At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's a Fish Eat Fish World

By Shanna Luster
NAMA's Intern
The Lab School of Washington

As part of my internship with NAMA, I'm learning about the marine ecosystem. And in the process I have learned that the ocean is a fish-eat-fish world and at the heart of that food web are pelagic fish.
Pelagic fish are the food source of most bony fish, and other ocean animals, like sea birds and sharks. Pelagic fish live in the pelagic zone, which goes from the surface almost to the bottom of the ocean. The pelagic zone can have up to five horizontal layers defined by the amount of light they reserve from the surface. These layers from top to bottom include Epipelagic (sunlight), Mesopelagic (twilight), Bathypelagic (midnight), Abyssopelagic (lower midnight). Pelagic fish range in the size from Blue fin Tuna to a sardine. Pelagic fish numbers are dropping at an alarming rate because of industrial scale purse seines and midwater trawl equipment. Also, global warming is changing the temperature of the ocean, meaning pelagic fish migration patterns change. Since many animals eat pelagic fish, this would also impact there migration patterns.

Humpback whales travel many miles to eat herring. Humpback whales lunge out of the water forcing the herring to go down their throats. When the humpback lunges out of the water to catch the herring most of the herring fly out of the water which gives the sea birds, like the brown pelican a chance to grab the flying  fish. The herring that is left over from the whales' feast is then taken by big schools of bluefin tuna. This symbiotic food chain is an example of how essential pelagic fish are. If all of the Pelagic fish leave the oceans, all of the ocean life will be affected, as will we. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hey Big Box Boats - We Got a Bone to Pick

By Russell Kingman
Fisherman, Chatham MA
Guest Blogger

I was down at the dock the other day talking with a scalloper. He said, "Listen to this! So this rich guy has a "ne'er-do-well" son who barely makes it through college. The father doesn't know what to do with his lazy spoiled son so he buys him a scallop business." Incredulously I ask, "He bought him a scallop boat? What could be a harder, more labor intensive job than that of a scalloper?” "No, no, no!" says my friend, “the father didn't buy the kid a boat......he bought him scallop quota."

Russell Kingman aboard the F/V Lester F.
Photo Credit: Shareen Davis
I had to pause and digest the absurdity of this anecdote. It turns out that buying up scallop quota is like buying stock on the stock market. You can own the rights to a stock (in the case of scallops owners control a % of the total allowable catch per year) and these rights can be traded, bought, and sold.

The two of us sat on the dock, bantering about the absurd situation that has developed in fisheries. Walmart is investing in it, Wall Street, and nameless other firms are buying fish quotas along all our coasts. Why?

Fisheries have been commoditized. It just makes me crazy to think that some large company in the mid-west, or Asia or anywhere, could own the fishing rights where I live, and I'd have to lease these rights in order to put my nets in the water... and then hand over most of the profits from my labor when the day is done. 

That's why I have a bone to pick with big box boat fisheries.

Recently I attended ‘Terre Madre’ in Torino, Italy. This massive Slow Food conference brings together smaller-scale food producers and advocates from around the world. I was there to participate in a growing movement called Slow Fish.

In my view, the purpose of Slow Fish is to find ways to save smaller-scale fisheries from extinction. Over the course of 5 days together with 50 other fisher folk from around the globe, we identified issues and solutions that small-scale fisheries share in common. Among the most pressing of topics was the corporatizing of fisheries and what this will ultimately do to the small-scale fisheries. Which btw, represents 90% of all fisheries in the world yet only accounts for a small fraction of the total catch.

Ultimately, we see a growing trend of small-scale fishers becoming share-croppers on the ocean and the rights, or quota, funnel into the hands of a wealthy few. Let's face it. Large corporations will squeeze any possible profit out of the fishery. Does anyone really believe that big box business will take care of the environment? Employees? Community?

It’s no wonder why so many fishermen I know are pessimistic about the future health of the ocean and coastal communities. Can you blame them?

That's why I feel that Terre Madre.... and other networks that are uniting small-scale fishers to take back their access and control over the local food system are so important. Quota or rights to fish should be controlled by the community, not an investment firm or the son of a wealthy entrepreneur. In Alaska, fishers were able to legislate that you cannot control quota UNLESS YOU ARE ACTUALLY ON THE BOAT. That is brilliant! That's one of the keys to returning quota back to the fishers themselves.

There were many other subjects discussed at Terra Madre concerning small fisheries. For now, I just wanted to point out how disastrous it will be if we continue the trend of corporatizing our fisheries.  It doesn't work for communities and it won't work for the environment either.

Thanks Russell! Folks can learn more about our Who Fishes Matters campaign and take immediate action to fight Big Box Boats and support community-based fisheries by clicking here:

Thursday, November 29, 2012


by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

As the hybrid hurricane Sandy recently demonstrated to Northeasterners, Bob Dylan got it just about right – our waters are indeed growing and changing. Although Dylan may not have been specifically referring to the ocean, it applies. And, in our use of ocean resources, it’s time to swim with the currents of change.

In the face of environmental change, ecosystems must be resilient to remain healthy and functional, and likewise fisheries. In order for fisheries to be resilient and to enhance the resilience of ecosystems, the fishing fleet must be flexible and management must be nimble and responsive. That is not the direction they’ve been heading.

Resilience of an ecosystem is its capacity to respond to major changes or disruptions by resisting damage and recovering quickly. Biological resilience, we know, is enhanced by a healthy and diverse complement of species—such rich biodiversity enables ecosystems to be flexible and adaptable when environmental changes occur.  Similarly, a flexible fleet that can and will disperse and differentiate itself in harmony with changing spatial patterns of the ecosystem and its fish populations is likely to be more resilient to environmental changes on a wide range of scales.

