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Saving the Ocean, One Fish Dish at a Time

CAS prof: what we need to do to have sustainable fisheries


A visit to the seafood section of nearly any local supermarket these days is likely to induce feelings of guilt. You cast an eye on the Atlantic cod, halibut, salmon, and yellowtail flounder glistening on ice—only to discover that each is among the 13 species now overfished in New England, according to a 2011 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a real problem for consumers who enjoy eating fish for its many health benefits, but are also mindful of their ecological footprint.

Boston University Dining Services is conscious of this dichotomy and has introduced more sustainable fish options on menus at the George Sherman Union and in residential dining halls. For several days last fall, Rhett’s served Gulf of Maine Atlantic pollock, a lesser-known species that has been fished responsibly. Diners could also sample the dish during lunch and dinner at dining halls across campus on November 12 as part of Dining Services Make a Difference Monday, a campaign to showcase foods that are healthy and good for the environment.

“We promote sustainable seafood in order to help sustain local and global fisheries and ocean ecosystems for tomorrow,” says Sabrina Pashtan, Dining Services sustainability coordinator, who ensures that BU makes informed purchasing decisions and has an innovative menu.

For the big picture, BU Today spoke with Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a marine conservation fellow at Conservation International, about the importance of sustainable fishery, the power of individual consumers, and the future of the fishing industry.

BU Today: What is a fishery and how does it become unsustainable?

Kaufman: A fishery is a commodity chain, which means there are a whole bunch of people doing different things, all of whom have to be there for the money to move. That begins with fishermen and includes regulators, the Coast Guard, and everyone who makes anything fishermen use and who services the needs of fishermen, like ice manufacturers, trucking companies, middlemen—the whole deal. That’s called the multiplier, when you take the value of the fish alone versus the total value that’s appreciated by the fish moving through the system. Normally, people calculate that value on an annualized basis without any regard to how many annuals there are going to be. And the way the system has been run historically, there are very few years available to us because we’re destroying the natural infrastructure that keeps making more fish.

There are two deep flaws that make fisheries unsustainable. We don’t look far enough into the future—not more than a year or two—so we don’t appreciate the fact that we’re depreciating the system very rapidly. And we don’t look at more than one species at a time—so one year, one species. It’s fatal.

Can you give examples of how the ocean infrastructure is being torn apart?

Every single fishery in the world is now at capacity or overexploited. The engine that ultimately produces fish in New England is the sun shining on the ocean-making plankton. Small creatures eat plankton, and they’re eaten by marketable species. So forage fish are critical to support the fisheries—like cod, haddock, and tuna. However, we also eat and catch forage fish. We grind them up for vitamin supplements, use herring as lobster bait, and rely on aggregation of forage to support tourism—including the whale watching industry, which only works if there’s a massive, Serengeti-style accumulation of whales within a short distance from shore.

When you catch fish by dragging a heavy net across the sea, that net destroys natural habitat for baby fish, food from worms, and clams that fishes eat. If we’re doing this intelligently, we learn as quickly as possible how long it takes the system to heal itself, and we don’t inflict so much damage over time that the capacity of the system is impaired.

Boston University BU, Dining Services, sustainable fish, eco-conscious menus, George Sherman Union, residential dining halls, Make A Difference Monday, Les Kaufman, College of Arts & Science CAS professor, biology and marine conservation, Conservation International, power individual consumers, fishing industry

Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a marine conservation fellow at Conservation International. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Why is sustainable fishery important?

Fish are food, they’re livelihoods, and they can be converted to money—a few billion dollars in New England alone each year. There’s sort of an aesthetic and cultural value associated with the option of having fish as part of our lives. It’s part of the joy of life and hard to put a dollar value on it. It’s nice not to have to eat rice every day and only rice. Or Chicken McNuggets and only Chicken McNuggets.

The fisheries may only comprise a very small sector of the economy overall, but the potential for something going wrong in fisheries that could do widespread manifest damage to the rest of our life support infrastructure is very impressive. One sector immediately affected is tourism, especially whale watching. Another factor is coastal real estate. It may sound romantic that whales are out there or that there are fish along the beach, but that’s why people pay an exorbitant amount of money to have an oceanfront house. Another connection is direct human health. Disregard for the condition of the marine environment quickly results in a rapid deterioration of environmental quality, including the multiplication of human pathogens in ocean waters.

