Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Wednesday, February 08, 2012 9:30 AM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue,
magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wendee Holtcamp spoke with ocean advocate Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, about how to create sustainable ocean fisheries.
What would it take to create sustainable ocean fisheries?
It is going to take coordination at the highest levels, coordination between different government entities responsible for managing resources. Nations are struggling to set catch limits and quotas, while still trying to figure out how many fish are there. We don’t know enough about the oceans, yet we’re reducing the amount of money we’re spending on research. A lot of very smart people around the world are working on the problem of sustainable fisheries, but we need to invest more in science. We also need to get the fishermen on board. We need to get them to embrace devices like the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), and to use nets with wider filaments so they’re catching their target species, rather than tighter nets that catch everything. It will take fishermen staying out of marine protected areas and catching the species they’re allowed to fish and not overexploited species. If we’re able to get everyone on the same page, we still can achieve sustainability. But we are running out of time.
How are we doing so far?
Right now we are failing miserably. It’s a free-for-all out in the ocean. There’s no ownership of common spaces, and there’s a “get it before the next guy gets it” mentality.
What can consumers do to help?
People should avoid fish that are overexploited, such as Chilean sea bass, swordfish, shark, irresponsibly caught shrimp and all sorts of other species on the brink. In the U.S. alone we have almost 700 different species that are not only safe to eat but also tasty, but we eat the same dozen species every time because we know what they look like, we know our family will eat them. We need to make different choices. If it continues to go on as now, we’re going to see some major collapses.
How does your organization, Blue Legacy, work with sustainable water issues?
Last year, we converted John McCain’s Straight Talk Express into a biodiesel mobile workstation, and then went on a 17,100-mile expedition across North America, stopping on many spots along the way to tell the water stories of local communities and local water-keepers. Through film and expeditionary filmmaking, we work to reconnect people with the water in their life, water that shapes the land they live on, shapes the places they live, the communities they have and the quality of life they depend on. The short films are distributed primarily online to media partners, schools, nonprofits and all sorts of organizations so they can tell their stories online to advance their objectives in the communities they serve. When we stopped in a community, we made that day all about them.
Has having a baby affected your outlook?
When I think about projections on what we’ll have in 5, 10, 50 years, all of a sudden that’s a time frame of Clémentine’s life, and those milestones are very poignant. When I was young, I had great opportunity to see a lot of extraordinary places, but now they’re gone or fundamentally different from how I knew them. That grieves me. There were places that broadened my view of the world, and as we lose those places we impoverish ourselves. I want there to be places she can spend weeks exploring tide pools, and pristine creeks where she can catch tadpoles. I want her to know those things. Our generation is the last generation to be able to save some of these treasures we have. It’s our “space race” to protect the quantity and quality of water systems. If we fail, her generation will have lost some really irreplaceable natural places and species.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Image by Bil Zelman.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 4:33 PM
“Save the whales” may have become something of a schoolyard taunt for anti-environmentalists to hurl, but make no mistake: Some activists are still out there, saving whales. Foremost among them is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has harassed, butted, and even boarded whaling ships in its mission to deter illegal whaling.
Sea Shepherd founder and leader Paul Watson is described as an “anti-Ahab” in Prospect by writer Philip Hoare, who explains that the bold group managed to put a large dent in Japan’s whale take last season:
In February, the Japanese fisheries minister announced that Sea Shepherd’s actions, which include boarding whaling ships, forced the curtailment of the 2010-11 season on safety grounds. As a result, many fewer whales were caught. Sea Shepherd put Japan’s catch at 30, compared to the country’s fleet’s self-declared quota of 900. Campaigners quickly claimed a victory in the making.
Loare notes that soon after this, one of Japan’s four major whaling communities was devastated by the tsunami, “knocking out a pillar of the nation’s whaling industry,” the New York Times reported.