A diverse fleet of smaller boats--even a sizable, though not unlimited, number--are able to fish a diversity of species throughout the year and with smaller, diverse, switchable gear. Are you beginning to see the value of diversity? This strategy avoids overly intensive fishing on select areas that can lead to pock marks of fish depletions scattered across an ecosystem. A diverse smaller-scale fleet that is attentive to what is happening in the fishery ecosystem can be flexible enough to reduce pressure on vulnerable species, to quickly switch to new species as seasons change, and to adapt as environmental change brings in new species and drives changes in relative abundances of fishery species.

Since fisheries are responsive to markets, flexibility is important there as well. The fishery in general is more resilient when it can serve diverse local markets flexible enough to vary and value a wider selection of species. This is a route to effective ecosystem based fisheries management

Contrary to this desirable pattern, consolidation of the fishing fleet has resulted as management has continually favored bigger boats, regionalized wholesale markets, and global trade of fish. But an ever-shrinking fleet, composed primarily of big boats, has little resilience in the face of large or small ecosystem changes. By nature, large-scale fishing depletes target fish populations even further, as it concentrates heavy fishing pressure on fewer and fewer hot spots where fish are dense enough to be profitable. And at the same time this design of fishing, encouraged by fisheries management, continues to devalue co-caught species and discard or otherwise waste them.

Total catch of regional fleets has continued to be severely restricted because fish populations are not recovering fast enough or are continuing to decline. And the small boat fleet is dwindling, as management measures make it too expensive for them to stay in business. The movement of fisheries management toward catch limits has unnecessarily turned in the direction of privatization, which drives access to fish (a.k.a. shares) into the hands of those who can afford it—ever fewer boats and larger operations, targeting fewer species of fish for growing global markets.

Even as it shrinks, the fleet becomes ever more efficient at catching ever fewer species. This contributes to destabilization of ecosystems, so it cannot persist. A consolidated, monolithic fleet is a short-term fleet and must roam to stay afloat.

In times of environmental change and persistently limited fisheries resources, only flexible and resilient, smaller-boat fleets grounded in communities, will survive and foster the revival of diverse and vibrant local marine ecosystems. So it does indeed matter who catches the annual allowable catch and how and where they do it. As the planet changes, who fishes matters.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Fishing, Food Sovereignty, and La Via Campesina

By guest blogger Jennifer Brewer
Assistant Professor, Department of Geography
Assistant Scientist, Institute for Coastal Science and Policy

East Carolina University

NAMA recently had a great opportunity to send a representative to the North America Region and International Policy meetings of La Via Campesina in Mexico City, and as a long time collaborator with NAMA I was the fortunate person to be this representative.  We owe this occasion to the National Family Farm Coalition, of which NAMA is a member group.

La Via Campesina can be translated as the Peasant Way, or maybe the Country Route.  It is an international network of groups working for food sovereignty – the idea that ordinary people should be able to control the production, harvesting, and consumption of food themselves.  La Via opposes genetically modified crops, the consolidation of agricultural land through political and economic pressures on small and medium sized farms, global warming, and depletion of natural resources.  It supports fair treatment of rural workers, human rights, and opportunities for new farmers.  Many of its member groups run programs to strengthen rural communities, discourage outmigration, encourage sustainable food production, educate consumers, create local and regional food markets, and protect human rights.  So many people affiliated with the movement are doing such amazing work, in all corners of the world.  It was a deeply humbling, moving, encouraging, and inspiring experience to meet some of their representatives in Mexico.  

So what does this have to do with fishing?  A lot, as it turns out.  First, La Via Campesina has been a movement of both farmers and fisherpeople, but the fishing part has been less active. Until now! There are many commonalities between our fishing and farming experiences, but three I want to talk about are strengthening food communities, participatory governance, and the need for social change strategies that work on multiple fronts.  

Stronger Food Communities

Communities reliant on fishing, farming, and forestry have independently come to similar conclusions that their long term interests are best served by diversified economies.  Natural resource businesses are often more flexible in adapting to social and ecological change if they are small to medium scale, can shift production among a range of species, use appropriate technology, and don’t carry too much debt.  Communities as a whole are stronger if they include both experienced and newer producers, and a number of business models.  This means providing opportunities for new businesses and innovations.  Consumers are better off if they have diversified options, from a number of producers, and aren’t just stuck with whatever the multinational conglomerates are determined to sell them, by hook or by crook.

In fishing, we’ve seen what federal investment tax breaks did in the 1980s.  They left us with a fleet of large boats owned by non-operators investors, with technology capable of wiping out the entire groundfishery.  The owner-operated and smaller boat fleets are hanging on, but the price of quota, the politics of sectors (a new fishery management scheme in New England), and the depletion of some fish populations have made it impossible for most young people to start their own businesses.  Similarly, one of the biggest obstacles preventing many family farmers from implementing more environmentally sustainable food production is the huge debt they owe on land and machinery – making it hard to take the risk of experimenting with new crops or cultivation practices, and hard for young people to even think about farming.  In the food distribution system, we’ve seen that multinational food conglomerates promote foods that are laden with bad fats, excessive salt, sugars, and starches, pesticides, preservatives, colorings, genetically modified ingredients, and various additives.  Our blind trust in these companies leaves us with serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, allergies, and cancer.

But the up side is that people who care about food sovereignty are building alternative routes to enter fishing and farming industries.  States and non-profits have started fishing permit banks with the idea that less expensive fishery access should help support new entrants.  Similarly, farming organizations across New England and the Americas have apprenticeships, internships, training programs, experimental farms, seed loans, and land trusts.  These kinds of programs offer new fishermen and farmers the space they need to learn, experiment, and take risks.  Community Supported Agriculture and Community Supported Fisheries projects are providing us with many new shopping alternatives, and other local markets for healthy and sustainably produced goods are thriving.  We need more such opportunities, but at least these models are helping us to learn from our mistakes, and figure out what works.

