A few months ago, I organized a bird-watching trip along the Oregon Coast. The second evening found our group dining at a moderately upscale seafood restaurant where the menu offered this reassuring tidbit: We work directly with our harvesters and purveyors to ensure that our seafood is only acquired from sustainable fisheries. I conjured images of farmed tilapia or perhaps even a wild treat—sardines or squid—seared on the grill.
The first beer seemed to evaporate, a magical process that hastened the return of our waiter. “The catch of the day,” he recited, “is blue marlin from the Philippines, ono from Hawaii, and petrale sole and rockfish from British Columbia.” Then he was gone, hailed from afar, and we were left to contemplate our gastronomic options.
My companions returned to their menus. I gulped at my beer and contemplated how to start a conversation that might sour the whole meal. Leaning towards my companions, I whispered, “Those fish aren’t from sustainable fisheries.”
“Are you sure?”
“The sole and the snapper are caught by bottom trawlers. I think ono is caught on pelagic long lines.”
“What about the marlin?” they asked, clinging to hope.
“Eating marlin is like eating snow leopard.”
Out of sight, out of mind
The last time I saw either petrale sole or rockfish (Box 1) they were flopping about the mucous-smeared deck of a bottom trawler. At the time, I was working as an at-sea observer, struggling between debilitating waves of seasickness to tally the grab bag of fish scraped from their bottom lairs. The sole were as brown and flat as old cow patties, the rockfish as orange as Creamsicles.
What is a bottom trawler (a.k.a. dragger), and why are fish harvested by bottom trawling not even remotely sustainable? A bottom trawler is simply a large fishing vessel that drags a vast, weighted net along the bottom of the ocean with the intention of capturing bottom-dwelling fish. Picture a barefoot child dragging a butterfly net along the bottom of a shallow pond in an attempt to catch tadpoles. Now imagine that same net horribly magnified, capable of catching 11,000 kilograms of fish in one gulp. Bottom trawling is simply dip-netting on a mad scale.
Bottom trawlers are particularly unsustainable for three reasons: they catch a great deal of fish and thus guarantee over-harvest, they are nonselective in that many nontarget species are unintentionally caught, and they damage habitat by directly contacting the ocean floor.
One doesn’t require a degree in statistics to recognize the pattern of over-harvest by bottom trawlers. Most notably, bottom trawlers precipitated the collapse of the cod fishery in the northwest Atlantic. The northern stock was harvested by hook and line for centuries, but it took only four decades of bottom trawling to destroy one of the largest sources of wild protein on the planet. Currently estimated at one percent of its 1977 biomass, the northern stock still shows little sign of recovery despite a 16-year fishing moratorium. Globally, the list of stocks that have been fished to collapse by bottom trawlers is incredibly long—and growing.
Despite new scanning technology, bottom trawling still results in the catch of nontarget species by the metric tonne. This bycatch, usually eye-bulging dead, are often discarded because either no market exists or the boats have no quota for the species. Petrale sole, to return to our “sustainable” Portland restaurant, is largely a nontarget species in B.C., scooped up incidentally when trawlers attempt to catch other species. The long-lived rockfish are even less sustainable.
The only reason bottom trawling has persisted into this millennia is that it is entirely out of sight, over the watery horizon and many leagues under the sea. The sea floor of North America’s continental shelf is inaccessible to all but the surest commercial divers and deep-water submersibles. It is also an environment of wonder: corals as bright as bubble gum, vast reefs of glass sponges, and 500-year-old gorgonian sea fans branching like candelabra. Bottom trawlers scrape the sea floor of this biological diversity and plane smooth any structures that protrude above the benthos, a process of habitat destruction that contributes to slow postharvest recovery.
