Seeking Sustainability in a Complex Industry with Carl Safina
Carl Safina is an ecologist who’s work explores our moment with nature, showing how the survival of both nature and human dignity are increasingly intertwined. His six books include Song for the Blue Ocean, and The View From Lazy Point. He is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he co-chairs the Center for Communicating Science and is host of Saving the Ocean on PBS television. Safina’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, et al. Audubon magazine named him among the 100 most influential conservationists of the 20th Century.
The fishing industry is complex. Safina explains that ignorance is prevalent in consumers and mislabeled seafood is common for several reasons. He reasons that sustainable fisheries are possible, but increased understanding and regulation is necessary.
Douglas Gayeton: If managing fisheries requires the role of government, how do we get other parts of the world to maintain more sustainable practices related to fishery management?
Carl Safina: First of all, I think that while we say that fisheries are global, it doesn’t mean that all fisheries are global. There are a lot of fish that are not global but live in one part of the coast and could be managed by a government, by a country or by a region.
In an increasing number of cases in the United States, they are managed effectively in terms of being conserved and actually allowed to recover from a depleted state that they’ve been in. The more entities you have to get to agree, the harder it is. In addition, the poorer the region is and the more disorganized it is, the less resources it has for policing and the more temptation there is for corruption.
Most of the problems we have are not because we have no idea what to do, it’s because we have all these other problems that are getting in the way. In order to effectively manage a fishery, you have to have information, enough organization for agreement, rules and rule enforcement.
Douglas Gayeton: Is it true that the predominant fish we eat in America can be reduced to salmon, canned tuna and shrimp?
Carl Safina: Seafood is mislabeled because most people don’t understand all the different species available. If you say that we eat three kinds of fish: salmon, canned tuna and shrimp, you just named probably 50 different kinds of sea creatures, coming from dozens of countries. People cannot sort that out, so sellers often simplify it by saying that something that it really isn’t. If you say, I’m eating tuna fish, it’s actually three or four different species of tuna.
Everybody knows what a red snapper is, because it’s just a popular fish with a popularized name, and it’s a true species. But there are a lot of fish that look the same and taste kind of similar. They get labeled and sold as red snapper partly because it would just be too complicated to list two or three dozen species and partly because some of them are cheaper and the seller can charge more so it pays to cheat the customer.
The problem is partly because many sellers assume that customers are ignorant and can be told anything. A lot of the seafood misinformation is fraud, but a lot of it isn’t really fraud; it’s just that it’s complicated.
Douglas Gayeton: How can we create a system where people eat fish differently, from bottom of the marine food chain or web?
Carl Safina: It requires people to want to eat fish more sustainably. We try and inform consumers because there are a lot of people who would like to do the right thing, they just don’t have the right level of information.
You do need good information. You need to know where things are from because there is a wide array of fish and they come from lots of places. You also need to have management regimes, whether they are local or even international agreements, for highly migratory things like tunas that are well-monitored and actually sustainable.
The best way to say where we are now is that some things fit that bill and some things really don’t fit the bill. There are some kinds of seafood that are sustainable and are from well-managed fisheries. The fish or the shellfish are abundant or farmed in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment. There are a lot of fisheries that are the opposite. They are depleted and farmed in ways that destroy wetlands or harm other habitats.
Douglas Gayeton: What is the single recurring theme or message in your work?
Carl Safina: What I’m trying to explain to people is that really all of life is one thing. In the ocean, fish are also wildlife. They’re not commodities. They’re living things that come from a system that is ancient and that is with us in the present. This system is something we can certainly hurt.
There are birds that rely on fish and there are mammals in the ocean that rely on fish; everything is connected. We have often treated the ocean as just a place where fish swim around until we catch them. A fish that dies in the ocean is not a wasted fish. The fish is used in the system and cycles through again.