Sustainable Seafood: Part 4 - Can sustainable seafood guides help protect the environment?

Part 4 in a series of posts about sustainable seafood.
Part 1 - This is the post that started me thinking about the problem.
Part 2 - Sustainable Seafood: Part 2 - What is sustainability?
Part 3 - Sustainable Seafood: Part 3 - How does sustainability relate to seafood?

I described in previous posts what sustainability is, and how it relates to seafood. In this post I want to talk about guides to buying sustainably produced seafood.

When we buy a product we become a party to the production of that product. When we choose one product over another, we are indicating that we think that the product we have chosen is better (in some way - appearance, quality, cost, environmental footprint etc) than the products that we didn't choose to buy. We can influence the behavior of the companies that make the products that we buy by making it more profitable for them to produce products in a way that we agree with.

Because I am concerned about the negative effect that humans can have on the natural environment, I like to choose products that are produced to minimize their environmental impact. One way I try to do this is by buying food that is produced as sustainably as possible - food that "...meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, when shopping for seafood in Australia I would rely on the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Sustainable Seafood Guide to help me make seafood choices that weren't encouraging unsustainable fishing practices. When I moved to New York I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site easily enough, and started using their Sustainable Seafood Guide to make sustainable choices when shopping.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium isn't the only organization which produces a sustainable seafood guide though - the following website all have guides to help consumers select seafood in a way that isn't contributing to damaging the natural environment:
Blue Ocean Institute
Earth Easy
Environmental Defense Fund
Seafood Choices Alliance
and I'm sure there are many more that I haven't listed too.

The problem is, even with a sustainable seafood guide in your pocket, it still isn't all that easy to make the right choices when you get to the supermarket. Not ony do you need to know which species you are seeing at the fish counter, but you also need to know how it was caught (long line, pole, purse-seine or trap?). Jennifer Jacquet (of Shifting Baselines) recently wrote an article describing how many illegally caught (or unsustainably raised) species are renamed as completely different species for resale in order to fool consumers who are trying to make sustainable seafood choices. The examples she gives include Hake (labeled Tilapia), Red Snapper (75% of fish sold with this label are entirely different species), Shrimp (farmed shrimp labeled as wild-caught), Cod (labeled as Ling) and several others. Several of the guides listed above also contain contradictory advice - species listed as an okay choice on some lists and a bad choice on others.

I experienced a case of deceptive labelling recently when I ordered scallops off the menu at a local restaurant. Ordinarily I only eat scallops if they were collected while diving by someone I know, because dredging for scallops disturbs large areas of the seafloor - especially when the scallops are collected by commercial fishermen in their large boats with enormous heavy dredges. The scallop dish on the menu at my local restaurant was advertised as "Fresh Diver Scallops" though, and when I asked the waiter he confirmed that, yes, they were collected by divers on scuba and were less than a day old.

When the scallops arrived they were large and sweet and delicious. So large in fact, that I asked another waiter where they had come from. This second waiter told me that they were actually from the Gulf of Mexico, and when I expressed surprise he said that they were dredged down there and then collected from the dredge by divers so that they could be sold as "Diver Scallops". This makes me really angry, for two reasons:
1: Because the fishermen were cynically continuing to destroy large tracts of seafloor while fishing, but were then acting in a sneaky fashion to avoid being punished by consumers for this bad behaivour; and
2: Because the restaurant was not only going along with this charade, but was cynically perpetuating the sneakiness on their menu.

What can consumers do when producers and retailers are cynically gaming the system like this? One organisation is attempting to solve this problem through detailed auditing of seafood products, from the ocean to your table. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an independent, global, non-profit organisation which was set up to find a solution to the problem of overfishing. They have developed an environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. This standard was put together following worldwide consultation with scientists, fisheries experts, environmental organisations and other people with a strong interest in preserving fish stocks for the future. The MSC rewards environmentally responsible fisheries management and practices with a distinctive blue product label. If you see a product with the blue MSC oval on it, you can be fairly sure that that product is definitely produced sustainably. A list of all of the products certified so far, and where to buy them can be found on the MSC website.

Why should we have to rely on a charity organisation to tell us which products are sustainable though? Why aren't all of the products sold in modern first world countries produced in a sustainable manner? Whay aren't we all "...meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"?

Another Awesome Kenyan Wildlife Blog

As a marine ecologist I have a serious fascination for terrestrial ecology blogs, and I've stumbled across another stunner - Notes From Kenya. It's a blog written by Michigan State University students in the Holekamp Lab, about their experiences in Kenya as they research spotted hyenas in the field.