Political Engagement

A lot of work by NAMA and our collaborators is very specific to fishing – advocating for particular regulatory issues, developing alternative seafood markets, educating consumers on where their fish comes from and why they should care.  But a lot of our work is as much about bigger picture food system and natural resource issues.  Our work persistently asks who will be the future harvesters and producers of food, and whether or not we are on track to sustain food production systems on land and at sea.  We help consumers understand that their decisions about what to eat, and where to buy food, affect how that food is produced, and what food producing businesses, communities, and land and sea are like – how they steward environmental resources, and how they treat neighbors and co-workers.  We help people think about what kind of society we want to live in, what kind of planet we want to leave behind.  So many of you are doing so much to build new food systems, and this mostly local work is so important.  

It seems to me, though, that many of these experiments are working because they put people in closer contact with each other, on a personal level.  They make people more active participants in their eating decisions.  They make people think about things they otherwise take for granted.  They allow people to make more informed decisions about, and perhaps have more influence on, their food supplies.  If we can do that on the personal level, at the local level, can we also take some lessons learned to a larger scale of change?  People are learning more about their food, and helping more to produce and prepare it.  Do they now have things to say that are relevant about the kinds of food that are available to our children in school, to people receiving social services, to other public and quasi-public institutions such as hospitals, prisons, universities, museums, and government buildings?  Can we take some of our new-found knowledge and will to the political level?  Can we create legal structures that allow more public participation in food system decision making across the board, not just in our own homes and neighborhoods?  Not to tell other people what to eat, but to offer them more choices, and more information?  Can we develop policies that foster even faster growth of sustainable and responsible food systems across national and international levels?  Can we start assisting change from the top down as well as the bottom up?  Can we turn all this amazing human capital into political capital?  Can we envision new ways of making food-related decisions as a broader society, just as we’ve envisioned (and now practice!) new ways of making food decisions as individuals?  Can we question the existing structures that govern food systems at a grand scale and propose more democratic and participatory alternatives?  
NAMA's Who Fishes Matters Fight the Big Box Boat banner amongst all the other banners in Mexico City.
Multiple Fronts

Lastly, I am reminded how necessary it is that we work toward food sovereignty on multiple fronts.  We need people who want to produce food more sustainably, and are willing to take financial risks to do so.  We need people who want to market food locally and educate consumers, and will invest the time and energy.  We need people with the courage to take to the streets and bring public attention to realities that some people might find easier to forget.  We need people in the media – writing for newspapers, posting video and audio on the internet, blogging.  We need people who will run for public office, or campaign for candidates who understand these issues.  We need people who know how to lobby – to explain to public servants how some policies and regulations move the public interest forward and others set us back.  We need scientists – ones who care more about reality of lived experience than about the abstractions that might earn them promotions and honors.  We need community organizers, to make sure the food sovereignty movement reaches as many people as possible.  We need teachers, who can help the next generation figure out which pieces of their social and environmental inheritance they want to embrace, and what they want to change.  We need cooks and chefs, in homes and restaurants, to help people enjoy foods that are both delicious and responsible.  We need bookkeepers, shopkeepers, laborers, investors, all sorts of people with different skills and talents to make food sovereignty happen, to build a strong movement.

So I’ll get off my soapbox now.  I was just so impressed that when I told people in NAMA’s network about my recent acquaintance with La Via Campesina, so many responded with such enthusiasm and appreciation.  Several people offered very specific comments that helped me to think more about what the trip means for our work collective work.  Because of the generous support and commentaries in response to my trip, AND because the work La Via Campesina is doing is so inspiring and encouraging, I am especially pleased for this opportunity to collect some of those thoughts here on this blog and offer them for more public consideration.  There are moments in life when we find ourselves in situations that seem to be etching themselves deeply into our memories, like our senses are suddenly more awake than before, like our whole lives are shifting course a little.  This trip felt like one of those moments… 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Farmed Fish Follies, Part III: The US Plan for Aquaculture Development

by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

NAMA recently submitted comments to the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture, an interagency committee associated with the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology, on the Draft National Aquaculture Research and Development Strategic Plan. As I read through the proposed plan I realized how old I am - old enough to know that exciting and innovative research that could have inspired a different path for aquaculture in this country and the world has been forgotten or never seen by most, though not by me.

Some of that promising work was prevalent in the 60s and 70s, when efforts such as the New Alchemists in Falmouth, MA and the Environmental Systems Laboratory at nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution led by such creative scientists as John Todd and John Ryther respectively. The influence of visionaries like Buckminster Fuller is obvious in some of the aquaculture designs that emerged during that time. I myself was involved in a bit of multi-species, land-based aquaculture research, though it was far from the forefront of all that was being explored at the time.

The US government was putting money into many of these research efforts, which included, among other innovations, the integration of fish aquaculture into farm and greenhouse operations so that wastes were recycled productively; the use of aquaculture to treat sewage wastes; experimenting with a diversity of species; and polyculture (several different species grown together or in connected sequential cultures) to clean water and/or grow marketable products -- all these in systems that created no net waste and used no valuable wild feed resources. They were enhancements to the environment while providing functioning living systems and useful products, including food, seaweed extracts,  attractive functioning wetlands, etc. Both fresh water and marine aquaculture systems were designed. The federal government while, investing in research that produced innovation and potential for the future, ended its investment there and did not support the development of these designs into commercial-scale systems. Some researchers and visionaries like John Todd went on to use private funding and community investment to install living systems that improve environmental quality for municipalities, resorts, and private business.

