Ethics of a Fish Dinner

by Jonathan Wallace

Once a year, the Wallace family gets together on a summer weekend. This year, it fell to me to host the gathering in Amagansett. My brother Richard, the professor of environmental policy, accompanied me to the fish market to buy a slab of fish that would feed eleven people. Chalked on the blackboard at the market were choices: we could buy wild or farmed salmon. "Where is the wild salmon from?" Richard asked. "Alaska," was the answer. "And the farmed salmon?" "Canada." "East or West?" "I don't know." We left with a huge 5.5 pound filet of wild Alaska salmon the size of a paving stone, the biggest cut of fish I have ever cooked.

When we got it home, the only thing we agreed on was that we were going to cook it on the grill. Everyone had a different suggestion: rub it in olive oil; add spices; throw it on just as it was; wrap it in tin foil; place it on the hot grill skin side down and turn it after a few minutes. I chose to cook it Richard's way: directly on the grill, with nothing on it but salt and pepper. It was delicious that way, which finally settled all the disagreements.

Years ago I remember an old friend remarking over lunch, "I don't really care very much about the environment", and feeling very displeased with her, not just because I felt she should care about forests and the ocean, but because I felt she was wilfully ignorant of the fact that the environment was more personal still, comprising herself and her immediate surroundings. So that her statement was tantamount to saying, "I don't care if my clothes or my apartment are clean." Since the environment consists of the sum total of our surroundings, environmental issues are pervasive, including the ugly black splotches of gum on city sidewalks and the quality of the air on subway platforms.

Similarly, when I started the Ethical Spectacle, I understood that ethical issues are also pervasive, and that in fact we make dozens of ethical decisions each day. Deciding whether to return the extra quarter in change a store clerk accidentally handed you, or whether to give a quarter to a panhandler in the subway, are both ethical decisions you might make any day of your life in New York, and some of these minor decisions are of surprising complexity (for example, giving money to a panhandler may not be in his best interests). What kind of career you choose, what kinds of things you tolerate or take a stand against, what automobile you drive and whether you talk on your cell-phone while driving it are all ethical decisions.

All environmental decisions are ethical ones; choices related to the environment are a major subset of the ethical decisions we make each day. I was amused and instructed by the importance of the choices we made in buying a piece of fish.

If you are like most Westerners, every week you go to the supermarket and you buy chicken or beef without thinking about the implications of the fact that the animals were raised on a farm. Nobody hunted your cow or chased your chicken through the woods.

Ask yourself when you last ate any meat which was caught rather than raised. Unless you yourself hunt for sport, your answer might be "never" or "not sure". Before I stopped eating red meat entirely, I ordered venison sometimes in restaurants, but despite being presented as a "game" meat, it may have been farmed rather than hunted.

With the fish that you eat, the situation is the exact opposite. Until a few decades ago, every pound of fish you ate in a year was caught rather than farmed (except possibly catfish). Now this is beginning to turn--increasingly your dinner of salmon, tilapia or trout, may come from an acquaculture facility somewhere.

With meat, the change from a hunting to a farming economy took place centuries ago and is an extremely logical one. In much of the world, there isn't enough wild land left, let alone game on it, to feed billions of people. Hunting is also unreliable, especially as the game gets scarcer. By raising animals, we can coordinate supply and demand better, so that if you want a piece of a cow for your family's dinner on Friday, someone only has to say, "I will kill one for you," not "let me see if I can catch one for you." (The names of dishes like "hunter's chicken" are very entertaining, suggesting that this is what hunters eat for dinner when they couldn't find a deer.) We can also control the quality better, making sure the meat will be exactly the tenderness that you want, and not the tough gamy flesh of some angry, muscular survivor animal that has evaded the hunters until now.

Looked at this way, it is remarkable that we continued hunting the ocean for centuries after we switched to raising farm animals on land. The explanation of course is that the oceans were immense, covering much more of the earth's surface than the land, and we were able to continue believing that fish stocks were inexhaustible. In recent decades, this belief system has collapsed along with various fish stocks. There was a time when there was an East Coast U.S. salmon fishery. Now the fish are gone; when someone caught a salmon off Long Island a few years ago in a net full of striped bass, it was news, an event of extreme rarity. The Long Island striper fishery collapsed a few years ago, but the fish are now making a come-back after a few years of stringent federal regulation.

