The Battle for the Ocean

Killer Delicacies

One of the ironies of the so-called “intelligent design” movement is that its proponents often miss what could be their most heralded showpieces. Give their horrified anthropomorphic worldview, they usually overlook evolution’s most spectacular accomplishments. Picture a fish capable of swimming at speeds up to 80 kilometers per hour and able to navigate entire oceans, thousands of miles a month; a warm bodied creature that can practically maintain the body temperature of a mammal a kilometer below the sea surface; a fish so mechanically efficient that when scientists endeavored to build a mechanical fish this same fish was used as a model.

All of the above characteristics describe the bluefin tuna and bizarre as it may appear, it is on the verge of being eaten into extinction. Until a few decades ago this majestic fish was considered suitable food only for dogs, cats, and horses, or as prize game for fishermen to battle with and then bury after the hunt. However times have grown worse since then as blue fin tuna has in recent decades, under the menu name maguro, been the prize catch of chic sushi bars that have sprouted around the world. A single one can sell for over $100,000 in a Tokyo fish market and tuna hunts have come to include some of the hallmarks of modern warfare such as the use of spotter planes, radar, and electrical harpoons.

The bluefin tuna isn’t the only species of fish to recklessly fall prey to the taste of trendy society. Ones so evolutionary perfect that they haven’t needed to evolve an iota in millions of years, which were residing in the ocean in the ocean millions of years before the dinosaurs ever existed are slaughtered for their fins to the main ingredient in an expensive soup, or are discarded as by-catch by industrial fishing technology. This describes sharks, most of whose populations declined significantly in the past quarter century, threatening to do irreparable damage to the ocean’s food chain (sharks being notoriously slow breeders, recovery from over fishing is difficult). An estimated 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins to be used for shark fin soup, a delicacy that fetches a $100 a bowl from the newly rich in China.

While Tokyo remains the world’s sushi capital, its spread, for whatever reason, has followed the new global elite like an economic indicator to Moscow, Dubai, India, and China, soon to be the biggest market of all. In his celebratory book The Sushi Economy: The Making of a Modern Delicacy, Sasha Issenberg puts it one way:

Culturally, sushi denotes a certain type of material
sophistication, a declaration that we are confidently
rich enough not to be impressed by volume and refined enough
to savor good things in small doses…More than any other
food, possibly more than any other commodity, to eat sushi
is to display an access to advanced trade markets, of full
engagement in world commerce.

Fishing methods used today in pursuit of such delicacies include long-lining, which consists of a single boat setting a monofilament line across 60 plus miles of ocean, each of which bears lines baited with up to 10,000 hooks, and trawling, or dragging nets equipped for 15 tons of gear across the ocean floor destroying everything in their path- in effect blatantly bulldozing the underwater ecosystem. In the riveting science fiction novel The Swarm, Frank Schatzing imagines a time when the oceans, incited by an all knowing life form called the Yrr, revolt against their human polluters. The revolution takes the form of whales sinking ships, crabs poisoning water supplies, and other surprising twists. Such a scenario is the perfect mirror to what modern human civilization is inflicting on the oceans as fishing has become so brutally efficient as to be revoltingly inefficient. Bycatch, or unwanted species throw back dead or dying make up at least a quarter of the global catch, an estimated 88 billion pounds of life (this according to a 2006 Mother Jones article titled “The Fate of the Ocean”) including some 40,000 sea turtles and hundreds of thousands of seabirds.

The March 2008 issue of Scientific American includes an article titled “Bluefin in Peril” that cautiously endorses commercial domestication of at least most of the ocean as the only way to save the bluefin tuna, and many other species from over-fishing. While such very imperfect methods may ultimately prove to be unavoidable, what would be the grandest solution to save the oceans will be an energized international framework, including provisions such as the banning of trawling.

For the bluefin such a framework has long existed. In 1969, just as the boom was picking up steam, seventeen countries bordering the Atlantic or Mediterranean, including countries with fleets operating there, created the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Its mandate was to protect thirty tuna and other, similar, species with regulations such as minimum size limits and quotas allotted to countries (the European Union being its own signatory). However the commission has largely failed in its mandate, mainly because of piracy (where the Libyan government is directly complicit) and lack of international willpower to enforce treaties, particularly in governments surrounding the Mediterranean. A major loop-hole also exists that allows the minimum size requirement to be bypassed simply by catching a smaller bluefin and fattening it up in captivity to reach an acceptable size before killing it, therefore dangerously killing tuna before they can breed and affecting future generations.

An even grander hope is that such international action will be enforced by an educated public. Ultimately it is consumer demand that drives industries and has the greatest potential to spur reform. In the case of the ocean such a people’s movement would save both important and beautiful species as well as the industries that have spawned around them. At the end of the day this is truly the only hope.