The graphic below, from Dr. John Todd, illustrates how ecological aquaculture can be an integral part of a whole earth system.  You can view and learn more about this image and explore innovative systems, like the Four Seasons' fish pond in Hawaii, at the Ocean Arks International website.

Researchers who remained in academia and reliant upon federal funding had to abandon their innovative aquaculture work and move on to other things.  And now we see an interagency proposal for research and development coming out of the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture that gives no credit to this earlier research or current endeavors and proposes proceeding down a path emphasizing "innovation" that sees marine aquaculture as a source of massive food production. There is some recognition of the potential for aquaculture to improve environmental quality; but it is without recognition of the designs that have been worked out already. Do they plan to do the research all over again?

NAMA does not welcome or see benefit in the substitution of marine aquaculture for fisheries; and we find proposals for industrial scales of aquaculture that mimic industrial agriculture to be frustratingly unimaginative. But "research and development" is headed in that direction, with indications that innovation means doing the same thing, just a bit better, eg. finding alternative food sources that don't strip the ocean of wild forage, building stronger cages or floating cages in the currents, engineering sterile stocks, breeding or engineering meatier strains, etc.  But these are not innovations; they take us down the same path as the green revolution toward the same environmentally disastrous end.

I would suggest that innovative aquaculture in the food system should be a whole lot different than that.   Instead of growing the same seafood species we eat from the wild, aquaculture could be used to clean up and enrich the ecosystems that naturally support those wild populations of fish and shellfish.  Marine habitats, including fishery habitats, are contaminated with toxic and nutrient pollution and many coastal ecosystems suffer from severe habitat degradation due to coastal development and damage from industrial scale fishing.  Aquaculture of seaweeds and shellfish, if done in concert with the ecosystem, can improve those habitats and thereby nurture the recovery of wild fish populations. That certainly seems a more appropriate use of marine aquaculture than fish farms that contribute further to the degradation of marine ecosystems and wild fish populations.

Land-based, closed system aquaculture of marine fish is sometimes recommended as an alternative fish farming design by those concerned by the impacts of open water farming.  However, I would suggest that a better role for land-based marine aquaculture would be to concentrate on easily cultured micro-alge, plankton, and perhaps forage fish to produce the oils and fish-meals, the markets for which now cause the base of the ocean food chain to be plundered on huge scales by industrial fleets.  The omega-3s that we covet begin in the ocean in micro-algae and are passed on to small fish such as menhaden that feed on these algae and concentrate the precious oil and then in turn pass it onto the predatory fish on which we dine. Why not get our dietary supplements and feed additives for farmed animals from closed-system aquaculture instead of robbing the natural food webs of the sea.

And finally there may be an important role for aquaculture food production if it is kept at small scales, involves appropriate and diverse species, and is fully integrated with the rest of the food system.

Some elements of the interagency proposal for aquaculture research and development are seriously misguided and exhibit a lack of vision; e.g:
  • "Globally competitive," should not be the primary driver for US aquaculture since it immediately sends us down the same biologically and socially disastrous road taken by other aquaculture-driven countries like Norway, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, and others. Competition is not an issue, if the US takes an entirely different approach (see below). Taking a different approach, of course, is likely to meet with resistance from those who think it's easier and more profitable to just do what others are doing only do it more successfully with short term economic rewards. That's competitive. That's not what we need.
  • Aquaculture should not be viewed as a separate "sector" functioning in isolation; it should integrate with the food production system, or with ecosystem restoration, or with abatement of negative environmental impacts of other endeavors.
  • Seafood aquaculture should not be a primary vehicle for economic growth or global trade; food is a necessity for life, not an optional commodity; and it should be produced and distributed in each nation or region for the affordable and healthful use of its people, not shipped out to the highest bidder.
Instead the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture might benefit from a look back at the old research and perhaps new research could expand on it. Consult with experts like John Todd and others who have managed to go on with their visions without the help of the federal government. Let's create a completely different plan for aquaculture development in the US that leads the world rather than following the rest of the world into ecologically damaging aquaculture models (e.g. those of Norway, Canada, Chile).

As you can see in our comments we recommend aquaculture policy and development that:
  • Supports wild fisheries;
  • Integrates aquaculture with agriculture;
  • Integrates aquaculture into the food system - with a focus on local not global; and
  • Integrates aquaculture into environmental services.
We propose a new vision for aquaculture in the US:
  1. Aquaculture that is developed in concert with and is supportive of natural ecosystems, ecosystem and environmental services, wildlife habitat needs, wild fisheries, recreational values, and a diverse national food system in harmony with local food sovereignty.
  2. Aquaculture that is:
    • diverse in design and species grown;
    • designed to restore healthy ecosystems and improve habitat for and production of fish populations;
    • consistent with natural diversity and ecosystem carrying capacity;
    • non-exploitive of natural resources;
    • an enhancement to environmental and/or ecosystem services; and
    • without negative environmental impacts.
  3. Aquaculture for food production that has one or more of the following assets:
    • small scale and non-disruptive of ecosystems;
    • land-based and integrated with agriculture;
    • part of an integrated food system;
    • primarily supportive of local markets and local food sovereignty;
    • contributing to affordable, safe, high-quality protein needs of our own communities and health care systems;
    • cultivated species that naturally exist at lower trophic; or when appropriate, polyculture with multiple interacting trophic levels;
    • guided by humane standards of husbandry, stock densities, health and handling of livestock, etc.
  4. Aquaculture models that are environmentally and socially responsible, small scale, locally focused, and are transferable to other locations globally.
  5. Distribution and marketing systems for seafood (both wild caught and cultured) that are locally focused, minimize waste, and feed a broad spectrum of people and base on fair pricing for both producers and consumers.
There may be other worthy and innovative visions, but more of the same is not one of them. Why can't we do this differently? Why must we have a blue revolution that mimics the green revolution with all its inherent problems? That is no kind of vision at all! It's walking backward into the future.