What are some of the species currently in danger of being overfished in New England?

All of them. Some are being managed better than others. Species that are OK to eat vary as populations in the wild go up and down. It also depends on where they came from and how they were caught or produced. Wild Atlantic salmon is almost extinct. Halibut is almost exterminated. Several species in dire straights are Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, winter flounder—sometimes called gray sole—and bluefin tuna. Then there are fish caught wild in New England waters, and an argument could be made we should patronize them. One is haddock, which isn’t near historic levels of abundance, but is well-managed and has recovered. Other examples are pollock, bluefish, lobster, and any bivalves, like clams, oysters, or scallops.

Can individual consumers really have an impact on the market?

In order for this to work, consumers have to be willing to know a great deal more about the ocean than they do now so they can critically weigh the information they get from their suppliers. If not doing it means they’re going to die, then they’ll be inclined to do it. But being a lousy seafood buyer doesn’t mean you’re going to die. We have a bit of an incentive problem here. It has to be respected, admired, moral, and valuable to be an intelligent consumer. That’s what the sustainable seafood movement is about.

And it’s not just about sustaining fish, but about sustaining a social, cultural, or spiritual bond between people and the ocean. It means supporting fishermen. When you buy fish at the supermarket, you have a choice of buying from a giant factory boat that stays out for weeks and flash freezes all it catches, sucking up fish in enormous quantities like a vacuum cleaner, or a family vessel that uses a hook and line and does no damage to the ocean.

What advice can you give to consumers interested in buying sustainably caught fish?

Use a seafood buyer’s card (such as the one produced by Monterey Bay Aquarium and New England Aquarium) as a starting point. Then, as you learn more about the local situation, modify buying to reflect that local knowledge. Buying into a community-supported fishery (CSF) is an example of that. If you’re buying from a CSF, you are likely to get Atlantic cod. Most cards would say don’t eat cod, but if you are supporting a local fisherman who is doing his or her best to fish by the regulations, you shouldn’t refuse their fish. They were caught under a stringent conservation program.

What’s being done to ensure healthy fisheries for future generations?

A lot has been done, but it’s not happening fast enough. The revolution is not radical enough, and we’re trying to fix that. It began with the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act more than 20 years ago, which basically said don’t catch more fish than regulators have issued permits for. It set stringent guidelines for the quality of knowledge necessary to decide how many fish you need to catch. It also gives more decision-making authority to fishermen, but requires that they organize themselves.

The biggest improvement that we now need to make is to switch from single-species to ecosystem-based management. That’s a switch from science developed 100 years ago, which looks at species in isolation, to new science that looks at the system as a whole and focuses instead on interactions, nonlinear effects, and anticipating unintended consequences. One of the things we’re doing at BU is creating a sort of simulation game that incorporates everything we know about these interactions and dynamics to better understand change in fisheries policy.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

13 Comments on Saving the Ocean, One Fish Dish at a Time

  • anon on 10.29.2012 at 9:58 am

    Dining services is unsustainable, period. It’s disgusting how much food is thrown out. Many countries use a system where you pay for each item ordered– this would reduce waste significantly vis a vis buffet style. Of course, it’s less profitable so BU will not do it.

  • Graham Boswell on 10.29.2012 at 10:00 am

    Given that we know that ALL of the primary global fishing stocks are either overexploited or on the verge of complete collapse (according to the FAO), I find it curious that we’re still so much as discussing eating fish. I would like to suggest that the solution to this crisis, the only option that is certain to succeed at restoring ocean life, is to stop consuming fish.

    Ms. Pashtan and the executives at BU Dining know that the most sustainable food is plant based food. It frustrates me that we would choose to promote eating fish when we have the opportunity to promote the best option, which is eating plants.

    Sure, fish is a healthy protein source compared to other meat. But it pales in comparison to plant based sources, like beans and legumes, which are full of fibre and free from the heavy metals found in sea creatures.

    Additionally, numerous studies in the last few decades have shown that fish feel pain as acutely as land animals, and yet there are still no laws protecting these creatures from suffering unimaginable brutality during slaughter. Fish are routinely skinned and dismembered while still fully conscious. Others are left to slowly suffocate in piles. Simply being harvested from the ocean is a painful process for fish- the change in pressure destroys their organs.

