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Sep 8, 2006 03:07 PM

The Moral Dilemma of a Chowhound

I just read the NY Times article about how over-fishing (and over eating) has led to the depletion of 90% of the ocean's stock of predatory fish like tuna and cod and how eating big fish is damaging to the environment.

Am I relegated to a life of culinary asceticism if want to be environmentally conscious as well?

What's the right balance between being eco-friendly and being a full-fledged chowhood who loves to indulge and experience food?

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  1. Yeah, this is sad. I vividly recall, in elementary school, watching those Jacques Cousteau movies they'd show, where Cousteau would talk about the "limitless bounty" of the sea, and how that was our planet's key to feeding the booming population, etc.

    Now, it seems we've spoiled it, through overfishing and treating the seas as our toilet and the repository of our industrial wastes.

    I don't have a good answer for you, except that as an ethical and conscientous consumer and 'hound, you make choices consciously, simply meaning (for example), if you know that swordfish stocks are being depleted but that halibut is plentiful, and the menu offers both and they both sound good to you, go for the halibut.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mikester

      Actually, the "limitless bounty" of Cousteau and others was never there, unless we were prepared to start eating 'way down the food chain (zooplankton fritters, anyone?). Most of the productivity of the sea is confined to a relatively narrow zone along the shore, and not even all shores. The vast majority of the ocean has the biological productivity of a desert.

    2. I think moderation is the key to most, if not all our problems. For example, one acre of ocean produces 1000 times mussel meat as one acre of pasture produces beef. While I love beef, I now eat more mussels than beef (I love mussels too!). It takes about 20 lbs of grain to produce one pound of beef -- I eat more grains and veg than meat.

      We eat far too much "protein" I think -- we also waste a TREMENDOUS amount of food, of all types.

      I love to indulge too -- but surely we can indulge with smaller portions, learn to cook/season/spice some of our more plentiful foods in new and exciting ways, and only eat our rarer foods more rarely!

      And it would also help us become a less obese nation. And help reduce food wastage, and need less landfill space, and perhaps we would be able to provide more food for starving children, nations, etc.

      There's a lot we can do, and still indulge our passions. . .

      1. Yeah, I think making more informed choices about what and how much we eat is the best way to go.

        I love eating and enjoying new food experiences. But I sometime feel pangs of guilt (blame it on all that fire and brimstone upbringing) about enjoying food too much. I am alway amazed by those types of people who "forget to eat" or who would be just as happy eating a stale piece of bread as they would be eating a juicy steak. I spend the morning daydreaming about what I'm going to cook for dinner or what I plan on eating on the weekend!

        I have made some changes to my diet though. I try to only buy free-range stuff and grass fed beef. It is more expensive so I can afford a lot less and therefore eat a lot less meat. I also try to buy things that are grown locally.

        Sigh, but everytime I read articles like this, it is a reality check...

        1. I don't think being an ethical eater and being a Chowhound are mutually exclusive. Seafood is tricky, but on land often times the more ethical and environmentally friendly foods are also the tastiest. Pork raised on a small farm on a diet of apples, walnuts and cream tastes a heck of a lot better than factory feedlot dreck. Same goes for all meat, dairy, eggs and produce; artisinal producers create a superior tasting product that is also more environmentally sustainable. And of course, moderation is the key to everything.

          1. As a former oceanographer (long story), it has always cracked me up that some folks who don't eat meat/poultry for "environmental" reasons but still ate fish. That's preposterous. I guess people feel like because the oceans are so big its resources are infinitely renewable. Obviously that's not the case.

            What makes managing these resources more difficult is the fact that fish populations are inherently and naturally unstable, largely dependent upon cyclical weather phenomena which are also being affected by global climate change. So once you through heavy extraction by humans into the mix you have a real management headache on your hands. It remains to be seen if it can be done sustainably.

            The politicization of environmental matters on both sides makes it difficult for sound scientific reasoning to come to the table in regulatory decision making, so any action or inaction on that front is unlikely to be effective. That's one of the reasons I left the field. Some day people will understand that environmental concerns are fundamental to all other aspects of a society's success and sustainability.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Lowbar

              What are your opinions on farming of fish and seafood? That seems to be the trend. I've read lots of pros and cons.