It remains to be seen if the one-two punch of Sea Shepherd’s campaigns and the tsunami will have a lasting effect on whaling by Japan, which often skirts legality by falsely claiming to be whaling for scientific reasons. In the meantime, a documentary about Watson and his merry band of whale savers, Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist, is opening in Germany and heading for U.S. release. View the trailer here:
(article available to subscribers only),New York Times, Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Saturday, August 20, 2011 8:50 AM
A conservationist working to save endangered sea turtles is
taking a counterintuitive approach—he’s befriending the poachers. Alexander
Gaos, dubbed “the turtle
whisperer” in Conservation
magazine, has found 500 new eastern Pacific hawksbill turtle nesting sites in El
Salvador and Nicaragua by forging ties, and trust, with the local fishermen who
know the terrain better than anyone else.
He tells Conservation:
These were folks who thought of “conservationists”
as people who got you thrown in jail, got your beach closed, and turned it into
a turtle project. I tried to tell them I was not there to take names, call the
cops, or bag on them for eating turtle eggs. When they asked me whether I ate
turtle eggs, I sometimes told them: “Yes, sure, I’m not going to lie to you.”
Then I’d challenge them, telling them that scientists thought hawksbills were
extinct. They’d say: “No, they’re rare, but still around . . . we’ll take you
out to see them.”
Sometimes cash is part of the equation. In Nicaragua, Gaos’
conservation organization, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, is paying
a fishing cooperative $40 for every nest sight its members protect.
Gaos explains why he makes the effort to work with poachers
Because they have already pushed hawksbills very
close to extinction, and they aren’t slowing down. Because there’s just no way
you are going to find your way around those places if you don’t have the locals
Image by chucklepix (Steve),
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 08, 2011 5:10 PM
Today kicks off a four-part series on climate change at The Atlantic. Part one comes from Paul R. Epstein, co-author of the book Changing Planet, Changing Health. Epstein tells us just how changing temperatures in the oceans can lead to more severe weather in the middle of the U.S., like the calamitous tornado earlier this year in Joplin, Missouri.
So global warming is thus causing climate change, including altered weather patterns, and the engine of change is the heat building up deep inside the world's oceans. Water is warming, ice is melting, and water vapor is rising. How does this help explain tornadoes? …
It's all about contrasts and gradients. Warmer temperatures over land surfaces create low-pressure systems (since hot air rises, creating "lows"), while cold fronts from the north come with high pressures. Weather "flows downhill," as it were—from highs to lows. When temperature and pressure gradients between highs and lows increase (as they do naturally in spring), the clash can twist to form tornadoes. The greater the contrasts, the greater the force of the twisters.
This spring, especially warm and moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico met up with especially cold fronts from the north, driven by melting Arctic and Greenland ice.
Epstein cautions against assuming that any of this means a predictable increase in severe weather. In fact, the unpredictability is the point here. There may be years when severe flooding and tornadoes seem much milder than the previous year. “But,” Epstein writes, “it is clear that changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions underlie the changing patterns of weather—and that the stage is set for more severe storms, including even more punishing tornadoes.”
Keep an eye out for the other three parts in this series from The Atlantic.
Source: The Atlantic
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 12:53 PM
Before the extent of Japan’s nuclear crisis had even become clear—in fact, before the aftershocks had ended—nuclear apologists were rushing forth to point out that the Fukushima incident was no Chernobyl. Some of them were pointing out, correctly, that the two disasters were very different in their particulars—one was caused by human negligence and error, one by a tsunami, the reactor designs are different, etc.—but others were effectively saying, don’t worry, they’re simply not in the same ballpark.
Well, the latter group of prognosticators can eat their words. The Japanese nuclear regulatory agency has revised the severity of the Fukushima accident so that it is now ranked equal to Chernobyl on the International Nuclear and Radiation Event scale. Yes, more people were killed immediately in the Chernobyl meltdown, and in it more radiation was released—if we’re to believe what we’re being told by Japan’s nuclear spokesmen, that is—but under the nuke industry’s own rating system, the two events are now in the same category: The worst.
Grist’s Jess Zimmerman is still intent on delineating the differences between the incidents (even though that’s been done extensively), and unfortunately she does so under the CNN-worthy headline “How much should you panic?”
