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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mackerel Behind Bars

By guest blogger Merrill Singer, PhD
University of Connecticut

In 2004, the government banned access to cigarettes among inmates at federal prisons (although some tobacco is still smuggled in).  This change was not driven by health issues alone.  Prior to the ban, in addition to smoking them, inmates used cigarettes as currency to acquire goods and services from other prisoners, including contraband items like drugs (possession of cash having already been banned). 

In response, in some prisons around the country, inmates turned to plastic-and-foil pouches of mackerel fillets (cans also are banned because they can be made into weapons) as the new currency. Called “macks,” they became the new coin of the realm. For example, a haircut from a fellow prisoner cost two macks (the equivalent of two dollars); laundry services also can be purchased with macks.  Why mackerel packages? Few prisoners – even new ones who traditionally have been known by the slang word “fish” – want to eat mackerel, claiming it is too oily (and perhaps unaware that mackerel is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that have been linked to multiple health benefits).  Additionally, the packages are small, can be easily transported inside a prisoner’s clothes, and have a standard size.  In short, like printed money they can readily serve as a medium of exchange and value inside the semi-closed society of a prison.

The result has been a significant increase in the sale of packaged mackerel to U.S. prisons.  To try and control the underground economy, in some prisons an inmate caught by guards with a lot of mackerel packets may be disciplined. 

One of the ironies here is that the word “mackerel” was used in the past, particularly in England, to refer to prostitutes, madams, and pimps (and suggesting someone who is smooth or slick), occupations that could land you in prison.  Once behind bars, use of drugs - available in the underground economy if you have enough macks to spend – enables inmates to get “macked up or macked out,” which the Urban Dictionary defines as seriously under the influence.
Note from NAMA: if you are interested in more of a backstory on mackerel used in prisons, check out this Wall Street Journal story from 2008:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tipping the Scales of Fisheries

by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

Perhaps it's fitting that nearly all fisheries issues boil down to scales. Fish populations became depleted worldwide, after more than a half century of exploitation culminating with an explosion in the scale of fishing operations after World War II, when industrial fishing fleets pursued and gobbled up fish across the ocean until not much was left. And while laws and management have forced cuts in total catch, they have not moved to downscale operations. In fact, in the US, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act's (MSA) main purpose when passed in 1976 was to scale up US fishing operations to match those of the foreign industrial fleet.

Commercial Fisheries News 1994
Smaller fishing operations - those that fish close to their home community, fish with relatively low-impact and small-scale gear, and generally fish a variety of species through the year, rather than focusing on single target species - continue to be driven out while larger, narrowly targeted, higher impact operations are rewarded by regulators, global markets, and eco-labeling.

Legal and management frameworks have failed fish and fisheries by ignoring critical scales, perhaps through a mistaken notion that regional catch limits alone will solve the problem, which, absent associated design restrictions on the fishing fleet, they do not. And prevailing market structures are driven by the scale of demand not supply. As seen in previous blogs, that even applies to eco-certification (the largest being the Marine Stewardship Council or MSC) and ratings (green, yellow, red lists) that presumably guide consumers to the best fish to buy based on ecological sustainability. These systems are trying to shift the demand away from less sustainable to more sustainable fishing practices, and presumably that includes the volume caught. But they still focus on the large, roaming fishing fleets of the world, and on catch averaged over time and area; so they are driving more "conscientious" consumers into, not away from, the global markets and largest fisheries. By not addressing the scales of the markets being fed, the scales of operation of fisheries supplying these markets, the spatial distribution patterns of fish, and scales and patterns of ecosystem processes, these ranking and certification systems fail to protect wild fish populations within their natural ecological constraints.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature
(J. Jacquet, D. Pauly, D. Ainley, S. Holt, P. Dayton, J. Jackson. Sept 2010.
Seafood stewardship in crisis. Nature 467: 28-9) copyright 2010
In my last blog, I referred to an opinion paper in the journal Nature by scientists Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Pauly and several colleagues, who say, "We believe that the incentives of the market have led the MSC certification scheme away from its original goal, towards promoting the certification of ever-larger capital-intensive operations. Small fisheries that use highly selective, low-impact techniques, such as hook-and-line fishing or hand picking, are often sustainable, but make up only a tiny fraction of MSC-certified fisheries." (Nature, September, 2010, vol. 467: p. 28-29) Their illustrative graph shows that low impact fisheries (based on habitat impact and by-catch) account for a negligible portion of certified fish, while medium-impact, certified fisheries supply over 5 million tons of seafood to the world market each year and an additional ton comes from high-impact certified fisheries.

The authors go on to suggest that, "Different models of certification might help to redress this balance. For products such as coffee in the Fairtrade scheme, for example, certification is available only to cooperatives of small producers; large plantations are not eligible. This helps to correct for market advantages held by larger companies."