Source: Brittany Gunther at Notes From Kenya

Brittany Gunther took this amazing photo last week of a fight between a group of spotted hyenas and a lioness. Note the fourth hyena visible under the lion's belly! The authors are currently on the spot for the annual Wildebeest migration (see photo below) which Kimojino is also blogging over at Mara Triangle (BTW fans of wildlife blogs should also check out Mara Triangle, it's amazing. Help them out if you can too - they could use your money right now).

Sustainable Seafood: Part 3 - How does sustainability relate to seafood?

Part 3 in a series of posts about sustainable seafood.
Part 1 - This is the post that started me thinking about the problem.
Part 2 - Sustainable Seafood: Part 2 - What is sustainability?

Sustainable Seafood: Part 3 - How does sustainability relate to seafood?
From MarineBio:

"Fish currently supply the greatest percentage of the world's protein consumed by humans. This fact may soon change, however, given that most of the world's major fisheries are being fished at levels above their maximum sustainable yield and many regions are severely overfished. More than 70% of the world's fisheries are overexploited, which threatens the health, economy, and livelihoods of communities all over the world."

The MarineBio website lists a number of issues that need to be addressed quickly in order to preserve fish stocks as a natural resource. Each of these issues is an example of unsustainable practices in the seafood industry. The issues include:

  1. Overfishing;
  2. Inadequate conservation and management practices;
  3. Habitat loss as a result of harmful fishing practices; and
  4. Government subsidies.

Each of these issues describes a different insult to the idea of sustainable fishing. Any one of these issues in isolation would be a cause for concern and a good reason to act to protect fish stocks. In many cases it is not just one of these issues that is affecting fish stocks however, but some combination of two or three or all of these issues working in parallel to meet the needs of the present while compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Overfishing can be defined in a number of ways. However, everything comes down to one simple point: Taking more fish than the system can afford to give up leads to an overall degradation of the system.

From a biological perspective overfishing occurs when fishing mortality has reached a level where the stock biomass has negative growth. Fish are being taken out of the water so quickly that the replenishment of stock by breeding slows down. If replenishment and immigration are insufficient to cover losses due to mortality and emigration then the population must decrease. As the population decreases, fishing has an increasingly significant effect on the remaining population. If fishing pressure does not decrease to allow replenishment to outstrip (or at least equal) mortality, then a fish population can crash to a point where replenishment is no longer possible. The ability of populations to recover also depends on whether the conditions of the ecosystems are suitable for population growth. Dramatic changes in species composition may establish equilibrium energy flows that involve other species compositions than had been present before (ecosystem shift).

Inadequate conservation and management practices

For generations we have believed the ocean to be pretty robust - probably because it is vast and under-explored; however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that ocean resources are finite, and depletion of these resources beyond sustainable levels is often irreversible. Overfishing not only causes depletion in individual fish stocks, but also disruption to entire ecosystems and food webs in the ocean. It is necessary to manage fisheries at the ecosystem level if we want to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks. This can be done by:

  1. Maintaining populations of target species at levels that allow them to fulfill their natural role in ecosystems and enable positive (greater than mortality) rates of reproduction;
  2. Eliminating the use of fishing gear that creates a high level of bycatch, or the incidental catch of nontarget species; and
  3. Closing feeding, breeding and spawning grounds to fishing to protect marine ecosystems from exploitation at these sensitive times in their lifecycles.

Habitat loss as a result of harmful fishing practices

Eliminating destructive fishing practices is an essential step to bring sustainability to the seafood industry. Bottom trawling destroys habitats, indiscriminate fishing practices such as drift netting and long-lining are destructive to habitats and non-targeted species and lost or discarded fishing gear is also destructive to underwater habitats and ecosystems.

Deep-sea trawling is particularly harmful to ecosystems because it indiscriminately bulldozes or entangles many benthic species. Continued destruction of deep-sea areas is causing species to become extinct before they are even observed, let alone identified, by science. From SeaWeb:

"In a few hours, the massive nets that drag the bottom and weigh up to 15 tons, can destroy deep-sea corals and sponge beds that have taken centuries or millennia to grow. The trawlers target fish such orange roughy and grenadiers for food, and sharks for the cosmetic industry. These fish are generally long-lived, slow growing and late maturing so their populations take decades, even centuries to recover."

Government subsidies
To catch around $70 billion worth of fish per year, the commercial seafood industry spends approximately $90 billion per year and incurs total costs of over $120 billion per year. A multitude of government subsidies make up the difference between their income and expenditure. The practice of providing governmental support to the fishery sector is widespread among major fishing nations. While precise data are difficult to obtain, the basic facts are not considered controversial. Governments around the world are providing tens of billions of dollars in subsidies annually to the fishery sector, for a wide variety of purposes, and in many different forms. While smaller in absolute amount terms than, for example, subsidies to the agricultural sector, these payments are conservatively estimated to be roughly 20-25 per cent of the annual revenues of the commercial fishing industry.