I have been scuba diving on and off for more than a quarter century. When I first dived the Florida Keys in the late seventies, you could sometimes still see a large grouper on the reef; within ten years you never saw any, as they had all been caught for someone's dinner. The average size of large species like tuna and swordfish has radically declined, as we catch every adult fish long before it has a chance to grow to full size. I heard years ago that we catch every adult lobster along the Florida coast before it has a chance to reproduce; the only reason there continue to be Florida lobsters is that the planktonic spawn of Caribbean lobsters floats in every year.

Some of the delicacies we buy at the fish market consist of endangered species which have not yet been protected by international treaty or federal law. For example, there is a persuasive case that you should never buy Chilean sea bass (known as Patagonian toothfish until renamed by the marketing people). Increasingly, we eat species that were thought of as trash fish just a few years ago (eg, tile fish, monkfish), but which come to our tables now as substitutes for more familiar species which have become harder to get.

And we haven't yet mentioned the environmental impact of the way in which we chase and catch the declining numbers of smaller fish. Tuna for some reason swim with dolphins, which are air-breathing mammals; hundreds of thousands of dolphins are drowned every year in tuna nets. Similarly, sea turtles drown in shrimp nets. Most types of nets catch species other than the ones they are set for. Here on the East End of Long Island, the bay-men (local families who made a living from the ocean for centuries) practiced a style of fishing where they would attach one end of a net to a truck on the beach and two other ends to dories (row boats) in the water. They were after stripers but the nets would indiscriminately catch many other species of no interest to them. I remember a trip to Montauk in 1972 in which we saw thousands of dead sea robins, puffers and other fish rotting on the beach, the "by-catch" of one such set by the bay-men. (This type of fishing has now been banned because of its destructiveness. Read Peter Matthiessen's Men's Lives for an account of the baymen and their style of fishing.) Similarly, today's huge ocean trawlers throw tons of unwanted dead fish back into the ocean.

Technology as usual is a neutral force, blindly playing good and evil roles simultaneously. "Turtle excluder devices" and nets which will allow dolphin and even unwanted fish species to escape have been designed, though there is a lack of international monitoring to make sure they are being used properly. On the other hand, nets have become larger and are now routinely dragged across the bottom, crushing coral or destoying seabed, to make sure nothing escapes. (The industry's phrase for removing every living thing from an area of the seabed is "biomass extraction"). Long-liners set individual hooks on miles of line that also catch unwanted species which die before they can be freed. "Ghost" nets and longlines break free from boats and drift through the oceans catching fish which will never be harvested by anyone.

One blessing is that there is a very important margin between the commercial collapse of a species and its actual extinction. Fish that are no longer commercially viable to catch may still exist in sufficient numbers to make a come-back.

Given that the economics of hunting the sea are now, due to the pressures of population and technology, aligning themselves with the economics of hunting the land, wouldn't it make sense to promote fish farming? Why did my environmentally sensitive brother choose to buy a wild salmon rather than a farmed one?

The answer is that large acquaculture is causing some of the same problems as large, factory-style agriculture. Salmon farms are not beloved of their neighbors because the fish's wastes foul surrounding waters. Farmed species sometimes escape and may drive out or interbreed with native species (it is a dangerous thing to farm salmon in proximity to a wild fishery). An article in the July 29, 2003 New York Times (the paper has run an interesting series this past week on fishing and acquaculture) reveals the results of a new report that indicates that farmed fish show much higher concentrations of the pollutant PCB than wild ones. The article also points up a discrepancy between the vanishingly small amount of PCB's the EPA will tolerate in wild fish (it publishes advisories that the public should refrain from eating Hudson river striped bass more than once a month) with the concentrations the FDA allows in commercially-sold fish, which are hundreds of times higher. Apparently, the fat content of farmed fish are also much greater.

A month or so ago, there was a truth-in-labelling scandal pertaining to farmed salmon. Wild fish are natrurally pink because they pick up the color from the shrimp which are a major part of their diet. Farmed salmon, fed on other types of feed, have grey flesh. Some distributors were dying the fish pink, afraid that consumers wouldn't want grey salmon.

Despite these problems, I believe that acquaculture is the way of the future, because recent events have definitively shown the almost insurmountable problems involved in maintaining wild fish stocks under insatiable fishing pressure. Even without regulation I think the market will continue to swing in the direction of farmed fish. A little attention (preferably commercial, government if needed) to moderating the environmental impact of fish farms, and ensuring the health and purity of the product, will ease the transition.