Well, I’m not panicking: Like many environmentalists, my own skin is not always my foremost concern. But I am worried for the many Japanese people who are and will be affected, for the sea ecosystems that will be polluted, and by the ongoing sense that this tragic story is still unfolding.
Sources: BBC, Grist, Pro Publica
, licensed under
Thursday, February 24, 2011 11:09 AM
Carl Safina’s new book The View From Lazy Point is a font of environmental wisdom on the natural world and all that affects it, including human behavior, economics, religion, and science. An ecologist who wrote the sea conservation classic Song for the Blue Ocean, Safina in his new book chronicles a year spent near and on the water, interspersing lyrical nature writing with forthright, eminently sensible commentaries on all the forces that threaten the blue ocean—and the blue planet as well.
Here is Safina on the “property rights” movement:
One can fully own a manufactured thing—a toaster, say, or a pair of shoes. But in what reasonable sense can one fully “own” and have “rights” to do what ever we want to land, water, air, and forests that are among the most valuable assets in humanity’s basic endowments? To say, in the march of eons, that we own these things into which we suddenly, fleetingly appear and from which we will soon vanish is like a newborn laying claim to the maternity ward, or a candle asserting ownership of the cake; we might as well declare that, having been handed a ticket to ride, we’ve bought the train. Let’s be serious.
On the immorality of dirty energy:
The right and necessary things are not always decided solely on economic considerations. If ever energy came cheap, slavery was it. Slavery created jobs for slave catchers, a shipping industry built on the slave trade, and a plantation economy that could remain profitable only with slave labor. Slavery was necessary to “stay competitive.” It was the linchpin of the Southern plantation economy. But no normal person today would argue that slavery is good for the economy. We’ve made at least that progress.
Yet we hear—all the time—arguments defending dirty energy on economic grounds. Those arguments are as morally bankrupt as the ones defending slavery in its heyday. It isn’t moral to force coming generations to deal with the consequences of our fossil-fuel orgy. It isn’t moral to insist, in effect, on holding them captive to our present economy.
And on resisting consumerism:
The 1960s counterculture attempted what we need now more than ever: a spirited culture of refusal, a counterlife. … The revolution is as simple as this: Don’t buy the products by which they drain you and feed themselves. Listen to people trying to warn you, but don’t vote for anyone trying to scare you. Resist! Do the unadvertised and the unauthorized. Comb someone’s hair. Plant seeds. Reread. Practice safe sex until you get it right. Go to a museum, aquarium, or zoo. Be .org- and be commercial-free. Photograph someone you love with no clothes on. Not them—you. Walk a brisk mile to nowhere and back. Mark a child’s height on a freshly painted wall. Climb into bed with the Arts or Science section of an actual newspaper and get a little newsprint on your fingers. Eat salad. Clean your old binoculars. Hoard your money until you get enough to make a difference to charity. Go to formal dinners in great-looking thrift-store clothing and brag about how much you paid. React badly to every ad and every exhortation about what you need, as though they are lying, as though they just came up from behind in the dark and said, “Give me your wallet.” Scream when they come to rob you. You’ll never go wrong. You won’t miss anything worthwhile. The country needs your lack of cooperation.
Look for an excerpt from The View From Lazy Point in the May-June issue of Utne Reader.
Source: The View From Lazy Point
Panel image by BaylorBear78, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:03 PM
It’s too late to hope for getting out of this unscathed. We’ve poisoned, destroyed, and exploited this planet to the point of no return, so now all we can do is minimize the damage. And according to some scientists, it’s the oceans that need to step up and staunch the bleeding.
In the latest issue of Miller-McCune, journalist Peter Friedrici investigates the pros and cons of carbon sequestration, the process of deliberating depositing mass amounts of carbon dioxide thousands of meters under the ocean’s surface. The theory is that this method would buy mankind some time to develop other ways to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, as CO2 causes more harm in the atmosphere than in surface waters (and even then, it would take thousands of years for the sequestered carbon to makes its way from the depths to the surface). But still, the consequences of this process would be devastating at best:
If carbon dioxide is deliberately placed in the ocean, at whatever depth, it will ultimately reach surface waters and contribute to their acidification…The larvae of sea urchins and other marine organisms with external skeletons will grow differently. Adults will grow less and have trouble surviving. Shellfish will be unable to develop shells. Corals will no longer build reefs.