Subsidized incentives make it easy for the seafood industry to build more fishing power than fish populations can support. There is now a mismatch between what the ocean can make and what the seafood industry can take, meaning that the seafood industry is currently meeting the needs of the present while compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Sustainable Seafood:
Part 4 - Can sustainable seafood guides help protect the environment?

Sustainable Seafood: Part 2 - What is sustainability?

I wrote a post about sustainably caught seafood a few weeks back (available here), but this issue is still causing me considerable grief, so I thought that I would revisit the topic in a series of short posts summarizing the problem as I see it. Sustainable Seafood: Part 2 - What is sustainability? The concept of sustainability has been around for a long time. Now it is a buzzword which is often heard when people are talking about the environment and environmental degredation. It was a word which began seeping into the public conciousness in the late 1980's following the release of a groundbreaking report by the United Nations (UN). In 1983, the Secretary-General of the UN established the World Commission on the Environment and Development - also frequently referred to as the Brundtland Commission after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the head of the commission and former Prime Minister of Norway. The commission was tasked with examining the world's environmental problems and proposing a global agenda for addressing them. The Report of the Brundtland Commission, Our Common Future, was published in 1987. The Report is available in HTML format with links to cited documents, and an easy-to-read full version is available at the Center for a World in Balance. The report deals with sustainable development and the change of politics needed for achieving that. The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development in the following way:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This definition is well accepted and is usually the definition given today when dealing with issues of sustainability.

Scientists Slam Climate Change Deniers

New Zealand's national science academy, the Royal Society (RSNZ), has challenged climate change "deniers", issuing a statement declaring unequivocally that the globe is warming and that humans are to blame.

"The globe is warming because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions," the society said, reporting the findings of an expert committee on climate.

In summary, the statement says:

The globe is warming because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Measurements show that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are well above levels seen for many thousands of years. Further global climate changes are predicted, with impacts expected to become more costly as time progresses. Reducing future impacts of climate change will require substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Royal Society is charged by its Act with informing the public about science, and fostering evidence-based scientific debate.  We hope this statement makes a useful contribution to public understanding of climate change.
The full statement is available at the RSNZ website.

Australian Drought Expected to Worsen and Alter River Basin Ecology

Source: Alex Schrader
From Reuters:
Australia’s worst drought in 100 years, which has already cost the nation $20 billion dollars since 2002, is likely to become even more severe and cause permanent ecological changes in the country’s breadbasket, the Murray-Darling river basin, government officials said.
Alexandrina Council which manages the environment at the Murray mouth and lower lakes region says emergency water flows are needed or the river system will soon be beyond repair. Neil Schillabeer, from the Lower Lakes and Coorong Infrastructure Committee, says:
"There is a need for probably 200-250 gigalitres of water in the very immediate future to solve the problems we've got there right now. That doesn't seem to have eventuated. Our state Premier hasn't been able to negotiate those sort of volumes of water for the lakes."
John Brumby, the Premiere of Victoria said last week:
...some commentators [have] called for water to be flushed down the Murray River to save the Lower Lakes in South Australia. But from where? It is estimated that about 1200billion litres of water would be needed: 370 billion litres initially to fill Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert to a minimum level, then another 800billion litres to maintain water levels throughout summer when evaporation losses are extreme.But farmers in Victoria have a zero per cent allocation in the Goulburn and Murray irrigation districts. And there is no additional water available in the upper Murray without taking water for essential human needs away from rural communities.
The zero percent allocation that John Brumby refers to is related to Australia's system of water management. Farmers have allocated rights to draw water from the Murray-Darling river system. These rights may be bought and sold. So a farmer who requires 100 000 litres of water per year for irrigation would need to acquire permits to draw 100 000 litres of water from the system. In a drought year, all users are allocated a percentage of the water to which they hold rights, so that there is at least some water available to all users. Due to the extended drought, this year farmers in Goulburn and Murray districts will recieve 0% of their allocations.

Ballast Free Cargo Ship

Source: Conservation Magazine online. Illustration courtesy of University of Michigan.

The introduction of exotic species into new environments can pose a major threat to the integrity of natural communities, the existence of rare and endangered species, the viability of living resource-based industries and pose risks to human health.

In the marine environment, any mechanism that can rapidly transport organisms from shallow coastal waters across natural oceanic barriers has the potential to help exotic marine organisms invade new environments. International shipping provides such a mechanism . Modern international shipping practices transport marine and estuarine organisms faster and over longer distances than ever before. Marine pests are regularly transported via ballast water, or the hulls or anchor ropes of these vessels. Now, University of Michigan naval architect Michael Parsons has designed a ballast-free cargo ship that would stop most aquatic species from hitching rides around the world.

