Fish Politics

Intro to an ongoing reflection on a key issue of our day

Cruising is an opportunity to use time generously and seek knowledge differently. It’s a chance to ask questions and to take the time to talk to people you meet, to hone questions so you can make good use of rare opportunities to use the Internet or to visit libraries.

Trollers on Neva Strait

One big set of questions carried over from last year involve fish as food and the political economy of fishing. ......

What exactly are the issues that seem to be tearing apart communities?   What’s with those Prince Rupert fishing families who hate fish farming with a such a vengeance?  What about the commercial fishermen in Sitka who refer to sports fishing guides as “charter scum” and called them even worse a few years ago.   And what about Native people lamenting the loss of their shellfish to the protected sea otters, that they alone can hunt but whose pelts that cannot legally take to market?

After another six weeks in fishing communities this summer, I confess to being nowhere on my fish politics.   Fishing is at the heart of Alaskan politics and in the hearts of Alaskans who feel the pain and loss the BP sea floor gush has wracked on the communities in the Gulf of Mexico.    I just know that the issues are unfathomly complex and cut across predictable orientations.  So far my political analysis goes little deeper than noticing the bumper stickers on fisherman’s cars in the harbor parking lot.  The whole time in Alaska, I saw only one McCain-Palin sticker and it was coupled with the terse four-word classic –  CUT – KILL – DIG  – DRILL –  as well as a whole set of fairly nasty right wing ones.  But the worst stereotypes of Alaska are hardly prevalent in Southeast.  (By the way, parking lot slide show includes dogs.   Dogs in Alaska seem to stay put untethered; you often encounter them peering down patiently from the roofs of the cabs of their owners’ pickups.)

Seiners in Sitka Harbor

When the conversation is about the depletion of stocks, the dying of seaside communities, the dangers and risks of commercial fishing,and the very different dangers and risks of fish farming, it seems our duty as consumers to engage wholly, to figure it out.  Please be patient with my attempts to do so.

Paul Greenberg and his Four Fish

After hearing Terry Gross interview Paul Greenberg, Four Fish:  The Future of the Last Wild Food, I realize I need to read his book.    Greenberg looks at salmon, tuna, bass and cod, the fish that have  fallen victim to our dams and to the “global sushi binge”.  He asks us to get rid of the term seafood (fruits de mer) as it implies that we have the right to just reach down and take).  He begs us to start thinking of fish as wildlife, as animals to be protected rather than consumed.

Says Greenberg, “The way humans have used fish, we started inland and moved further and further offshore. Salmon represent that first step. Salmon spawn in freshwater rivers. They’re nearby. And we have this very close interaction with them where we live. So they were one of the first fish that we really hit hard with industrialization. Dams and pollution and all of these different things caused wide-scale extirpation of salmon, particularly Atlantic salmon, throughout their range. And now what we’ve seen is, salmon was really the first large-scale domestication project for the fish that we eat. There are many more farmed salmon in the world than wild salmon, and it’s a kind of replacement of a wild-food system with a domestic-food system that has started to kind of be kind of a model moving forward.”

Four Fish is a timely and insightful book; try this meaty excerpt.

Update: Conversation with Paul Greenberg

Back home in Portland on August 10, I had the chance to hear Greenberg speak at Powell’s.  After a short intro and a passage or two from Four Fish, Greenberg turned the floor over to his well-informed audience, largely made up of commercial and sports fishermen and chefs.
Greenberg started by explaining his book’s title. In doing research, he waded through old menus from 19th century New York restaurants.   Among the offerings were dozens of sorts of game, fowl and fish.  In contrast, today’ menus seldom offer more than four kinds of meat (beef, pork, lamb and perhaps goat) and four kinds of fowl (chicken, turkey, duck and goose).  As the biodiversity of the wild food of the sea becomes diminished, we are seeing the domination of four fish: salmon, cod, bass, and tuna.  In the book he traces each of the fish through wildness and domestication.  fast.
Then came some hard hitting points:
  • World catch has remained a fairly constant 80-90 million tons
  • World population has doubled.
  • The amount of fish American are eating has doubled.
  • We’re marketing and eating the large fish rather than the ones farther down on the chain.
  • “The consumer has led us to the Boneless Era.” Boneless fish is in demand everywhere.
As for cod, the fisheries collapsed in North America in the 80s and so the East Coast cod banks were closed.  Now cod are slowly coming back – Greenberg caught one recently within view of the Empire State Building – and there’s pressure to open the fisheries.  Pollock fishermen insist they middle trawl, that is they drag their nets neither near the surface not on the bottom, but Greenberg says there is evidence to the contrary.   Another issue with this type of cod is that pollack eat pollack.
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Of course, Atlantic Salmon are key for Greenberg, who fishes in the waters near his New York city home. In fifty years all the wild ones disappeared.  Today all Atlantic salmon are farmed.  And there are rather terrifying developments in transgenic salmon.   The introduction of a Chinook gene into farmed salmon has created a monster that grows twice as big twice as In defending their genetic engineering, Aqua Bounty points out that three pounds of forged fish are currently needed to produce one pound of salmon.  The company claims that transgenic monster fish will not deplete forage fish stocks as much.
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As for  fish farming:
  • It’s fairly new, launched in the US by former Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in Africa.
  • Since there are no wild salmon south of the equator, Chilean farmers do not have to face issue of whether farmed salmon can compromise wild stocks.
  • Farmed striped bass is a hybrid.
  • A positive development in fish farming is polyculture in which salmon, mussels, sardine and sea cucumbers might all be farmed together.
In response to a question about programs to certify fish as sustainable, Greenberg says be aware of two ecologies at work.  First is the wildness of the ocean, where  you are never sure what the catch will be.  Second is supermarket demand, which is certain and growing.
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“What about hatcheries?,” someone asked.  Greenberg says they are understandable on the damned Columbia but questionable in Alaska, as it is not sure necessary and they certainly reduce genetic diversity.
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Several folks asked about Alaska’s Pebble Mine, at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.  The mine promises yield of $300 billion in gold, molybdenum and copper, whereas Bristol Bay salmon is valued at $300 million per year.  Injunction and court order on this case will come in November.  Action to stop mine is led by  Save Bristol Bay.  The mine is on tribal lands, but tribes are split between for, against and not taking a stand.
Update:  Ah ha!   It’s wild chum we’ve been eating.