I would suggest that while this is a good model, it can only go so far, because fresh fish, unlike coffee, does not have a shelf life, and the quality deteriorates with increased processing and with distance to market. Instead of a system of small community-grounded tributaries feeding the mighty river of global markets, the obvious solution for fisheries is to remain small and community based and to focus on local markets. A variety of cooperative aggregations of fishermen could be established to enable efficient direct marketing and ensure fair prices paid to fishermen to reduce their need to maximize catch. Eco-standards should apply only to such community-based fisheries restricted to local markets. The goal to supply giant national and international retail outlets with "green washed"... uh, excuse me... rather, green labeled fish, is terribly misguided.

Limited ecosystems cannot sustainably produce fish to supply virtually unlimited and ever-growing markets. Wild fish populations simply cannot feed this ravenous giant. And we are fooling ourselves if we believe that buying only "eco-approved" fish from round the world is effectively restraining our use of wild seafood while feeding the hungry and saving wild marine ecosystems. It appears that these eco-labels may not even be accomplishing the goal of changing the way fisheries are executed (Marine Policy 36 (2012) 1123-1130). The global trade of fish may never be closed down, but let's not insult our own intelligence or betray marine ecosystems by naming it "sustainable". There are better, far more sustainable, ways to catch and distribute fish - primarily keeping fisheries and markets anchored in local communities with heightened awareness of fishing practices that will keep fish populations and ecosystems healthy.

Local markets, including direct marketing through Community Supported Fisheries and Farmers Markets, and supplying local institutions such as hospitals and schools, offer an opportunity to treat local consumers to the diversity of seafood that characterizes their region and to value them all similarly. That in turn will translate into more diverse fisheries that do not prey too heavily on any one species. If fishermen stick closer to home when they fish and sell their fish, seafood diets will be more healthful, more diverse, and tastier. The health and diversity of coastal ecosystems everywhere will flourish.

Furthermore, it is important to mention that, as we have found in industrialized agriculture, we should not expect industrialized aquaculture to be able to do much more without serious consequences to the future of food quality and the conservation of natural ecosystems. Consumers must be warned that investment in vast aquaculture endeavors, especially fin-fish aquaculture, threatens wild fish and their ecosystems - it does not take the pressure off them. In some cases, community-based shellfish aquaculture can be conducted in a manner that is neutral or helpful to ecosystems, but not on too large a scale.

Getting back to the lists and certifications, if it proves too cumbersome to evaluate fisheries at sub-regional and community-based scales, and to provide labels or rankings of sustainability, then these national and international organizations might be more honest and effective if they simply supplied the critical standards and let local consumers make sure their fishermen are fishing accordingly and fisheries managers are applying important standards on scales consistent with local fish population dynamics and matched with local ecosystem processes. It's time to tip the scales of fisheries here and round the world. Serious transformations in scales of marketing and management design are needed in order to effectively reduce scale of fishing while providing high quality seafood at fair prices that provide community fishermen with decent livelihoods and effectively feed local populations. Fair fisheries = fair food.

Here in New England the Fishery Management Council is beginning to look at the critical scales of fish distribution that should dictate how catch is managed. The cod crisis has led to reduced catch limits and a demand for reassessing the structure of the populations of cod in this region - should smaller scales be assessed and the fishing effort distributed accordingly? Some on the Council, supported primarily by parts of the fishing fleet who would benefit from status quo, and some regional managers believe that regional catch limits (which ignore finer fish population structure) are enough to recover New England's fish stocks. But strong interest in ecosystem-based management at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, by fishermen who do believe finer scale management best reflects the reality they see on the water, and by some on the Council suggests they may not have their way. At the national level the MSA will soon be up for reauthorization and there are efforts afoot to bring ecosystem-based fishery management more effectively into that legal framework. But even now, the national standards in the MSA could be interpreted and applied more effectively and on more appropriate scales - something to explore in future blogs.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fish that make you go... hmmmm

By Pamela Flash
NAMA Volunteer
Long Island, NY

So I am standing at the fish counter at Whole Foods, which I do on a regular basis, ever since I've been responsible for cooking for myself and for my family.

Which fish am I going to buy for dinner? Hmmm...

Will my dinner decision heal or harm the ocean? How will it impact local fishing communities? What about the environment? Will my choice have a large carbon footprint by being transported to the USA from another country?

When did this decision get so complicated?

I have been a conscientious shopper since the late 1980's. I want to buy food that is good for my family but as with the cleaning products in my home, I want it to be green.

So what is green? Whole Foods, to which I am a loyal customer although not blindly, has decided to let Seafood Watch, decide what fish are "green", "yellow", and "red" as guidelines to buying sustainable fish. If you don't know by now, Whole Foods will no longer carry fish on Seafood Watch's "red" list.

(click to read NAMA's blog related to Whole Foods, Seafood Watch, and MSC certification)

So lets go back to the fish counter. I can choose from farm-raised shrimp from Thailand, or I can buy tuna from Venezuela, maybe cod from Norway, the list goes on. The only local choice that day was flounder from New England. I asked, "If you are going to carry cod from Norway, why can't you carry haddock from New England?"