In The Sushi Economy Sasha Issenberg ends his introduction by writing “What goes into the making of sushi has to really be a narrative about the development of twentieth century global capitalism.” Issenberg is more correct than he probably cares to realize, all the more reason for the narrative to finally change.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.

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  1. Don Hawkins said on March 21st, 2008 at 10:09am #


    Tuesday 18 March 2008

    Washington – The thickest, oldest and toughest sea ice around the North Pole is melting, a bad sign for the future of the Arctic ice cap, NASA satellite data showed on Tuesday.

    “Thickness is an indicator of long-term health of sea ice, and that’s not looking good at the moment,” Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center told reporters in a telephone briefing.

    This adds to the litany of disturbing news about Arctic sea ice, which has been retreating over the last three decades, especially last year, when it ebbed to its lowest level.

    Scientists have said the trend is spurred by human-generated climate change.

    Melting Arctic ice does not raise sea levels as the melting of glaciers on Greenland or Antarctica could, but it does contribute to global warming when reflective white ice is replaced by dark water that absorbs the sun’s heat.

    Using satellites that measure how much ice covers water in the Arctic and Antarctic, Meier and other climate scientists found a steep drop in the amount of perennial ice – the hardy, thick ice that is over a year old – in the north.

    The oldest Arctic ice that has survived six years or more is the toughest, and even that shrank dramatically, Meier and the other scientists said.

    Old Ice “Tough as Nails”

    Some 965,300 square miles (2.5 million sq kms) of perennial ice have been lost – about one and a half times the area of Alaska – a 50 percent decrease between February 2007 and February 2008, Meier said.

    The oldest “tough as nails” perennial ice has decreased by about 75 percent this year, losing 579,200 square miles (1.5 million sq kms, or about twice the area of Texas, he said.

    This doesn’t mean the Arctic is open water during the winter, but it does mean that in many areas, the stronger perennial ice is being replaced by younger, frailer new ice that is more easily disturbed by wind and warm sea temperatures.

    “It’s like looking at a Hollywood set,” Meier said of an Arctic largely covered with younger ice. “It may look OK but if you could see behind you’d see … it’s just empty. And what we’re seeing with the ice cover is it’s becoming more and more empty underneath the ice cover.”

    Perennial ice is also vulnerable to a recurring pattern of swirling winds and currents known as the Arctic oscillation, which ejects the old ice out of the zone around the pole and aims it south where warmer waters will melt it.

    The scientists also analyzed satellite data for Antarctica but found less dramatic change there.

    This was attributed to the difference in the two polar regions. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean.

    However, the scientists noted sharp warming on the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches northward from the southern continent toward South America.

  2. hp said on March 21st, 2008 at 10:25am #

    Not to dare question ‘scientists’ or anything but there are questions to be asked.

    One is; how and why did the last ice age end when there were no humans around to upset the climate?
    Why did the earth heat up and end this ‘ice age?’

    Another is; why are the southern ice caps on Mars also melting? Why is Mars and other measurable bodies in our solar system also heating up?

    If it is the sun which is the predominant culprit for global warming, then even if it is desirable to get emissions/pollution under control, which it no doubt is, then isn’t it also very important not to create a false panic such as the kind which often lead to things like starting false wars, shooting the messenger(s) and excessive confiscation/extortion of every individual’s assets?

  3. Don Hawkins said on March 21st, 2008 at 12:09pm #

    HP the problem is the rate of change. In the past it took ten’s of thousands of years and in some cases millions of years between ice age’s. In the past volcanic activity and CO 2 was the reason. There was of course that large rock that ended the dinosaurs. We humans are putting CO 2 into the atmosphere at a very fast rate. By 2030 the highest concentration of CO 2 in One million years. All we are doing is taking the carbon out of the ground that took 300 million years to make, fossil fuels and putting it back into the atmosphere at a rate faster than at anytime in the Planet’s history. The big problem is we pass about 450 ppm CO 2 in the atmosphere we don’t stop the change. Positive feedback or it feeds on itself. With BAU probably 2016 we pass that point. So far year to year more CO 2 not less. That flooding in the middle of the country right now climate change. Warmer air holds more moisture one degree that’s all it takes. We are running out of time to slow this down. In a few day’s I hope James Hansen will put out a paper on just how much time we have and I hope way’s to slow this down.