Ships take on ballast water for stability when they're not carrying cargo. When a vessel loads ballast water, it also takes up all minute the organisms contained in that water which may include planktonic species, the larvae of bottom dwelling invertebrates and fish, and pathogens. These organisms are released with the ballast water at another port when the vessel loads more cargo. It has been estimated that world-wide, over 3,000 species are transported in ballast water every day.

Instead of hauling contaminated water across the ocean, then dumping it in a foreign port, a ballast-free ship would create a constant flow of seawater through a network of large pipes running from the bow to the stern, below the waterline.
"In some ways, it's more like a submarine than a surface ship," Parsons said. "We're opening part of the hull to the sea, creating a very slow flow through the trunks from bow to stern. You're continuously sweeping water through the ship and out," he said. "So you're always filled with local sea water, not hauling water from one part of the world to the other."

Antarctic Fishing Pirates Identified

An international fishing company caught supporting Southern Ocean illegal fishing can now be named and shamed, after a failed attempt to gag the government in the High Court, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton said today.

"Illegal fishing is a serious threat to global fisheries and this case shines a light on the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Southern Ocean," Mr Anderton said.

"The Namibian-flagged fishing vessel Paloma V wanted to unload toothfish in Auckland in May. Its owner, Omunkete Fishing (Pty) Limited took the government to court because it wanted to stop us reporting it to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)," said Mr Peters.

Why Can't We Just Be Friends?

What with all this fighting between Invertebrates and Vertebrates, I get thinking why do we have to fight?
Why can't we learn from the cleaner fish?
From New Scientist:

Peacemakers should look to the cleaner fish as a role model. In the coral reef world at least, all it takes to keep an aggressive predator in check and bystanders safe is good service and a gentle rub.

Cleaner fish remove and eat the parasites off other fish, exchanging a grooming service for a tasty meal.

Researchers have previously shown that cleaners who enhance their service by touching the fish they are cleaning with their fins benefit from more cooperative clients. This is especially helpful if the customer is a predator that could attack the cleaner.

But now it seems that the calming effect of the cleaner fish's touch has wider repercussions. It makes hunters so mellow that it transforms the cleaning station into a safe haven for other fish, says Redouan Bshary at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

Spectacular Pictures of Bugs

Over at Dark Roasted Blend they have curated an amazing selection of Scanning Election Micrographs (SEM) and macro photographs of insect heads. There are some amazingly beautiful pictures of some spectacularly ugly creatures.

More Amazing Golden Ray Photo's

I've previously posted about Golden Rays here.
Here are some more photos, from the Telegraph this time:

More photo's here.

The Mara Triangle - Best Wildlife Blog On The Web. Read It! Donate!

Kenyan ranger and blogger Joseph Kimojino. Source Wired Magazine.
Emily Meehan of Wired covered this story at the end of May. Basically as told by Wired the story goes like this:
A ranger in Kenya's acclaimed Mara Triangle wildlife park Kimojino is a member of the Masai tribe. He first learned how to click a computer mouse in November. Now he blogs about the Mara Triangle and posts wild animal photos on Flickr nearly every day. Kimojino's online outreach is an effort to raise awareness and money for the park, and it's urgent: Without the funds he raises online, his employer, the Mara Conservancy, would go broke. Admission fees from park visitors are the conservancy's primary source of revenue, but tourism dropped to almost zero during Kenya's post-election violence, and hasn't snapped back.
The thing is though, it's a really great read. Updates are frequent, and Kimojino posts some amazing wildlife shots almost every day. At the moment the Wildebeest are massing on the banks of the river as part of their famous migration (see photo). Earlier in the week they arrested poachers armed with AK47's in the park, and blogged it. Last month the Zebra were migrating and the Crocodiles were feasting.
But there is some bad news:
Working on a reduced budget for two months is starting to have an impact on the effectiveness of the Conservancy, and there are warning signs which indicate that the situation may deteriorate further. Our work is now threatened as a direct result of the collapse of tourism in Kenya. Due to lack of funds, all non-essential activities have been stopped since January, as well as the halting of the cattle compensation scheme and regular night patrols by rangers.
Tourist projection for the month of July and August is 50% occupancy. For the rest of the year it is expected to fall back to 20% like it has been up until now. This means that our situation will remain dire until 2009, however this is not an appeal for money (although if you have some it will help a lot) but instead we need ideas on how to fundraise for the long term. We thought that things would improve, which they have slightly, but unfortunately not as much as we had hoped.
So - what should you do?
  1. Read the blog - it's great.
  2. Follow Kimojino's photostream on Flickr - amazing photos.
  3. Donate - make a difference. It's easy and rewarding.
  4. Tell everyone you know to read the blog - it's really great. Really.