Friday, August 31, 2012

An Inconvenient Shrimp

By Pamela Flash
NAMA Volunteer
Long Island, NY

I have to be honest, my love of shrimp is deeply rooted as my 'go to food' when back in the day I wanted something low calorie and low fat to eat. Of course, this was in the days before we worried about our cholesterol levels. Salad and shrimp cocktail were not going to pack on the pounds.

Back then, I had no idea where my shrimp came from but my guess is that it was wild and lived in the ocean. Now, it's still a challenge to figure out my shrimp's origins and on top of that I find my food choices have become more complicated.

So, it's summer and the perfect time to eat outside, and to eat lots of shellfish. I decided I would try to get a sense of where the shrimp that I order in a restaurant comes from.

Why should you ask where the shrimp (or any animal protein for that matter) is sourced?

Here's why.

The shrimp we order at a restaurant is most likely farm raised. They are fed antibiotics, GMO feed or some other unnerving food source. According to Food and Water Watch, "Fish-lovers would be horrified to learn that huge quantities of fish and shrimp are now being grown in giant nets, cages, and ponds where antibiotics, hormones and pesticides mingle with disease and waste. These industrialized aquaculture facilities are rapidly replacing natural methods of fishing that have been used to catch fresh, wild seafood for millennia."

Not sounding good to me.
A 30-million-square-meter shrimp farm in Indonesia
Another thing to think about is that shrimp are often farm-raised in foreign countries like Indonesia, where the workers rights are questionable and the effects of shrimp farms can be devastating to their ecosystems. And, let us not forget the increased carbon footprint created when shrimp travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to make it to our dinner plate.

In one high-end restaurant I visited recently, I asked, "Can you tell me where the shrimp is from and if it is wild or farm-raised?" The waiter came back with the answer that the shrimp were wild and from Guatemala.

Seriously? I applaud the wild but why couldn't they find a source from the United States?

Since I have been doing my own personal survey in the NYC area, I realized it was not enough to ask where the shrimp is from. I needed to go further. For instance, what about the people who helped harvest and deliver the shrimp? 

Migrant workers work at a shrimp factory in Tailand
Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
So if the shrimp have travelled the world to get to my plate in New York, was everyone involved in the process paid a fair price? I have talked to many people who know fishermen who will sell their catch for a $1.00 per pound or less, and for it then to be sold in a supermarket for $15 to $20 per pound. With a smaller portion of the profits going to the fishermen it forces them into high volume fisheries, which we know isn't good for the ecosystem overall.

It just seems to be way more complicated than popping some tiny or jumbo shrimp in my mouth to satisfy my dietary desires. For me, I know enough about the food supply to question where my food comes from, so it is harder not to make an ethical choice.

But there is good news!

The good news is that many chefs in the New York City and Long Island area are offering their customers wild or sustainable shrimp. In my sampling of 20 or so restaurants since I started this quest to know where my shrimp comes from, I found a reasonable number of restaurants offered wild shrimp. One restaurant interestingly had both; they had wild shrimp from the Gulf for the shrimp cocktail and farm-raised from Indonesia for the shrimp skewer dinner.

Obviously, price is an issue for both the restaurateur and the consumer. The wild gulf shrimp cocktail was $17 for three. The dinner with the shrimp was $26 but it was a whole meal not an appetizer. Many consumers, including me, wouldn't want to spend that much for shrimp cocktail.

Shrimping in Port Clyde, ME
Source: PCFC website
And what about the challenges of restaurants, many who are now looking for shrimp that is affordable, local, ethical... where do they turn?

Well, I learned there are fisherman cooperative groups like Port Clyde Fresh Catch who harvest their shrimp seasonally between November and April, ensuring that a fair price goes to the fishers who are also helping to conserve the resource. And as it turns out, there is a fairly abundant and healthy supply of wild shrimp in our New England waters which many fishermen in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine depend on.

I know it can be uncomfortable to ask the wait staff where the shrimp is from because you don't want to annoy them. However, most wait staff answered my inquiry graciously. If we as consumers create demand for wild, local (as local as possible), or sustainable shrimp more restaurants will hopefully make an effort to put it on the menu. Remember, it wasn't long ago that you couldn't find organic chicken on a menu, but the public has spoken and many restaurants now offer it, including some chain restaurants that serve naturally raised chicken and beef.

Consumer demand for wild or sustainable shrimp can also help save our ecosystem from additional damage. Besides, do we really want to be eating shrimp that is pumped up on antibiotics, fed GMO's, and has a large carbon footprint? If we order our food responsibly in restaurants, we can start to make a difference and stop this trend of farmed raised shrimp as the norm.

Currently many menus list salmon as wild, chicken as organic, and beef as grass-fed. I would like to see the day when its commonplace for menus to list shrimp as wild.

So next time you're in a restaurant, ask the question and let's bring awareness to the topic.

