Men Eating Fish

04 May 2009

You walk into your local food shop to gather some ingredients for the evening meal. You don’t have a menu in mind, you will build the meal around whatever looks particularly fresh and appetizing. Deciding to lead with the protein, you head to the butcher’s counter first. He has an embarrassment of riches on display; loin of Serengeti lion is on sale, but the French-cut rack of Canadian boreal forest wolf looks pretty special. Perhaps a roast owl would be good, but they are out everything but great horned and that is too much for two. In the end you opt for convenience and go with a couple of ground polar bear patties …

Does this seem surreal or over the top? Perhaps. Consider though that instead of the butcher’s counter, you make your way to the fishmonger’s instead. Were this the case you would certainly be faced with deciding between lions and wolves … of the sea. Seafood often remains a blind spot in the otherwise educated consumer’s knowledge base. Even today the most urbanized child has at least conceptual understanding of where and how terrestrial foods are produced and understanding grows with age along with broader understanding of general ecological principles …
enough at least to suspect the opening scenario of this essay would be unreasonable in the extreme.

Unfortunately, we are physically and conceptually far removed from the oceanic homes of seafood. The majority of developed world consumers have no affinity with the ecological context of seafood. As a result, the common sense filter that helps us understand what is reasonable and sustainable in the terrestrial context is largely inoperable when it comes to seafood. The proof is in any fishmonger’s display case; being filled with carnivorous species of the highest order is the norm.

But this is anything but normal and presents two substantial challenges to sustainability. The first is simply the terrific amount of ecological energy that is required to produce a top carnivore and whether targeting consumption at this high level is wise or even remotely sustainable.

Most understand the idea of food miles. The farther the distance separating an apple grower and an apple consumer, the greater the amount of energy (typically fossil fuels) embedded in the apple and therefore the less sustainable its consumption becomes.

The same concept can be applied to ecological energy. All life on earth is fundamentally reliant on the sun for biological energy. Solar energy is converted to a biologically accessible form by plants (via photosynthesis). There is significant variation in how efficient an animal is at converting food to body mass but the generally accepted average is ~10%. That is, it takes ten pounds of food to add one pound of body weight.

A ten pound tuna would have consumed 100 pounds of medium-sized fish which in turn consumed 1,000 pounds of smaller fish which in turn consumed 10,000 pounds of smaller fish again and plankton. A dinner-sized portion of tuna and a truckload of small fish represent equivalent ecological investments. The ecological ramifications of a tuna dinner are substantial and need to be recognized.

This brings us to the second, and perhaps more problematic implication of our collective distance from seafood in the developed world; the loss of capacity to appreciate relative value. North Americans consume more tuna, shrimp, salmon and pollock — all top tier carnivores — than any other seafood. Similar lists of top carnivores describe the seafood consumption habits of most developed countries. Clearly there is a significant gap separating what people expect from the sea and what can realistically be provided.

A characteristic of intact cultures is retention of distinction between “everyday” and “feast” foods. Everyday foods are a cultural touchstone, both symbolic and material, whose production and consumption help maintain both community cohesion and energetic equilibrium of the people with their environment. In contrast feast foods are by definition those that are not – could not – be eaten everyday. The magnitude of energetic investment in their production and/or processing is too great.

However, in cultures with economic affluence, it is commonplace to seek the extraordinary for everyday consumption … and in so doing risk making the extraordinary mundane. Tuna is so readily available that it is often cheaper than pet food (or is pet food). The perversity of this goes largely unnoticed, highlighting the oceanic blind spot in our mind.

The potential folly of this aberration is perhaps most clear in the case of salmon. The technological efficiency of fleets in removing fish, the unique and sensitive nature of the salmon life cycle and ill-conceived management have all combined to dramatically decrease wild salmon stocks, of all species, wherever they exist.

A fundamental enabler in all this has been the consumer. With increased availability, driven particularly by the rise to dominance of farmed salmon, salmon is no longer a celebration food. The challenges salmon farms pose to wild salmon are well documented. However, perhaps the greatest insult the industry has committed against wild salmon is the devaluation of salmon in the consumer’s mind. Indeed, the globalization of salmon has transformed this fish from a seasonal, high-value delicacy to a low-value commodity available year-round.

What was not so long ago a miracle of nature, a product of woodland streams and vast productive oceans with each of thousands of populations being evolutionarily and ecologically unique, demonstrably different from its neighbour the next river over. On the whole, irreplaceable. Today, to most consumers salmon simply means a cheap slab of artificially fed and pigmented flesh stripped of its identity, place of origin and inherent value leaving only the material value of its homogenous and deeply unremarkable biochemical construction. How far we have come.

In British Columbia, Canada, three farm salmon are brought to market for every one wild-caught salmon. Salmon farming is big business even in a wild salmon capital like BC. The failure of the consumer to discriminate between what is a miracle of nature and its synthetic industrial analogue ensures the continued destruction of wild salmon fisheries by farms. The continued popularity of farmed salmon literally says, in the strongest language possible ($$$), that wild salmon are superfluous.

Somewhere along the way, brilliant wild salmon morphed into unremarkable farmed salmon, and no one noticed. With increasing production on farms, prices dropped and consumption rose. Consumers literally bought the myth that they could indulge in a premium product at a bargain price. Fresh salmon in midwinter competitively priced against battery-caged chicken — too good to be true?

Yes. Salmon, like most other inhabitants of the fishmonger’s display case are top-level carnivores and thus are expensive to produce. In order to be competitive with factory chicken (and pork, beef etc.), salmon farms adopt massive economies of scale – marine feedlots. This production style allows maximum consumption ecological and social subsidies that translate to cheap product and thus profitability for farms.

However, as is often the case, these subsidies are not reflected in the retail price to the consumer, but are costs just the same. Consumption of clean oxygenated water, removal of wastes by water currents, assimilation of escaped fish, greatly amplified numbers of sea lice, disenfranchised fishing communities and farm workers that do not make a living wage are just the start of the real costs of “cheap” farm salmon.

Analogous farming practices on land have rightfully attracted the wrath of informed consumers who understand the quantity-quality-price relationship. Unfortunately, their collective gaze has yet to penetrate the water’s surface. Until it becomes unacceptable to eat only the tigers of the sea we are unlikely to see the folly in farming wolves.

First published in the Italian magazine Slowfood 39.
John Volpe heads the Seafood Ecology Research Group at the
School of Environmental Studies of the University of Victoria, BC, Canada

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