. I don't know the answer to the question of whether seafood or dairy exacts a hire price on animals or the environment, but I do think that consciencious omnivores should push for greater understanding of the true impacts of our food instead of sticking with traditional categories.
In any case, although I have largely avoided milk and egg products, until recently I’ve been more accepting of eating seafood because of my perception that that fish suffer less pain than livestock and that livestock practices were particularly cruel and polluting. But that view has gradually changed over the years. First of all, the characterization of sea life as cold and unfeeling is clearly incorrect, especially for two particular species I used to enjoy: squid and octopus. Although much is still unknown about the intellectual capacities of these mollusks, what is clear is that they are far from the mindless blobs that we typically think of invertebrates as. Scientists estimate that octopuses might be more intelligent than dogs, and recent reports of octopuses who escape from their cages and taunt their caretakers hint at a mischievous intellect beneath those alien-looking eyes. When I think about a dish of squid or octopus, I no longer imagine the briny sweetness and delicate texture of their flesh, but picture sensitive, intelligent creatures jetting about in the twilight depths, whose mysteries we have barely begun to fathom.
The second reason I’m much more hesitant about purchasing seafood is that fishing is vastly under-regulated, with destructive and inhumane practices still rampant (see this damning report by the Economist). The seas still represent the most devastating tragedy of the commons on the planet, and it breaks my heart to learn of how little respect for life is reflected in our fishing practices. Trawlers bulldoze whole ecosystems before they are even described by science. Many common food fishes can live for decades – orange roughy up to a century or more, and as this Nature paper documents, stocks of large predatory fish have already declined 90% relative to pre-industrial levels. We have but the faintest idea of what kind of awareness and memories that these fish have, yet we thoughtlessly plunder them – along with thousands of tons of “bycatch”, which are dumped back dead into the ocean or used for low-grade fish meal or fertilizer. In general, I try not to be a bleeding heart when it comes to animal rights, but something about our callousness toward sea creatures truly stokes my ire. Perhaps humans, after all, are the most cold-blooded creatures to roam the sea.
Ranting aside, sustainable fishing does exist, but it’s incredibly hard to find trustworthy indicators of such practices when making purchases. The Monterey Bay Aquarium produces an excellent guide to sustainable seafood, but even as a knowledgeable consumer who has spent quite a bit of time doing research and examining labels, I find it nearly impossible to find seafood I can feel good about purchasing. Although I’ve been encouraged by the trend toward consumer awareness of food systems and practices, it seems that labeling and regulation of seafood has fallen far behind that of landfood, and the clean image of seafood among conscientious consumers seems to make it a particularly worrisome blind spot.