Fishing with pelagic longlines is almost as ecologically perverse as bottom trawling. A pelagic longliner is a boat that trails a very long fishing line behind it, a line that might exceed 100 kilometres in length and present thousands of baited hooks. The “sustainable” marlin and ono served at the Portland restaurant were probably caught on these hooks. Sadly, these hooks also catch sharks and dolphins, threatened sea turtles, and endangered albatrosses. The pelagic longline fishery is also largely unregulated, a nation-sponsored free-for-all in international waters that can only result in destruction of this common resource. It is roughly estimated that 90 percent of large pelagic fish (tuna, swordfish, marlin, etc.), the top predators in these ecosystems, have already been harvested by pelagic longlines. We’ve pillaged the high seas to stock sushi bars with endangered bluefin tuna, soup pots with seemingly endless shark fins, and chippy shops with battered fillets. Clearly, we need to rethink the very notion of commercial fisheries—can they ever be sustainable?
Sustainable commercial fisheries?
If you enjoy your fish with a guilty conscience, you probably have a quick guide to sustainable seafood in your wallet (Box 2). The venerable Monterrey Bay Aquarium initiated the pocket guides as part of their Fish Watch program. The guides were obviously started with best intentions; it makes perfect sense to give people the necessary information to make sustainable choices, and clearly eating certain fish has a greater ecological impact than eating others. For example, Taras Grescoe, in his smart new book, Bottomfeeder (HarperCollins), suggests that top predators should be avoided in favour of abundant forage fish.
The pocket guides, however, also create confusion. For instance, my guide suggests that B.C. rockfish caught by hook-and-line are okay for occasional consumption, but those caught by bottom trawler are to be avoided. To my knowledge, almost all B.C. rockfish are caught by bottom trawlers and, regardless, only the savviest restaurateur/consumer would be privy to the specifics of how a particular fish, lying on ice or plate, was harvested. Returning to the Portland restaurant, when I asked our waiter if the rockfish was caught by hook and line, he looked at me with much confusion and said it was “ovenbaked”. Further inquiry indicated that sufficient information was simply not available at this restaurant to use the guide effectively.
The pocket guides, by suggesting that there is such a thing as sustainable rockfish, probably do more harm than good for rockfish populations. By opening markets and mouths to a trivial amount of hook-and-line fish, a great flood of trawled fish can race to market, too. And once the fish is off the boat it is impossible to differentiate, a reality that encourages ecofraud by fishermen, wholesalers, or restaurateurs. Recent studies suggest that fully 25 percent of the fish you’ve eaten may not have been the species you thought they were. When it comes to differentiating between populations of the same species or harvest techniques, the likelihood of ecofraud undoubtedly increases. For similar reasons the global community wisely does not allow trade in sustainable ivory because such trade would facilitate trade in black-market ivory.
Harry Kambolis, the owner of the perpetually trendy C Restaurant in Vancouver, has commented eloquently on a similar dilemma with respect to serving wild B.C. salmon. Given his long-term relationships with B.C. fishermen, Kambolis is able to source wild salmon from stocks that are reasonably healthy. He knows the boats, and he knows where they are fishing. But most of us pushing squeaky buggies around the local grocer don’t have equivalent information, and couldn’t evaluate it if we did. By serving wild B.C. salmon, Kambolis is concerned that he validates consumption of wild B.C. salmon in general. This dilemma has haunted Kambolis to the point where he has contemplated removing wild salmon from C Restaurant’s menu, a difficult decision for a decidedly West Coast establishment.
Despite Kambolis’s wise hesitation, all five species of commercially harvested wild B.C. salmon are a better choice for the grill than many species for several reasons: there is little bycatch (unlike longlining), direct habitat damage is minimal (unlike bottom trawling), stocks are monitored (unlike pelagic fisheries), and all species are reasonably short-lived (unlike rockfish) and fecund (unlike many sharks). But there are also serious problems with commercial salmon fishing. Much harvesting occurs in the open ocean where it is impossible to differentiate between endangered and healthy stocks. Commercially viable populations are also maintained by huge hatchery operations that release billions and billions of young salmon into the Pacific annually, a process that contaminates the gene pool of wild stocks. And, most importantly, wild salmon are keystone species—any wild salmon that you eat would certainly better feed an orca, sea lion, grizzly bear, bald eagle, or Sitka spruce (which absorb nutrients from fish dragged into forests by other animals).