              1. re: cheryl_h

                I recognize that you’re addressing your question to Lowbar because he mentioned he was an oceanographer at one time. I’ve been making my living as a marine biologist for nearly the last 40 years, so perhaps you won’t mind me jumping in here and giving you my somewhat long-winded perspective. Fish and seafood farming unquestionably damages the “natural” environment, if by the term “natural” we mean whatever was there before, assuming what was there before was relatively unimpacted by human activity. That’s true of all farming anywhere, no matter how carefully and conscientiously conducted, since the beginning of agriculture some 7,000 years ago. A corn field, even an organic one, is not natural and represents the destruction of the natural environment that preceded it. The same is true for a wheat field, an orchard, or a cattle ranch. Whenever we take an area of land (or ocean) and alter it and its inhabitants to suit our own purposes (i.e., to produce food), we have created something that is not natural and therefore detrimental to whatever is natural – that’s as true for fish farming as it is for the production of organic vegetables.

                It’s pretty obvious that the human population is unsustainable at its current level without agriculture (some may say that’s a good thing – I’m addressing only the scientific side of the issue so I take no position on that) and the precipitous declines in marine food species are analogous to what would obviously happen to the population of, say, gray squirrels if all farming/ranching of meat were suddenly stopped. Even small populations of hunter-gatherers, which is what we are in terms of the oceans, can wipe out large populations of their prey.

                Now, understanding that and continuing the analogy to land-based agriculture, I doubt that many of us would prefer we return to a hunter-gatherer society where the men go off in the morning to hunt deer or anything else that moves and the women occupy their time grubbing around for edible roots and berries. We accept the alteration of some of what was “natural” in return for a reliable food source which in turn provides us with, among other things, the spare time to chat about it on the internet.

                We are at the point with seafood farming where we were with land-based agriculture several millennia ago, just evolving out of our prior hunter-gatherer mode of operation. I suspect that there is nothing that will stop that process (again – I’m not saying “should stop that process,” which is another [non-scientific] question entirely), and so some areas of the seas, and some marine species, will be forever changed to suit our purposes. Other areas and species, for various reasons, will be more-or-less impacted indirectly or relatively unimpacted. I submit that the question, and the challenge, is not to decide simply “if” we should farm the seas, but rather “how” we can do so with minimal impact, recognizing that we will never reduce that impact to zero.

                1. re: FlyFish

                  Anthropologists estimate that in most hunter gatherer cultures the men and women worked 15-20 hours a week on average to take care of their needs and spent the rest of their time in leisure. In the states, you need to work at least double that, if not triple, to feed, clothe and shelter your family. We've regressed!

                  1. re: FlyFish

                    Very well stated. I can assure you that as a marine biologist, FlyFish can give you much better insight than an one-time physical oceanography researcher (me).

                    I should have taken a different tone in my earlier post. I did not mean to insinuate that eating wild-caught fish was unethical...I am in no position to cast such judgements. I was just expressing some ongoing dissatisfaction with the general apaprent disinterest in the decline of global fisheries, and the implied supposition that the sea brings us an endless supply of of tasty and renewable fish protien. The problem of course is not catching and eating wild fish, but the capability which now exists to catch so many fish so effectively, to serve such a demand from so many people, that humans can make a serious (and in some cases potentially extinction-level) dent in wild fish populations.

                    Aquaculture as it presently exists carries its own extensive list of evils. There is a lot of progress yet to be made toward sustainable wild fisheries...similarly, there is significant room for improvement, you could say, in aquaculture operations. I would agree that the "if" question is, at this point, less relevant than the "how." And how effectively we meet that challenge of how we humans get our food, our energy, etc, may be the ultimate determinant of the fate of humans and population growth.

                    In addition to the very good points made by FlyFish, I would offer two issues which environmentalists tend to point to with aquaculture, that I think are, at the very least, valid concerns to raise when thinking about fish farming.

                    1) Same problem you have with other forms of large-scale animal raising: a high concentration of fecal matter making its way to and through nearby waterways. A much more significant problem than it might seem...such an influx of nutrients (not to mention potential for carrying disease to wild species) can be disasterous to local ecosystems. See: Hog farms of North Carolina, decimation of Chesapeake Bay.

                    2) For every kilogram of fish produced via aquaculture, several kilograms of wild fish are taken as many as 20x for some species, which raises some sustainability questions...particularly in light of the fact that most of the fish being harvested as feed (anchovies, whiting, mackerel, etc) have already been fished to or over what our best guesses at "safe limits" are. In this respect, aquaculture actually contributes to overfishing.

                    1. re: Lowbar

                      Another physical oceanographer checking in -- who knew we had so many marine scientist chowhounds?

                      It's hard to get to the "how" without a better general awareness of the importance of answering that question carefully. With declining research dollars going to marine science (and science in general), it becomes more difficult to make good policy decisions without support for understanding their effects on the complex ecosystems we hope to manage.

                      1. re: Lowbar

                        Thank you all for your thoughtful replies. I have assumed that farming was the way of the future but a lot of what I've read about the Norwegian salmon industry worries me. It's a pity there isn't a global effort to share information and lay out informed policy for the future.