    Take special note of how Professor Kaufman talks about the ocean like it exists for our exploitation, like it’s there for us to make money from. This world view, that nature is a commodity, is what has led us to the crisis of global depletion we currently face.

    I disagree with the professor- fish are not food. Like us, fish are individuals with the capacity to feel pain and with a strong interest in enjoying their life, free from harm. There is no reason why we cannot respect that interest by not treating them as inanimate object, and eating plants instead. If the professor is afraid that this means only eating rice, then I would be more than happy to provide him with some recipes.

    • Nuclear Fish on 10.29.2012 at 10:47 am

      And let us not forget Fukushima. Those radioactive fish see our markets.

    • Umm... on 10.29.2012 at 1:44 pm

      Or we could simply promote sustainable practices like this article suggests.

      • Nemo on 10.29.2012 at 2:18 pm


      • AC on 10.29.2012 at 2:48 pm

        You’re right! And Graham is suggesting we promote the MOST sustainable practices. Not a bad idea in my opinion.

      • Fish are friends on 10.29.2012 at 10:04 pm

        But the article doesn’t detail what sustainable practices are. How are they going to catch enough “sustainable fish” without using the commercial practices that he detailed? You can’t catch that many on single hook lines. That’s not how it works. The article also failed to point out that New England just received $100 million for fishing industry disaster relief.

        That’s $100 million on taxpayer money so we can fix an industry that’s supposedly been following “sustainable” standards for the past 20 years.

        But how sustainable can those standards be when stocks aren’t replenishing and we need that much money just to sustain jobs for a little longer until the next disaster is declared?

        This article fails to make a good argument for why we should continue to eat fish, even “sustainable” species. It doesn’t even mention the fishing industry bailout and government-declared disaster!


        Come on.

        • SigChi on 11.13.2012 at 12:54 am

          this is stupid, there are bigger things to worry about. fish sucks though, i dont trust it here. one time i got it at marciano and it seemed like it was just microwaved

  • Les Kaufman on 11.03.2012 at 12:19 pm

    Vegetarianism is an excellent option, but going wholly vegetarian is not as important as simply eating less overall and relying principally on plant-based foods. As for whether we should eat animals at all, the reality is that there is a diversity of opinion on this point, and so some portion of humanity will be eating animals for a long time yet. Given this, the relationship must be one of greater harmony. The suffering of fish in the process of being caught and processed is a legitimate issue. Cows are killed more considerately than fish are. However, the cumulative environmental and ethical footprints of eating cow are generally much greater than for eating fish. Ultimately, as human population swells, it is clear that we will no longer be able to derive the bulk of our protein from animals in a sustainable manner. But the key problem is that there are way too many people, not that there are too few fish.

    Regarding our feelings for animals, as opposed to plants, I would personally like to see plants treated with the same respect and awe as charismatic, warm-bodied creatures of fur or feather. Plants are marvelous and mysterious, life-giving living things, and should not be treated as if they were no different than soil or air.

    • Anonymous on 06.19.2013 at 3:07 pm

      Soylent Green is people

  • SigChi on 11.13.2012 at 12:52 am

    i bring my brothers to Raising Caines, fish at BU isnt very good

  • NE Offshore Fisherman on 11.17.2012 at 4:33 pm

    I have yet to find someone who can tell the difference between Pollock and Haddock when I prepare fish. When I say prepare I mean a dash of pepper, little oil, and fry it up. We need to think differently when harvesting fish, buying at the market and restaurants. For instance, Bluefish which are found in abundance in NE waters can be just as tasty as some of the overly fished species such as flounder and fluke. Fish that tastes “fishy” just needs more attentiveness during preparation, but nothing that 5 minutes spent watching YouTube “How to” videos can’t handle. My .02

  • Darragh McCurragh on 10.26.2013 at 4:21 am

    Sustainability is intimately connected with private property. A farmer will not “overfish” his land but see to it that it will yield wheat or corn next year and the one after and even for the next generation. The oceans are “commons” though and history has proven that no amount of regulation can do what property interests can do for sustainability.

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