At present, a snapshot of the B.C. salmon fishery is complicated; some stocks seem modestly robust, others wallow. Certainly stocks to the south of us, including the historically massive runs of the Columbia and Sacramento Rivers, seem to be heading toward extinction. When it comes to sockeye, arguably the choicest of the wild salmonids, SeaChoice.org currently suggests that a sockeye from the Nass River is appropriately sustainable, but if the sockeye is from the Fraser or Stikine then it should be avoided. Equipped with this information, I corner the fishmonger at my local grocery store, but she is unsure of the origin of the vibrant fillets. Obviously endpoint consumers of fish, like endpoint consumers of all foodstuffs, would benefit greatly from detailed labelling and rigorous monitoring to prevent ecofraud—the federal government has been woefully inadequate in this regard.
The future of fisheries is not wild harvest
Up until the start of the 20th century, commercial hunting was an important industry in North America. Hunters would wander off into wild regions, kill as much game as possible, and then transport the carcasses back to big city markets. It was commercial hunting that almost caused the extinction of bison, extirpated elk from east of the Mississippi, and reduced deer and moose to temporary rarity. Commercial hunting also hammered avian populations: passenger pigeons, whooping cranes, and many other species were pushed toward endangerment or beyond. By now, given the repeated pattern of collapse, it should be obvious even from our removed terrestrial perspective that most marine species/ecosystems are equally incapable of supporting commercial harvest.
Our notion historically was that the oceans were endlessly bountiful. We believed that even massive harvests would only scratch the surface of marine abundance. Of course, we were naí¯ve and primitive technology limited the potential for overharvest. Now we know that the geographic immensity of the oceans belies the degree of ecological productivity. Vast tracts of the open oceans are biological deserts, areas where photosynthesis is severely limited due to a lack of available nutrients. Despite occupying over 65 percent of the planet’s surface, the total photosynthetic activity of the open ocean approximates that of tropical rainforests, which occupy only 3.3 percent of the planet’s surface. Productive fisheries are concentrated over continental shelves, where the right mix of sunlight and nutrients facilitates photosynthesis.
This limited productivity, combined with massive harvest capacity, can only result in ecosystem collapse. Not surprisingly, recent statistical analysis suggests that globally almost all fisheries will be commercially extinct within the next few decades due to overfishing. A smarter choice, at least with respect to biodiversity and ecosystem health, would be to abandon the majority of commercial fishing while species diversity and genetic diversity still exists within our oceans. Indeed, given the inevitable reality of crippled ecosystems and endless subsidies, a worthwhile thought experiment is to imagine a future without a commercial fishery. Given our long and complicated history with commercial fishing, and our romantic notions for a bygone era, this is indeed a difficult image to conjure.
On Canada’s West Coast, a future without commercial fishing would still include a First Nations’ food fishery and a lucrative sport fishery, but these industries combined would only harvest a small percentage of biomass traditionally taken by the commercial fishery. Liberated from the noose of commercial fisheries, marine ecosystems could rebound to historic vibrancy as food webs gradually retangled into a mess of diversity and abundance. The shift away from commercial fisheries would not cause massive financial upheaval in coastal communities because the industry largely self-destructed through overharvest by the mid-1990s—current commercial harvest focuses on the scraps that made it through that bottleneck.
The transition out of commercial fishing should start with the most ecologically destructive fisheries. Generally that means first halting bottom trawling, which employs relatively few people yet exacts the greatest ecological toll. Because the trawl fishery has shrunk significantly over the past twenty years due to biological necessity, such policy would really just accelerate the eventual demise of the industry. More controversially, the jobs and dollars lost from the trawl fishery could be replaced by modest expansion of the aquaculture sector, an industry based in small coastal communities.
Aquaculture: the good and the bad
In B.C., aquaculture has become an increasingly important industry for coastal communities (Box 3). Because it is largely without significant ecological impacts, the culturing of shellfish (mussels, oysters, abalone, etc.) is a no-brainer. Finfish aquaculture, particularly salmon farming, generates over 80 percent of the revenue in this sector and it will therefore continue to be an important component of coastal economies. With salmon farming, there are significant ecological impacts, but these impacts are partially offset by financial benefit. The same cannot be said for most commercial fisheries.
