Eat fish, think locally


To the Editor:

As a beach trash hunter/remover, I usually find one or two messages-in-a-bottle each summer.

Usually written in a child’s hand, the notes typically say, “Hi, if you find this please call (number),” and end with a smiley face.

This summer’s bottle was more interesting. Written on pink note paper were the words “Eat Fish.” There was a smiley face fish figure and a number with a 401 area code. Also included was a tiny red plastic fishing pole and some sand. I called the number and got a machine.

It occurred to me that, according to the scenarios envisioned by Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish” and other soothsayers (see “The Scales Fall”, New Yorker, August 2, 2010), describing the future of our overfished oceans, this young bottle messenger may not be able to follow his own advice.

If, as Greenberg notes, the oceans are the source of the “last wild food,” the supply will be exhausted before this kid reaches adulthood. The only thing left will be some inedible sea slugs or toxic algae unless he develops a taste for farmed species like “tra,” that feed on human waste.

The problem with these fish obituaries is one of scale — no pun intended. The description of the problem typically chronicles the decline of this fish or that fish as evidence of the damage we humans have brought on the productivity of the oceans.

Standing on the Menemsha jetty, Greenberg is reported to have pointed at a young angler on the other side saying words to the effect “he has no idea how many different species of fish were caught here when I was a kid.” The phrase “when I was a kid,” is usually a cue for folks of my generation to chime in with our version of how things were in the day — “as far as the eye could see,” or “so thick you could walk over the backs of ’em.” It is at the same time a cue for the younger generation to roll their eyes.

The young fisherman at the jetty does not know and likely does not care about the squeteague (weakfish) or the black bass. The pace of life and technology makes it difficult for young folks to relate to something that was once there in someone’s memory. They are way better acclimated to understanding systems, however complex they may be, than a box of lost parts.

It is the younger generation who must be impressed with the need for solutions. And the solutions offered are not encouraging. While the problem is defined according to the fate of individual species, the solutions are contemplated on the scale of the entire ocean. They are either a variation of the concept that the way to keep fishing is to stop fishing or the way to keep eating fish is to grow them.

So, what to do? I have diminishing faith in the ability of big agriculture to feed me safely, and I am equally skeptical of big aquaculture. I think for the average person the best course of action (perhaps over simplistic and naive) is to follow the message-in-the-bottle — “Eat Fish.” As long as there is healthy demand for seafood and shellfish produced as close to home as possible, the more resources might be directed at generating the supply. I wouldn’t mind trying some of those farmed mussels. If we look at a piece of ocean that we can define, and know we can devise some system to make the producers on that piece themselves responsible for decisions about how much and when it might work.

For the big picture, it would seem that some major effort needs to be brought to identify an international policy that works. That is way beyond any simple model that I might understand.

Michael Seeger