Ultimately, we will have to make a choice. What organisms or ecosystems must, to some extent, be sacrificed for the greater good of global geochemical stability? Friederici writes:
Ocean sequestration may be a bad idea that will cause untold harm to deep-ocean ecosystems we barely understand—but doing it may also represent a better alternative than doing nothing. It’s like the amputation of a badly wounded leg: a terrible prospect, unless it’s the only way to save a life.
Obviously this could all be avoided if we dramatically cut down on our consumption of fossil fuels, but let’s face it, that’s just not going to happen. So which will it be: the leg, or the life?
Thursday, August 19, 2010 3:15 PM
The chemical bisphenol A is seemingly everywhere—it’s in our receipts, our toys, our food containers, even our bodies—and it’s increasingly suspected as a factor in many health problems. Now the nasty stuff is even in lobsters, and it may be killing them off.
tipped us to a story in U Conn Today on the research of Hans Laufer, a molecular biologist who believes that waterborne chemicals including BPA is contributing to the shell disease that is killing off lobsters in Long Island Sound. Laufer, reports U Conn Today, has
found that by interfering with hormones crucial to young lobster growth, chemicals such as bisphenol A can slow the lobsters’ molting patterns and interfere with regular development, leading to body deformations, susceptibility to disease, and potential death.
As for those BPA-laden receipts, Treehugger has some promising news, reporting that three large European grocery chains are planning to phase out BPA in their receipts. The move may add to the momentum to do the same in the United States. In the meantime, wash your hands very well after handling receipts from CVS, Whole Foods, Safeway, the U.S. Postal Service, Walmart, Chevron, McDonalds, KFC, and—get this—the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria. See the Environmental Working Group’s website for a full breakdown of which receipts are the most, and least, toxic.
Source: U Conn Today, Treehugger, Environmental Working Group
Image by tuppus, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010 10:49 AM
High Country News has published an interactive report about the contents of a stranded gray whale’s stomach. The whale was 37 feet long, so there was room for plastic bags, duct tape, assorted clothing, and a Capri Sun juice pack, among other things. HCN puts it all in a global perspective, offering stats on the items most frequently found drifting in the oceans. The only thing more ubiquitous than plastic bags? Cigarettes. Which would be fine, but smoking whales just go extinct faster.
Source: High Country News
Congratulations to High Country News, which won a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award for environmental coverage.
Image by little blue hen, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010 4:13 PM
Ever feel like we’ve just totally screwed ourselves with the oceans? I’m not even talking about BP’s gushing well: It’s this recent report from the Telegraph that U.K. nutritionists are now advising pregnant women to eat more fish.
Fish, of course, contains mercury, a heavy metal pollutant that comes from human industry (and, to be fair, from some natural sources like volcano eruptions). Pregnant women, children, the elderly—nutritional convention has been to watch how much you eat. Except seafood also is a rich source of omega-3s, and nutritionists now say that the fatty-acid benefits, especially for pregnant women, could outweigh the heavy-metal risks.
What benefits, you say? The star of the omega-3 cast is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and as The Economist tidily explains:
DHA is a component of brains, particularly the synaptic junctions between nerve cells, and its displacement from modern diets by the omega-6 acids in cooking oils such as soya, maize and rape is a cause of worry.
Many researchers think this shift—and the change in brain chemistry that it causes—explains the growth in recent times of depression, manic-depression, memory loss, schizophrenia and attention-deficit disorder. It may also be responsible for rising levels of obesity and thus the heart disease which often accompanies being overweight.
Stateside nutritionists are also changing their minds. A group has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to adjust its stance on pregnant women’s diets, and the Department of Defense plans to launch a program to augment soldiers’ diets with omega-3s, The Economist reports. Low levels of DHA are a suicide risk factor for people in the service.