The food section of The Oregonian for August 17, 2010 brings an article lauding “keta salmon” The sometimes maligned “chum”, or “dog” salmon, this fish combines affordability, sustainability and flavor.
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My online dictionary large North Pacific salmon that is commercially important as a food fish. The unfamiliar name comes from the Latin genus Oncorhyncus keta, family Salmonidae.   This solves the mystery of how I’ve been buying wild salmon for $3.999 a pound, occasionally less on special.  In fact, the Kroger supermarket QFC, where we shopped in Port Hadlock, is specifically mentioned as an outlet; Fred Meyer is part of the same group.   But try to find wild chum among the vastly more costly chinook, coho and sockeye at a high end fish monger? No way.    Best fishing grounds are Southeast and Prince William Sound, where it is caught by seiners and gill netters of Seattle’s Trident Seafood, among others.
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Earlier this summer  Yukon River  chum won an award which suddenly pushed the variety to the foodie front pages of the lower 48 and to the front pages of the Alaska papers.   On August 13, 2010, the Seattle P-I posted  “Yukon River chum: Fairy-tale ending for salmon’s poor stepsister.” After swimming 2,200 miles upstream, the chum are oilier and contain more Omega-3s than kings and coho from elsewhere.    Here’s some market data for this season’s range of salmon prices in Seattle:
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For starters, the fish are available, enjoying a relatively healthy run at a time when many other fisheries are crashing. The famed Yukon king salmon, which won a cover spread in Saveur this year and was dubbed one of the year’s “best new ingredients” by Food & Wine magazine, was practically nonexistent this summer. The Copper River run was poor, and prices for kings began at more than $40 a pound, placing it firmly in luxury territory. Consumers want more options when it comes to buying fish: They’re regularly bombarded with advice to eat more of it for better health – yet they’re also constantly warned about pesticides, depleted supplies, contaminants, environmental crises and other red flags.

Affordability is another big selling point: It’s a serious investment to fly fish in from remote Emmonak, but the chum is still cheap compared with its more respected Alaskan cousins – most recently $5.99 per pound for whole fish or $8.99 for fillets at Wild Salmon (compared with $2.99 for non-Yukon chum.)
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Social factors are also influencing consumer choice.  The 320 Yup’ik fishermen of Emmonak have had a rough year with the shrinking  of the chinook, or king, harvests.
Says one high end fish monger, “You’re supporting an economy, you’re supporting a people that have got a history and a culture that also goes with the fish. … Everybody wins.”
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Fishy Links
Over past three years since this post was first written, I’ve become more aware of the complexity of Fish Politics, particularly the vulnerability of fish stocks and of the lives of the those who catch them for us.   I continue to add to the list below.

“Drug waste harms fish: Discharges from pharmaceutical factories contaminate rivers on three continents. Nature. 15 Aug 2011.  Here’s a quote: United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and France do not have regulations limiting the concentrations of pharmaceuticals released into the aquatic environment in either municipal wastewater or in effluent from manufacturing facilities. “People think drug release is regulated, but its not,” says Joakim Larsson, a pharmacologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and an author of one of the Indian studies.”..

“Alaska Fishermen Circle their Boats to Fight Mine.” By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, Aug 4, 2010.

The Pebble Blog is a developing online discussion moderated by the Anchorage Daily News.

The Monterey Aquarium has just updated their Seafood Watch pocket guides for consumers.  There are guides for every region of the US and for sushi eaters.

Sea Grant Alaska’s bookstore has great publications on the various fisheries, seafood handling, marine research, identification guides, aquaculture, safety, coastal development, marine recreation and conservation, and response to oil spills.  A favorite is Terry Johnson’s OceanTreasure:  Commercial Fishing in Alaska.

New England cod and haddock fisheries are 37 times more dangerous than being a cop!  Fishing in Alaska, however, has become safer (possibly prompted by two disastrous same-day capsizings of new mega crabbers and the deaths of 14 young people from Ancortes, Washington, poignantly reported by Joe Upton in Bering Sea Blues.)  “Trying To Tame The (Real) Deadliest Fishing Jobs” is an August 22, 2012 report from the Center for Public Integrity, WBUR in Boston and NPR News.   See also CPI’s Hard Labor reporting. on workplace safety.

 

 

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