NOTE FROM NAMA: Thanks Pamela! Please keep your eyes out for more of Pamela's upcoming blogs. Also, folks can check out our 'Who Fishes Matters' seafood card below and download here. And if you haven't already, sign our petition - Fight the Big Box Boats; Save Family Fishermen and the Fish

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

A few weeks ago I represented NAMA and joined a group of individuals and organizations who are part of a coalition for chemical safety at a meeting with White House staff (primarily from the office of the Council on Environmental Quality or CEQ) to promote the need for safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. We delivered an electronic petition with 60,000 signatures supporting safer chemical alternatives, and a copy of a petition signed by 100+ organizations (including NAMA) asking EPA to “exercise its authority under…the clean air act to prevent chemical facility disasters through the use of safer chemical processes.”   Greenpeace was the lead on the petitions and organization of this meeting. Representatives of a number of community organizations, labor unions, and health facilities were present to offer the perspectives of vulnerable workers, neighborhoods and first responders (EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, and field nurses).
Copyright All rights reserved by Greenpeace USA 2012
The environmental message was human health and safety for communities, but the main purpose of this meeting was to stress the national security relevance, which legally trumps all others. I was the only voice for fishermen and fishing communities, and it was a way of demonstrating our support for all efforts to slow and stop the flow of toxic substances into the marine environment that nurtures wild fish populations. Furthermore, many fishing communities have chemical plants or storage facilities, and are close to ports and rail yards that may be the port of call for dangerous chemical cargo and may offer storage for such cargo. My participation served as an introduction to the importance of this issue to fishing communities. The organizer had this take on the threat to fishermen:  big chemical businesses hurting small fishing businesses. How, for instance, would the presidential candidates protect those small businesses from being damaged or wiped out, by a toxic chemical accident caused by big industry?
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier Campaign
I learned a lot from these community representatives who have been working on this issue for some time. Some are focused on environmental justice in poor communities with citizens and plant workers vulnerable to frequent accidents (the average person outside these plants would be shocked, as I was, to find out how frequently fires and small accidents may occur – statistics are given in numbers of occurrences per week!). Others working in health care institutions expected to take care of victims of chemical accidents made it clear they could never adequately respond to a major accident. 

Storage tanks at factories, water treatment plants, and ports and rail cars pose threats of leaks, spills, and explosions. If they’re close to the shore or even to fresh water flowing into the ocean, they threaten fisheries, fishing boats, and fishing communities. And most of the port located chemical facilities are exempt from the federal chemical security rules and only deal with Coast Guard rules relating to their port entrance and perimeter rather than hazardous chemicals on site.
The vulnerability of fishermen to toxic accidents has been clearly illustrated in living color TV images from the BP blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen and fishing communities are vulnerable to volatile toxins and fish are vulnerable to toxins in the water. Coastal communities with ports and railroads are vulnerable when toxic chemicals are transported in and out or are stored, sometimes in very large volumes. And like any community, coastal communities with industrial facilities and water treatment plants that use volatile toxic chemicals are susceptible to accidental releases and serious accidents.

Copyright All rights reserved by Greenpeace USA 2012
Fishermen may be out on their boats in large numbers in near-shore waters—often a single fisherman to a boat—and well within the range of a volatile chemical plume which may extend some 15 miles or so. And imagine such chemicals mixing with fog; and ultimately they will dissolve into surface waters carrying the threat to the fish as well as the fishermen. Or at the marinas and piers where fishermen are working on their boats or landing catch, and at shoreline seafood markets and boat supply or repair facilities, all are vulnerable to a chemical accident occurring at a nearby port. The Coast Guard gets added to the emergency response list in those circumstances, and hopefully they are duly concerned, as they could be called upon to rescue many boats and fishermen in a short time.

There are some ironies in these scenarios:
1) Responsible fishermen are intensely attentive to safety details when it comes to their boats going out to sea, yet here they are needlessly threatened by careless policies that make them vulnerable to toxic releases and accidents.

2) Not only are fishermen in harm's way, but so are the fish stocks that the government, fisheries managers, and fishermen are trying so diligently to rebuild. What good is a rebuilding program tainted by toxic substances in the waters where young fish are trying to survive? It’s time that sources of toxic pollution are considered and addressed in fisheries management and stock rebuilding plans.

3) Many of the goals of the National Ocean Policy, which is being championed by CEQ, are jeopardized by the existence of significant volumes of toxic chemicals being transported, stored and sometimes manufactured in ports and other waterfront areas and transported by sea.

We know that our friends who are fishermen or live in fishing communities in the Gulf of Mexico region are severely threatened by toxic chemical leaks and accidents at multitudes of chemical production and storage sites (see Greenpeace’s map of high risk chemical plants). We should all keep that in mind when oil and gas exploration and transport is proposed for our coastal waters.  But there are also hot spots along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In the Northwest Atlantic region between the Canadian border and Cape Hatteras, where NAMA’s work is primarily focused, the Greenpeace map shows less intense concentration of major dangerous chemical plants, except in New Jersey. In New England there are few identified, such as GAC Chemical Corporation in Searsport, ME; JCI Jones Chemicals, Inc. in Merrimack, NH;  Univar USA, Inc. and Tanner Industries, Inc. in Providence. But in this region the port storage facilities may be a more common threat, and numerous sources of chemical pollution have been identified in a comprehensive study in the New York Times. If you want to explore facilities around your area with EPA emissions violations and you have access to the NY Times, click here to view Massachusetts or to find your state.

There are a number of opportunities to join with other organizations fighting toxic pollution – which invariably ends up in the ocean. This chemical security coalition is but one approach, but it seems to have direct relevance to coastal fishing communities and their health.

Monday, June 25, 2012

FARMED FISH FOLLIES: ACT II: Marine aquaculture choices

A Marine Aquaculture Review in Three Acts

By Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

ACT II: Marine aquaculture choices

In a minor adjustment of this 3-part blog, I have decided to make this one about the choices we have as consumers and stewards of the marine ecosystem relative to farmed seafood. It gives folks purchasing guidelines with simplified justifications. This will be followed by the final blog, which will be a more in-depth review of some of the history that lies behind the guidelines – for braver souls who want more information.

Consumer Guidelines for Marine Farmed Fish

So here is the first general rule of purchasing farmed seafood, especially those frozen packages in your supermarkets and big box stores:  Don’t feel self-righteous about it. Don’t think you are doing anything to save wild fish and shellfish, and don’t think your purchase is contributing to the wellbeing of hungry people around the world or their access to seafood. There may be a few cases in which this rule does not apply, but it is generally a good guideline when you have no reliable information to the contrary.