So here’s the positive take-away, if there is one: Should you wish to get more fish-based omega-3s into your diet, eating lower on the fish food chain is the best way to make that happen, keep mercury levels low, and, oh yeah, stop straining the ocean’s ecosystems by gobbling up big predators like tuna, swordfish, and grouper. (For what it's worth, there are also plant-based sources of omega-3s, although there have been studies that shed doubt on whether they are as beneficial as the fish-based ones.)
For some excellent reading about eating lower on the fish food chain, follow the link to an excerpt from Taras Grescoe’s book Bottomfeeder, which is one of the most illuminating studies I’ve read on how to eat fish ethically. (And he’s a big fan of the omega-3s.)
Sources: Telegraph, The Economist, Bottomfeeder
Image by L. Marie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 20, 2010 12:53 PM
As we enter the season of plastic-intensive picnicking—would you like some plastic-bottled water to accompany your meal eaten off a plastic plate with a plastic fork?—it’s worth remembering that our convenience comes at nature’s cost. This video that dramatizes plastic’s toll on the environment, and on wildlife, is shocking and powerful, despite—or because of?—a soundtrack consisting solely of Queen’s bombastic power ballad “Who Wants to Live Forever”:
Take this as a reminder: It’s not impolite to bring your environmental ethic to a cookout. The next time you head out for summer fun that includes eating outside, bring a few extra things—washable and reusable plates, cups, and utensils—and leave your guilt behind.
(Thanks, Fake Plastic Fish and Plastic Manners.)
Wednesday, May 19, 2010 5:48 PM
A shark without a dorsal fin is like … well, a dead shark. Sharks whose fins have been lopped off simply don’t survive, and yet fishermen relentlessly perform these brutal amputations in order to feed the voracious market for shark-fin soup. Costa Rican marine biologist-turned-activist Randall Arauz recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work campaigning against finning, as it’s called, which has reduced shark populations worldwide by 90 percent over the last 50 years.
Reporter Erica Gies at SF Public Press asked Arauz
what this means:
Q: As a biologist, can you explain what losing 90 percent or more of sharks in an area does to the ecosystem?
A: There’s a very important principle in ecology: biodiversity fosters biodiversity. So if we have many species of sharks, that means we’re going to have many species of animals that they prey upon. Logic would tell us that if we wipe out the sharks, hey, nothing’s going to eat the fish, and fish populations will increase. But it’s totally the contrary. If we wipe out the sharks and reduce their diversity, everything is going to be less diverse, and it will create a major change in the structure of the ecosystem’s functioning.
Recently, on the East Coast of the United States, the sharks were wiped out. And as a consequence, scallop fisheries, which are hundreds of years old, have collapsed. And people wonder, well, what’s the relationship between sharks and scallops? And the thing is, sharks on the East Coast of the United States feed on rays. And rays feed on scallops. So when you wipe out the sharks, nothing eats the rays, so the rays have a population explosion, and they end up eating all the scallops. And people, who lived for many centuries harvesting scallops in a sustainable fashion, all of a sudden have no more fishery because the sharks were wiped out.
Who eats shark-fin soup? Traditionally, notes SF Public Press, it’s been wealthy Chinese diners, but the taste for it has spread to the Chinese middle class and expatriate communities. Shark fin is also used in some vitamin supplements and makeup.
A video about Arauz’s work held a key position at the Goldman prize ceremony in San Francisco on April 19. On the Costa Rican Conservation Network’s blog, correspondent Andy Bymer reports, “Because of the sensitive nature of shark finning and the powerful images depicted in the video, organizers decided to end the ceremony with this environmental exclamation point.” Here it is:
Sources: Goldman Environmental Prize, SF Public Press, Costa Rican Conservation Network’s Blog
Image by Will Parrinello, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010 5:02 PM
The United States has finally stood up and done something about the overfishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna, announcing today that it’s backing an international proposal to ban trade in the species. The seemingly doomed bluefin has been on my mind since I watched the powerful film documentary The End of the Line, which just came out on DVD. The film holds up the bluefin as the current poster fish of overconsumption, perhaps destined to join the Atlantic cod in the legion of collapsed fisheries, and contains unnerving footage of writhing piles of tuna being netted, gaffed, and dismembered. Watch the trailer here:
While the U.S. support for the bluefin ban is good news, it’s tempered by the fact that Japan, which eats 80 percent of the world’s bluefin catch, has said it will not sign on to the agreement. Japan contends that calling the fish endangered is an overstatement, and prefers that tuna be regulated by a different framework than the one supported by the U.S., the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.
