Thursday, February 21, 2013

Blah blah biodiversity…what about ethodiversity?

Last week, I discussed the concept of sustainability as it relates to seafood. I reviewed a recent critique aired on National Public Radio (NPR) and shared my own views on one of the major challenges in evaluating seafood choices: uncertainty. You may also be interested in a blog entry by Bridge Environment’s parent organization, The Ocean Foundation, which shares some data and observations about the seeming gap in addressing uncertainty or even overfishing in seafood certification efforts. This week, I will discuss another major challenge: ethodiversity.

Fig. 1--see for more hilarity
I thought I would be clever and create that word myself, from the Greek root etho, meaning value. Turns out I’m way behind those innovators in workforce management: you know, the ones who do everything from hanging motivational posters (see Fig. 1) to organizing trust falls for better teamwork. They’ve been at ethodiversity for over a decade.

I realize that I’m stepping into a snake pit here. Political parties (one in particular) and many news organizations in the US seem to have recently developed bad cases of ethoxenophobia (ha, take that workforce management types, I coined a new word after all, now adding the Greek root xenos, which means strange or different). The general public is clearly receptive to ethoxenophobia, as evidenced by the Citadel, “A Community of Liberty” (as seen on the Daily Show). Don’t worry about liberty translating into ethodiversity, though. According to the Citadel’s website, “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals and Establishment Republicans will likely find that life in our community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles.” If you are a hopeful “progressive” Democrat noting that progressives were not mentioned and hoping that you might fit in to a community living in a heavily fortified walled castle…sorry—I’m pretty sure the people organizing the Citadel consider you a Socialist if you voted Democrat and Marxist if you did so happily.

Anyway, back to seafood. Last week I made my plea to bring back meaning to the word sustainable, specifically the ability for current management systems to either restrain fishing pressure or respond to future changes in such a way that the stock and fishery remain healthy. But, I realize that I am swimming against a strong current and, let’s be realistic, I don’t have the swimming skills or singular focus of a salmon. Here’s what I am up against. When most people offer you an opinion about sustainable seafood, what they are really doing is telling you what they would like you to eat, not what choice fits your values. This makes a huge difference because of (did you see this coming?) ethodiversity!

Fig. 2--a plate full of deliciousness
Let’s take dolphin-safe tuna as an example, which may have been first ever effort to use labeling to change fishing practices. This label goes back to 1990 and is particularly effective in the US, where virtually all tuna carries this certification. It was designed to discourage the practice where fishers encircle pods of dolphins with purse seine nets in order to catch schools of tuna (adult yellowfin tuna often travel below pods of dolphins). If only life were as black and white as most ethoxenophobes would have you believe, the label might have solved all of our problems. But life is more complex. Purse seiners still catch tuna in the same waters but now often set their nets around floating material, for example seaweed, driftwood, or specially designed fish aggregation devices. Floating material attracts ocean life. Smaller fish will move towards it for shelter and possibly food from the material itself or organisms that have grown on it. Larger fish come to eat smaller fish. In this manner, floating material often ends up hosting a whole miniature ecosystem. When seines are set around such a system, they may not catch dolphins but they do unintentionally catch a wide array of organisms ranging from undersized tuna to sharks and perhaps the occasional turtle. Much of this incidental catch is unmarketable and gets thrown overboard. For reasons that reflect the underlying ecology, when purse seines are set around dolphins, they have less of this incidental catch but at the expense of the occasional dolphin.

Now, which fleet would you rather buy tuna from: the one risking dolphins or the one killing a broader range of sea life? But no…you, my loyal readers are smart and must be asking, “Why can’t we just catch tuna without risking these other creatures?” The fact is, we can, but the cost of doing so would drive the price of canned tuna to prices the market would not support. That leaves us with four choices: cheap tuna that risks dolphins, cheap tuna that risks other sea life, expensive tuna, or eating something else. Ethodiversity dictates that people will view these choices differently and the single dolphin-safe label clearly isn’t enough to promote informed decision-making.

Canned tuna is not alone—sustainable seafood certification processes and other forms of seafood labeling and ranking share this problem. Groups like the Marine Stewardship Council, featured in the NPR series, divide seafood into products carrying their blue seal of approval and everything else. Organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium provide three categories: green, yellow, and red. For a busy consumer, such simplification can be extremely useful. Instead of having to learn a great deal about the ecology and economics of fisheries, they can simply look for a label or scan a card to see if something is ok to eat. Unfortunately, ethodiversity is lost in the simplification. Fortunately there are resources if you are interested in being an educated seafood consumer. The US government provides a wealth of information about seafood choices, without picking winners and losers, through NOAA’s website. And though most people don’t look past the green, yellow, and red, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website ( gives detailed information behind their reviews.

In next week’s blog entry, I will encourage you to eat seafood. My pitch only makes sense, though, if you do it in an educated way that reflects your values. Here at Bridge Environment we think the world is a better place because of ethodiversity and do what we can to support it.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

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