Now for more specific guidelines to follow when you purchase farmed seafood, which gnerally falls into three large categories—finfish, shellfish, and seaweed. Since seaweed does not have much of a market in the US, I’ll leave that for the historical perspective in the next blog. The following recommendations are for farmed fish and shellfish.

Finfish guidelines:

Tilapia and other farmed herbivores. Fish that feed low on the food chain are generally a better choice because farms should not have to use wild-caught fish to supplement their feed. However, just like industrial agriculture, industrial fish farming often adds fishmeal to the feed of herbivorous animals. Tilapia is no exception. And it’s almost impossible for you, as a consumer, to know whether the Tilapia you are considering has been fed wild fish. Demanding regulations for informative labeling would be a good start.

Salmon and other carnivorous fish.   At the heart of the marine fish-farming industry in the developed world is the intensive, large-scale cultivation of predatory fish—most commonly salmon, but other fish are rapidly coming on line.   Salmon farming is highly profitable but not environmentally sustainable, and it is unlikely that it will ever be so since it violates so many principles of good animal husbandry and efficient human food production:  the animal being grown is a top predator so more protein goes in than is produced; densities of animals are so great that they are stressed and disease is rampant; they are grown in systems that expose wild fish and ecosystems to the disease and wastes flowing from the fish farms; the waste is allowed to flow out like raw sewage and may drift in concentrated masses for long distances; fish escape from the farms by the thousands; and sea mammal predators attracted to the farms are often killed.

So in this case, we can offer a simple guideline to fish consumers considering these farmed carnivorous marine fish. Just Say No!  And when asked, here’s why:

·     *      Would you farm and eat tigers? Most marine fish that are farmed are top predators that must be fed meat, in particular other fish. It takes about 5 pounds of feed fish to produce a pound of salmon. And that feed fish is wild caught fish that should be feeding the wild fish of our ocean ecosytems.

·    *      Farmed fish make wild fish sick. Fish farms harbor diseases and parasites that, experience has proven, are passed to nearby wild populations of fish. Even when effective drug treatments are applied so that the farmed fish are largely uninfected, infected wild fish are increasingly turning up. Salmon is the poster child for this disaster, and sea lice infections the most graphic example. So when salmon farms are dense, wild populations of salmon decline rather that prosper. So much for the argument that aquaculture saves wild fish populations.

·     *     Open water fish farms discharge raw sewage. Fish farms in natural waters have virtually no constraints on the effluent of waste—fish excrement. When developed on an industrial scale, with numerous pens in close proximity in coastal areas, waste production is equivalent to a city but there are no requirements for sewage treatment. Recent research shows that the effluent is not immediately diluted because it is flowing into water. Instead the mechanics and stratification of the water cause the waste to remain concentrated for long distances, sometimes encountering coastlines before it disperses.

breached salmon farm wreckage:
salmon farm protest group/
marine photobank
·     *   Penned fish often escape in huge numbers. When a fish pen is breached, thousands or tens of thousands of fish flee into surrounding waters, where they become part of the wild fish community. Some say, “So what? They just provide more fish for the capture fisheries to catch!”   But it’s not that simple. Escaped fish may spread disease; they may eat healthier wild fish; they may interbreed with wild individuals of their own species; they may compete with other wild predatory fish for food and with other anadromous fish (saltwater fish that migrate and breed in fresh-water) for breeding habitat.

What’s wrong with interbreeding and thereby adding to the populations of their wild sisters and brothers?  Wild fish populations have genetic characteristics that have been honed through selection for their survival advantage over long periods of evolution. Farmed fish are bred and raised under conditions that do not demand the same rigor for survival in the wild. Consequently repeated interbreeding over time can cause the wild populations to weaken and become more vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions.

While large escapes are most infamous and well documented, the constant trickle of single fish escaping--through small breaks or commonly during transfer of fish into or out of pens–can add up to thousands that have the same long term effects on wild populations.

Escapes from salmon farms in the Pacific have an additional impact, caused by adding a new species (Atlantic salmon) into the wild to compete with native Pacific salmon species.

Several other fish species are grown in factory farms in Hawaii and commonly appear in supermarkets and other fish counters. The “just say no” rule still applies!

Genetically engineered fish.  With farming comes the ever-present scepter of genetic engineering, and fish are no exception. A Massachusetts company has applied for FDA approval to market genetically engineered salmon in the US. So far their prototype production is limited to Canada (brood stock) and Panama (adult fish production). The scales would increase with all the same threats of usual salmon aquaculture but the added threat of genetic engineering in the food supply and escaping into the wild. Don’t let the FDA approve the marketing of this fish or any other genetically altered fish!  And demand labeling if any genetically engineered food products are permitted on the market.

A word of caution to nutrition enthusiasts. Farmed salmon is marketed primarily to health-conscious, prosperous people who have been advised by the medical profession to eat plenty of fish. Salmon, because of its ubiquitous availability as farmed fish in North America and Europe, often spills out as a suggested choice. And no distinction is made between wild and farmed. Yet if high amounts of omegas and high Omega 3/6 ratios are what is desired by privileged societies and classes who can afford to think about long, healthy lives, we should choose wild over farmed—even better, herring and mackerel over salmon. And omega supplements should be made from algae instead of fish (which get theirs from algae). With these changes fishmeal and fish oil would loose their value and forage fish would be left in the sea to serve marine food chains and be fished in much smaller quantities for local fresh fish markets.