So at this point, I need to disclose, that I am a born New Englander, living on Long Island. I grew up eating haddock, cod, and salmon bought in season (when salmon swam up stream in Maine the way salmon are supposed to), and clams, (steamers were my favorite) and of course our beloved lobster which we would only eat in the state of Maine, fresh from the ocean that day. Needless to say, I know the taste of fresh fish.

Fisherman Ed Snell lands cod and haddock off the coast of Portland, Maine.

I spent many summers visiting New England fishing communities. Although we didn't fish ourselves, fresh fish was in all the restaurants from Point Judith, Rhode Island to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Today, so many restaurants carry frankenfish, such as tilapia, or whole branzino, that are sometimes raised in plastic tubs, and are often fed with genetically modified organisms (GMO's) or soy feed, rather than with food that actually grows in the ocean. And if the feed does come from the ocean the net protein is often a loss. However, Whole Foods claims that the farmed-raised fish they offer is not fed GMO's or soy feed. I will look into this. I am not an expert on farm-raised fish but I have to think local and fresh fish has the best omega threes for my family's nutrition.

So lets go back to the lobster, I remember very clearly when the lobster supply was in trouble. They were expensive and in danger of extinction. I am not sure if everyone knows the story of how Maine lobsters came back, but it goes something like this: the lobstermen banded together and made some tough choices of how to replenish the lobster supply. First, they increased the acceptable catch size allowing the lobsters more time to multiply and ultimately replenish. Second, they created a requirement for each boat to have the licensee on the boat with the license, thereby preventing absentee owners and making it uneconomical for big business to buy up the rights to fish lobsters on a large scale. (click to learn more)

Today the lobster population is strong, and we have the local lobstermen's own policing efforts to thank. The fishing industry and government should learn from them and trust local fishermen to monitor themselves and help replenish the fish in their communities.

So, what fish am I going to buy for dinner or order in a restaurant? What do I think is "green fish"? Fish that lived in the ocean, that ate its natural, local food source, that didn't travel too far to get to me, and hopefully fish that was fairly traded; meaning a local fisherman got paid a fair price for the fish I am consuming. My experience tells me from the lobster story, that community-based fishermen are the best stewards of our oceans and we as consumers would be best served to trust and support them. Their livelihood depends on healthy oceans.

Everyone can be mindful of how our food purchases impact our family's healthfulness as well as the health of our communities and environment. There is a big buzz about farm-to-table, which is very important, but just as important is ocean-to-table. Direct marketing programs like Community Supported Fisheries are growing and offer families affordable, local, and tasty food from the sea. If we want to eat fish, ultimately there are choices to be made. We can choose farm-raised fish, fish imported from other countries, or fish from the USA benefitting the fishing communities in the USA. So next time you are at the fish counter pause for a moment, hmmm... and ask yourself which fish will bring the most value to your own health, the community, and ocean.

NOTE FROM NAMA: Thanks Pamela! Folks can also check out our 'Who Fishes Matters' seafood card below and download here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bring Back the Fish, Owner-operators and Fairness are Key

James 'Howdy' Houghton
Bar Harbor, ME

Note: This letter was addressed to New England fisheries decision-makers regarding the fleet diversity Amendment 18. We thank everyone like Howdy, who submitted comments (click to see more support). Please continue checking in as we work together toward a more diverse fleet and a healthier ocean.

To the New England Fisheries Management Council,

I oppose the no-action alternative option under A18 because the loss of fleet diversity is a major problem facing the New England fleet. I live in Bar Harbor Maine which had a thriving groundfish fleet throughout the 80's that gradually diminished in the 90's because the local stocks dried up and the fishermen primarily fished locally.

Boats here had little history after the control date in 1996 and today most fish available in Bar Harbor comes from out of state, none from east of the Penobscot river, and not much from Port Clyde either. If management continues on it's present path it is highly unlikely we will ever again see any amount of fish landed in eastern Maine, due to lack of access and lack of seasonal stocks. I can't imagine the local stocks replenishing while pulse fishing by absentee owner vessels, landing in fewer ports continue to dominate the fishery and the management strategies.

I recommend that the Council consider owner-operator incentives and equitable geographic distribution of stocks and landings in Amendment 18. Without these fresh local fish there will never again be available any quantity on most of the Maine coast. Our only supply will be commodity sources from a very few large ports dominated by 'roving bandits' whose owners are not even aboard.

Throughout the 70's and 80's I caught groundfish seasonally primarily out of Bar Harbor. Much of the fish landed here was cut at a fish market a few blocks from the Bar Harbor town pier and sold to the public and our many restaurants.

James 'Howdy' Houghton
Bar Harbor, ME

I recommend you listen to Wendell Berry and pay close attention to his references to "Boomer and Stickers".

Hear other Maine fishermen testify 
during the A18 scoping process.