  4. Don Hawkins said on March 21st, 2008 at 2:19pm #

    I forgot a couple of things. Right now we consume 30% more than the Earth can reproduce. Just that is a nobrainer. This little energy problem. 85 million barrels of oil a day that’s pretty much it. Now if the economy get’s going again the projection is the World needs 87 million a day. I did the math. The best I can understand about 60 or 70% of the rivers in China so polluted that water should not be put on the fields. The rainforests Worldwide being cut and burned for more food and energy biofuels, OK. This new fuel in the US from corn. It takes more energy to produce that fuel, no gain a loss. So what is the plan? Coal, OOPS. Just in this country what is being done about any of this, nothing. We waited to long and the only way now is to slow down until we can solve some of these problems. That is the part many people have a hard time with. Slow it down have you lost your mind. No. Food,why is it a problem because we are now using it for fuel and climate change is starting to be felt and will only get worst and more people want it. Now what do you see just in this country from big business or policy makers not much except they talk about each other like anybody cares. Obama and the other two candidates passports were looked at so what. HP just said excessive confiscation, what. Sea level rise will confiscate the East coast, Gulf coast and that’s just in this country. Sea level rise is pretty much a done deal to late to stop but there is still time to slow this down so we can at least live on Earth although it will be tuff. For me to watch all this I keep saying to myself,” I don’t get it”.

  5. ashley said on March 21st, 2008 at 6:08pm #

    Good article. Forget about global warming etc. when discussing this issue which involves simple, classic bad husbandry.

    The best idea for the hugely depleted fish stocks, many of which have gone down by over 90% the past century to the point where they are probably going to go extinct, are internationally agreed – and large – reserves where NO FISHING AT ALL OF ANY SORT is allowed. This natural environment will give them a chance to return, to thrive and many will migrate out of such reserves where we can decimate them to our heart’s content.

    Without reserves, a huge disaster awaits. If you ever take the time to study the importance of fish in international diets etc. then, leaving aside any environmental or moral arguments, important as they are, you will realize that this is an immediate crisis of far more importance than vaguely argued theories about anthropogenic climate change and its myriad possible – though unknown – effects.

  6. Don Hawkins said on March 22nd, 2008 at 5:33am #

    High methylmercury concentrations in North American freshwater fish have prompted health authorities in Canada and most U.S. states to warn against eating too much of the fish. Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest sources of mercury emissions in the U.S., according to the U.S. EPA.
    According to the Associated Press and the Department of Environmental Quality in Oregon, twenty percent of the mercury levels in the Willamette River are from China. How can we ever attack the mercury issue in our fish and water if countries from the east aren’t trying to cut back on their greenhouse emitting ways.

    By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
    Forget the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Disregard rising public concern over global warming. Ignore the Kyoto Protocol.

    The world certainly is – at least when it comes to building new electric-power plants. In the past five years, it has been on a coal-fired binge, bringing new generators online at a rate of better than two per week. That has added some 1 billion tons of new carbon-dioxide emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere each year. Coal-fired power now accounts for nearly a third of human-generated global CO2 emissions.

    So what does the future hold? An acceleration of the buildup, according to a Monitor analysis of power-industry data. Despite Kyoto limits on greenhouse gases, the analysis shows that nations will add enough coal-fired capacity in the next five years to create an extra 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.

    Those accelerating the buildup are not the usual suspects.

    Take China, which is widely blamed for the rapid rise in greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, China accounted for two-thirds of the more than 560 coal-fired power units built in 26 nations between 2002 and 2006. The Chinese plants boosted annual world CO2 emissions by 740 million tons (see chart). But in the next five years, China is slated \to slow its buildup by half, according to industry estimates, adding 333 million tons of new CO2 emissions every year. That’s still the largest increase of any nation. But other nations appear intent on catching up.

    “Really, it’s been the story of what China is doing,” says Steve Piper, managing director of power forecasting at Platts, the energy information division of McGraw-Hill that provided country-by-country power-plant data to the Monitor. “But it’s also a story of unabated global growth in coal-fired power. We’re seeing diversification away from pricier natural gas and crude oil. Coal looks cheap and attractive – and countries with coal resources see an opportunity that wasn’t there before.”

    For example, the United States is accelerating its buildup dramatically. In the past five years it built 2.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity. But in the next five years, it is slated to add 37.7 gigawatts of capacity, enough to produce 247.8 million tons of CO2 per year, according to Platts. That would vault the US to second place –just ahead of India – in adding new capacity.

    Even nations that have pledged to reduce global warming under the Kyoto treat are slated to accelerate their buildup of coal-fired plants. For example, eight EU nations – Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – plan to add nearly 13 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity by 2012. That’s up from about 2.5 gigawatts over the past five years.

    March 12, 2007 | Climate scientists, key members of Congress, enviros and the progressive wing of the business world are plotting a coup d’état. Regime change isn’t likely to come soon, but this resistance movement could significantly alter the way the pollution-spewing sovereign wields its power.

    The ringleader of this uprising is James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top climate scientists. Last week he threw down the gauntlet: “There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants,” Hansen told the National Press Club.

    Coal supplies nearly half the electricity in the United States and is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other electricity source. The Department of Energy reported last month that 159 new coal-fired power plants are scheduled to be built in the United States in the coming decade, intended to generate enough juice for nearly 100 million homes.