Shellfish Guidelines

farmed shrimp: Philip Chou Seaweb/marine photobank
Farmed shrimp. As you contemplate shrimp in your supermarkets and on restaurant menus, remember these come primarily from large-scale export shrimp aquaculture industries in tropical, often less-developed, countries with poor regulations.  Though a few sustainable farms might be found in the US, almost all the shrimp you find in markets will come from abroad. Wild-caught options appear occasionally during shrimping seasons in Maine and the Gulf of Mexico, and that can be a better bet, especially locally. But the safe and simplest answer to farmed shrimp, is once again, to “just say no.”  Here’s why:

·   *  Shrimp farming in coastal areas that once supported rich mangrove forests is notorious for destroying coastal ecosystems.

·        *    Shrimp farms are associated with heavy use of antibiotics.

·      *    Shrimp farming deprives local people of their access to coastal areas and their resources and the farms are often known for mistreatment of workers.

·      *    Shrimp farming profits private companies, sometimes foreign, and does not benefit local people and their need for food.

·        *    Intensive, destructive, shrimp aquaculture feeds the gluttonous demand for shrimp in international food and restaurant chains and luxury food markets of the world. It is not about feeding the hungry or those who wish to eat compatibly with natural ecosystems.

Farmed mollusks (hard shelled).

farmed oysters:  Gerick Bergsma 2011/Marine photobank
When it comes to molluscan shellfish, there are good aquaculture choices available, so you need to be more aware of the dos and don’ts. Look for shellfish farming done on scales and in locales that are not only good for the seafood market, but also for the ecosystems in which they sit. But even though shellfish farmers would all prefer that you allow them to rest on the laurels of good shellfish farming and consider it all benign, it’s important to know that some shellfish farming practices are harmful to ecosystems.

Typical shellfish that are farmed include a variety of oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, and abalone. For examples of shellfish farming at it’s worst, we need look no further that our State of Washington, where economic power and politics rule shellfish farm development. But Canadian and European examples abound as well. Because shellfish farming almost always occurs in wild ecosystems near shore, the problems may be significant and very obvious, although they are avoidable with careful regulation and management.

The most reliable rule for these farmed shellfish is “know your farmer and farming technologies.”  If you can’t get the information you need regarding mass marketed farmed shellfish it’s best to buy from local farmers whose practices you can evaluate. You’re likely to get a better quality product that way, too.

These are the potential problems you need to watch out for:

·      *  The scale can be too large for the ecosystem. In the Pacific Northwest coastal and estuary aquaculture, this is a serious problem, but as the demand for aquaculture products increases, other locations around the country’s coastlines may come under siege. The development of aquaculture is often disorganized and poorly regulated, until after damage has been done. Offshore open ocean shellfish farms, common along the Atlantic coast of Europe and northeastern Canada, are even more massive and associated with chemical and organic pollution and other impacts inherent to monoculture factory farms.

·      *    Water quality requirements may be counter productive, preventing farms from being located in best sites. While it is essential that seafood be safe for the consumer, shellfish farms are often most useful when they can also serve to clean up the water of excessive phytoplankton blooms, which are not the associated with the highest water quality but may not always indicate unhealthy conditions.  In some places, potential contamination problems can be averted by placing shellfish into clean-water lots for final purging; or shellfish in highly contaminated locales may simply be used to clean the water and not be marketed.  That approach can create new areas suitable for shellfish farming for food.

·      *  Bottom habitats may be destroyed. Most shellfish farms have a footprint on the seafloor, and in some cases the impacts may seriously degrade healthy seafloor ecosystems. But, if properly sited where the bottom is not naturally very productive, the impact may be very small.

·     *   Water quality in some cases may deteriorate, when shellfish farms are so massive that the organic debris from them actually fouls the water or the bottom beneath the shellfish farms.

·       The farm consumption of the natural food supply may compete with wild plankton feeders in the ecosystem. Some states avoid this by requiring that farms be located in areas that do not support significant wild shellfish populations.

Geoduck farm:
·     *  The siting can interfere with wild shell-fisheries or citizen’s access to the waterfront and to natural marine resources. There is greatest potential for this when aquaculture is located in intertidal areas; for example geoduck farming in Washington.

·      *     Introduction of non-native and invasive species is often associated with aquaculture.  It may be the farmed species itself or other species that hitchhike on the seed stocks or proliferate on the farms. A prime example is the Pacific oyster, which has replaced native species round the world, including in Washington. And industrial mussel farms off Prince Edward Island are awash with massive growths of invasive tunicates.

·     *   Use of pesticides is common in large-scale aquaculture, where competitors or foulers in the farm beds or rafts are killed with chemicals. Examples include pesticide applications to kill native ghost shrimp in the sediments of big bottom-culture oyster farms in Washington State, and antifouling treatments on the P.E.I. mussel farms. Mussels themselves are often considered pests on salmon farms, where chemicals may be used to get rid of them.

·     *   Important aesthetic values of shorelines can be destroyed. Do you value the influence of natural seascapes on our psyches and our arts?

For some time US aquaculturists have said that their important industry is severely hampered by rich coastal dwellers who have paid big bucks for a view of the sea. Well I don’t know about you, but I am not rich, and I cannot afford ocean-front property, but I most certainly value the access I have to sit on the shore and be soothed or inspired by the sea and shore-scapes. Seafood farms of all kinds need to be sited and designed to minimize their impacts on that. As with working waterfronts for commercial fisheries, there is a place for everything, but some aquaculture developers would suggest there is no place for us. And the federal government, by promoting industrial aquaculture far offshore, would like to put the farms and their inherent problems out of sight and out of mind.

There are many shellfish farms and few fish farms that do not fall into the destructive patterns described in the points above. Always be aware of the potential problems and choose which farmers to support – through your buying choices and your political power to influence government policy. Nearshore marine farming is regulated by individual states but often promoted by federal funding and national policy, so you need to apply pressure at both levels to make sure your coastal state is ready for expanding aquaculture development with solid, ecologically defensible options, regulations and guidelines.