“A ban would only succeed if the United States and other countries apply maximum diplomatic pressure on Japan to change course,” the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial this week. I’m not sure what form “maximum diplomatic pressure” would take, but in my mind it’s time to stop being diplomatic: President Obama should use his presidential bully pulpit to tell Japan in strong language that the United States is ready to impose trade restrictions in other areas if Japan continues its intransigence on this issue. The bluefin deserves no less.
Sources: Treehugger, New York Times, Boston Globe
Tuesday, June 16, 2009 6:07 PM
Perhaps you’ve seen urban anglers in your city—you know, the folks dropping a fishing line into waters along rip-rapped canals, seedy waterfronts, and murky riverways. Many of these anglers are recent immigrants, and many of them are fishing not so much for sport as for dinner. The Northern California environmental magazine Terrain reports on the difficulty that environmental officials have had in warning these communities that their catch may be seriously harming their health. Warning signs can be misinterpreted, and even when they’re clear, cultural traditions often trump their message.
Any urban bay, lake, or river is a virtual “cocktail of mean and nasties,” says marine scientist Timothy Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund, and many are polluted with toxins including mercury, PCBs, and pesticides. And yet,
Big American cities are also home to ethnic populations who love seafood and are accustomed to catching what they eat, rather than buying it retail. Many subsistence fisherfolk living in Northern California see no reason to break cultural tradition, especially during an economic downturn when passing up free meals feels like madness.
The story is part of an excellent cover package called “Sea Change” that includes articles on seaweed harvesters, rising sea levels, a program for tagging and tracking sea predators, and the general state of the oceans. As you might guess, it’s not always cheery reading, but it’s important for anyone concerned about the fate of the world’s waters and their intricate web of life.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:41 AM
The home aquarium trade is endangering coral reefs and hobbyists’ beloved marine pets. To stem the tide of destruction, consumers have to get involved.
As far as pets go, fish don’t have the most outgoing, cuddly personalities. But their brilliant colors and graceful movements have made aquariums vaunted fixtures in more than 800,000 U.S. households.
A home aquarium sounds harmless, but the trade that brings fish from coral reefs to our homes and dentist offices is deadly and unsustainable. Once lively reefs are being emptied of their inhabitants, leaving these crucial hubs of biodiversity in crisis. It’s a complex problem, with no easy solutions. Governing bodies haven’t stepped in to regulate the trade, and that means the power to make a difference lies in consumers’ hands.
The problem begins long before colorful butterfly fish and Banggai cardinalfish reach pet stores. Most fish come from coral reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia, where local fishermen make a living plundering fragile ecosystems that already have been damaged by warming waters (a phenomenon driven by climate change). Exporters pay fishermen per fish, says Drew Weiner, director of Reef Protection International, a Berkeley, California-based organization that seeks to educate the public about the aquarium trade and coral reefs. This pay-per-fish system has led to a deadly practice: Fishermen use cyanide to temporarily stun fish and make them easier to catch. But less than 1 in 10 fish survive a cyanide stun, so the majority of stunned fish die hours later and arrive in the United States floating belly-up. On top of that, cyanide can damage surrounding coral and marine life not targeted for capture.
Even fish that are never exposed to cyanide frequently perish from trauma caused by the long trip from coral reefs to Los Angeles (where most major importers are located) to pet stores around the country. The result is millions of dead fish that don’t reach aquariums, further exacerbating demand for fish from over-harvested coral reefs.
Although the issue has gotten some coverage by the environmental press, the mainstream media have largely ignored the problem. The aquarium trade accounts for less than 1 percent of all the revenue generated from the ocean, so the problem hasn’t garnered attention on a large scale, Weiner says. The two largest sources of ocean revenue—recreation and commercial fishing—draw far more focus and have far stronger lobbying bases fighting for their interests.