The primary ecological impacts of salmon farming include the buildup of organic pollution beneath the pens, escape of domesticated salmon into wild ecosystems, and parasite transmission to wild species. These impacts are very real, but often overstated, particularly when compared to the ecological impacts of commercial fishing. A policy of replacing trawl fishing revenue with aquaculture revenue would bring more fish to market, increase rural employment, and contribute more revenue to the provincial economy.
From a global perspective, the much bigger concern with salmon farming is that salmon are carnivores. To farm salmon, farmers feed them a pellitized mixture of small forage fish (Peruvian anchovies, etc.) and fish scrap mixed together with vegetable protein and meat byproducts. The pellets are much like dog food in composition and appearance (similar mixtures are also fed to chickens and hogs). Currently, because of unavoidable inefficiencies in energy conversion, it takes more than one kilogram of forage fish to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon. This is a huge concern for those of us that advocate for an overall reduction in commercial fishing. However, many producers are now using pellets that contain significantly more vegetable protein and less forage fish, a transition that makes much ecological sense. Through selective breeding of salmon stocks and food engineering, it should be possible to grow salmon (and other finfish) that require only small amounts of fish-based calories, and those fish-based calories could also be farmed, not wild caught.
Reducing and then eliminating its reliance on commercial fisheries is the most important ecological adjustment the salmon farming industry needs to make. This transition away from fishmeal derived from wild fish is also a looming biological reality because many populations of forage fish have collapsed due to overfishing, a reality that has led to large increases in the cost of fishmeal. Fish farmers are often quick to suggest that fishmeal fisheries are sustainable, but the longterm abundance data for Peruvian anchovies is a rollercoaster of high and low returns, a pattern that can be suggestive of a fishery that could collapse with little notice.
Over the next decade, while B.C. is getting out of the trawl fishery, the salmon farming industry should work towards eliminating its dependence on wild fisheries. Obviously, global marine ecosystems will only benefit from such a policy shift if all industries that utilize fishmeal are equally accountable (only 10–20 percent of fishmeal is destined for salmon farming). Hopefully, countries that produce fishmeal in quantity will recognize that these forage fish are of more worth in their own ecosystems than in the chicken barns of the world, and they will force necessary change on all of the industries that utilize fishmeal.
There are other problems with salmon farming beyond the ecological impacts. Norwegian and Dutch companies now own most of the salmon farms in B.C., and there has been much corporate consolidation over the past decade (only five companies now farm salmon in B.C., and only one of these is Canadian owned). Would I prefer to see more small-scale, locally owned salmon farms? Yes, of course. However, foreign ownership is hardly unique to salmon farming, and I’m not sure that, given our trade agreements, we can hold salmon farming to a different standard than forestry or mining or manufacturing.
Neither does salmon farming provide vast employment. Like farming grain in the prairies, a relatively small number of farmers produce a great deal of product. Currently, the industry in B.C. employs about 1600 people directly, but it's important to note that those jobs are scattered throughout small coastal communities—communities in which even 20 permanent jobs is a big deal.
Klemtu: a sustainable coastal community
Klemtu is one of the most remote First Nation communities in B.C. Situated on the central coast somewhere between Bella Coola and Prince Rupert, a Vancouverite can get to Manhattan with less effort. The destination, however, is definitely worth the journey—Klemtu is a vibrant community carved into temperate rainforest, with the Pacific pulsing at its feet and green mountains climbing into the clouds.
The community is comprised of 450 people of Kitasoo-Xaixais heritage, a people whose ancestral roots are not unlike the roots of the towering cedar, clinging fiercely to the coastal soils for millennia. The town boasts a hundred tidy homes, a modest café, a small high school, a gymnasium for basketball, and an incredible big house for celebrations. Despite the isolation—the lack of road access, the lack of tourist dollars, and the collapse of the wild fishery—there is obvious prosperity in town. The source of that prosperity is salmon farming.
