A blog of Bridge Environment, updated weekly on Thursdays, travel permitting.
Bridge Environment seeks to catalyze a cultural shift in how our society addresses environmental issues. We provide relevant and unbiased advice to any interested party, and also work to educate scientists, policy makers, and the public on how to have a more informative dialog over environmental issues.
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
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 fishwatch.gov website. And though
most people don’t look past the green, yellow, and red, the Monterey Bay
Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website (seafoodwatch.org) 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.