    “If you build a new coal plant, you’re making a 60-year commitment — that’s how long these plants are generally in use,” explains David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center. “So we really need to avoid building a whole new generation of coal plants that use the old technology.”

    Industry boosters tout the prospect of so-called clean coal, but right now there is simply no such thing. Zero-carbon coal plants — ones that will gasify coal, filter carbon dioxide from the vapor, then stow the CO2 underground — are a long way away from commercial application. A handful of coal-gasification plants in development could eventually be retrofitted with carbon-capture and carbon-sequestration capabilities, but for now this pollution-storage technology is years away from even a working pilot phase.

  7. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 23rd, 2008 at 7:34am #

    I don’t know why I still subscribe to The New Yorker, but the current issue does have a long piece about Abu Gahrib by Gourevitch. And several weeks ago I submitted a letter to TNY about a “green” piece by Michael Specter and titled “Big Foot” about carbon footprints, which had appeared a couple of weeks previously.

    Just this week TNY printed its typical spate of letters — from readers obviously more intelligent and informed than the commented-upon article’s author — responding to Specter’s piece but, alas, mine was not among them.

    However. Thanks to the liberal posting rules here at DV, I can hope that no greenie within reading distance will miss my trenchant comments, which were not even acknowledged by the Her Majesty of American Writing, The New Yorker:

    Dear Sir or Madam:

    Regarding “Big Foot” by Michael Specter, the biggest problem is that even successful CEO’s – not to mention biologists, other life scientists, and science reporters – are appallingly ignorant of mathematics and the history of science. Specter quotes Adrian Wilson (“agricultural researcher”) speaking to the simple-mindedness of equating travel distances with carbon loads: “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product. There is no one number that works.” No, it occurred to me, there are lots of numbers, like there were in the rooms full of simultaneous equations Soviet planners had to solve to arrive at the price of an orange.

    Further on in the magazine article, Specter devotes over a column to Simon Thomas, CEO of Trucost, a consulting firm that helps gauge the “full burden” of greenhouse emissions And on page 51, Michael Specter writes: “He (Thomas) mentioned the free-market economist Friedrich Von Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.” Then Simon Thomas continues the heavy lifting: “There is a remarkable essay in which he (Von Hayek) shows how an explosion in, say, a South American tin mine could work its way through the global supply chain to increase the price of canned goods in Europe.”

    In fact there has been only one great mathematician who has ever won a Nobel in Economics, and that was John Nash, twenty years later in 1994. And MacTutor’s History of Mathematics carries no index entry for “von Hayek.” (Oswald Veblen, Thorstein’s brother, is at MacTutor’s and was a notable mathematician; but he died in 1929 and could hardly be confused with von Hayek, who joined the majority in1990.)

    Wikipedia has an informative article about “Nobel Prizes in Economics” with nice little flags for the winners’ countries. The most salient information to be deduced concerns the degradation of the prize – commencing about the time von Hayek was honored – from relatively substantive economic issues to increasingly abstruse market analyses, as US and UK economists increasingly dominated the list of recipients after 1976, the year another highly over-regarded mathematician, Milton Friedman, won. For readers unaware of the fact, there is no Nobel Prize awarded for mathematics, and the Prize for Economics has been a subject of controversy ever since the first ones were awarded in 1969.

    Further in this regard, Freeman Dyson, the great British mathematical physicist, in his most recent book, a collection of essays titled “The Scientist as Rebel,” includes a chapter on the greenhouse gases problem. He was not sanguine when he wrote the piece, but admitted that he needed more information. My recollection is that my copy of the book did not contain the dates of the included essays reprinted from the New York Review, and evidently I gave it to a friend for Christmas.

    (Lloyd Rowsey)

  8. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 23rd, 2008 at 11:10am #

    The Threadstopper

    Strikes Again!

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 23rd, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    I’ve just finished the current TNY piece by Gourevitch and Errol Morris about the MP phtographer at Abu Gharib, and it’s as good as I recall anything was in “We Regret to Inform You…” -My favorite work of non-fiction, ever, which is since I started reading the stuff regularly with Hunter Thompson’s Hells Angels in the 1960s.

    And I remembered Errol Morris from The Thin Blue Line, which I watch again every year or so -he must be the world’s greatest interviewer-moviemaker. What a movie, that! With what a soundtrack by WHFN (What’s his first name?) Glass.

    Anyhoo, you can Google over to the online The New Yorker and listen-to and watch Morris’ interviews with Sabrina Harman, the MP lady busted and sentenced to 2 years for photographing at Abu Ghraib. The article is a form of art, and has the best short description of pornography I’ve ever read.

    I’m sorry. This has el zip to do with the destruction of large sea life or the green movement. What it has to do with is a condition precedent to our ever having the least effect on mankind’s suicidal rush to destroy its environment. To wit, The Iraq War.