Historically, like most remote coastal communities, Klemtu depended on commercial fisheries. There was a cannery in town until 1968, and a small processing plant limped into the 1980s. But by the late 1980s, the wild fishery was kaput, and the processing plant was without product. In an attempt to provide some employment, the community, with much foresight, decided to experiment with salmon farming, a fledgling industry in B.C. at the time. Initial successes hinted at the industry’s potential to support the community, and by the mid 1990s the community was looking for a business partner to finance expansion.
In 1998, the Kitasoo and Marine Harvest, one of the largest companies in finfish aquaculture, signed an agreement to farm salmon. The agreement was smartly done. Rather than simply leasing the farm sites from the community, the agreement also stipulated that 66 percent of the employees on the farms and 95 percent of the employees in the processing plant must be from Klemtu. Additionally, all salmon grown locally must be processed locally, a value-added reality that keeps the processing plant humming for eight months a year. In total, 55 band members are directly employed, typically making $15-$20/hour. The result is a huge payroll for a community the size of Klemtu.
Even after 10 years, the industry is not contentious in Klemtu. According to village elders—individuals with obviously deep connections to the landscape—the environmental impacts seem modest and manageable: they know that the wild fishery collapsed prior to the arrival of the salmon farms, they acknowledge that all goods-producing industries have some impacts, and they realize that aquaculture, if properly done, could sustain their community indefinitely. Provincial and federal governments, after subsidizing commercial fisheries for generations, are justifiably excited by the prospect of a coastal industry that can stand on its own. Klemtu is clearly a potential model of coastal sustainability, a model that could be replicated at select locations along the coast.
A recent foray into the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen has me again contemplating vegetarianism, a mode of sustenance that I’ve flirted with on occasion. Certainly there are few, if any, wild fish that we can feel good about eating. Eating lower down on the trophic pyramid certainly makes sense (e.g. sardines instead of salmon or swordfish), but we’ve fished many of these lower tier populations to commercial extinction as well. The West Coast sardine fishery of Steinbeck’s California (and B.C.), for example, collapsed to commercial extinction by the 1940s. (Interestingly, after a 50-year hiatus, the sardines are finally back in B.C.’s water in some number. Our response? Resurrect the commercial fishery!)
From a taste perspective, I might prefer venison to beef, and grouse to chicken, but wild game can only support the very occasional meal. If everyone relied on wild venison to meet the demands of our backyard grill, or wild geese to grace our Christmas tables, then those wild populations would be extinct within the year. Like it or not, commercial hunting and gathering is a lifestyle suited to a bygone era, an era of few mouths and primitive technology. This reality clearly extends into the oceans where more mouths and more affluence are exacting a terrible toll on marine food webs, particularly the top predators. We simply cannot allow our increasingly yuppified taste buds to justify the continued destruction of the top tier of marine food webs.
Jacques Cousteau, the legendary underwater explorer, once said, “We must learn to plant the sea and herd its animals, using the sea as farmers instead of hunters.” Of course, in 2009, there is still much learning to be done with respect to sustainable finfish aquaculture. The industry needs to continue to improve its practices, and thoughtful environmental advocacy will continue to shape appropriate regulations—perhaps lower pen densities, better site selection, and of course reduced dependence on fishmeal. But to abandon salmon aquaculture, as many environmentalists suggest, would do a disservice to communities like Klemtu, and it would also delay the realization of a truly sustainable aquaculture industry.
Inspired by Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, I once tried to find a snow leopard in the remote Himalayas. Of course, I was unsuccessful; my attempts were meagre and the quarry incredibly rare, one of the rarest mammals on the planet. Competent biologists have spent careers in pursuit of snow leopards with only the blurriest of images and a few hair samples to account for all the hard work. Many finfish are becoming snow leopard-like in their rarity and yet we continue to harvest them with sickening gluttony. And while a buttery piece of raw tuna or crimson fillet of wild sockeye makes a great meal, these species at large in their natural habitat are more wondrous by far.
Cameron MacDonald is a biology instructor at Langara College.