A few legislative attempts to regulate the industry never made it off the ground, according to Barbara Best, a coastal resource and policy adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency that provides nonmilitary foreign aid. In the context of coral reef protection, USAID has been working with countries like the Philippines to promote economic development while sustaining biodiversity. USAID serves as a member of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, a partnership of government agencies formed to create a national action plan for protecting coral reefs. In the National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs, created in 2000, the Task Force called for improved domestic laws regulating the import of marine animals into the United States, but Best says it didn’t go anywhere. She cites a variety of factors for the stalled effort, including the difficulty of enacting effective legislation, concern for fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the trade, and other issues being prioritized by Congress.
Another program, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), has tried to self-regulate the trade through an international certification program. Although MAC was created with good intentions, the program was never able to achieve its goal of certifying all the players in the trade, according to Weiner.
“It's not something that's been paid much attention to, but it's a huge story because [MAC] sucked $20 million out of the donor community for this misguided certification program that was flawed from the start,” Weiner says. (Best acknowledges that USAID was one such donor; the agency financially supported MAC for three years but dropped support after realizing the program wasn’t effective.)
With an unsuccessful certification program and no laws regulating import of marine animals, captive breeding programs and consumer education appear to be the most viable solutions to the problem.
Captive breeding aims to reduce demand for wild fish by raising would-be pets in tanks and then exporting them to pet stores. But consumer education about the environmental benefits of purchasing captive bred fish is crucial: Less than 10 percent of aquarium species are currently tank-raised, and consumer demand remains high for species that are not easily bred in captivity.
Weiner says that—given consumer demand and legislative blockades—an all-out ban on the import of marine animals might be the only option to ensure the protection of coral reefs.
“[A ban] might be the easiest thing to do politically: Since there are so few stakeholders, who will complain? It'd be different if you were to try to shut down the commercial fishing industry,” Weiner says.
But a ban could also push the trade further underground, Best says. And that could make the industry even more difficult to manage.
This leaves all hope with consumers. Hobbyists can reduce demand for wild fish by buying captive bred species whenever possible. If captive bred fish aren’t available, consumers should try to choose species that are less susceptible to endangerment. To help hobbyists, Reef Protection International (RPI) has created a Reef Fish Guide that directs consumers on which species of fish are safe for purchase. For example, the combtooth blenny is on RPI’s “take it home” list because it easily adapts to a home aquarium and isn’t at high risk for disease. Even though the fish isn’t currently captive bred, the species breeds frequently enough in the wild that it isn’t threatened by endangerment. On the other hand, the moorish idol is on RPI’s “keep it wild” list (i.e., don’t buy it) because less than 5 percent survive the transport to home aquariums, and if they do make it that far, they are highly susceptible to disease.
Finding captive bred fish or fish on the “take it home” list can be tricky, especially when dealing with large pet store chains. At Petco.com, consumers can order 78 species of marine fish for home delivery, three of which (the cleaner wrasse, panther grouper, and large angelfish) aren’t recommended for purchase by RPI for various reasons. Petco sells captive bred fish, but the website doesn’t consistently specify which fish are captive bred. (A Petco representative, Ryan May, told Utne.com via email that though some of the website’s and stores’ stocks are wild, most of its fish are captive bred and that the company is “always on the lookout for new resources so we can eventually not have a need for non-captive bred species in our stores.”)
Instead of going straight to the big chain pet stores, Weiner recommends consumers seek advice from their local aquarium hobbyist club. These groups usually have current information on where to buy sustainably captured fish and corals. The Marine Aquarium Societies of North America maintains a database of 157 hobbyist clubs in the United States and Canada. These clubs often link to smaller, local pet and aquarium stores, where staff is knowledgeable about sustainability issues.
Jake Hagberg is the owner of Discovery Aquatics, an aquarium service and installation store near Minneapolis that doesn’t sell fish, and is a lifelong, passionate aquarium hobbyist.
“A lot of stores don’t give hobbyists the education they need to be successful,” Hagberg says. “They bring in fish that are really colorful and beautiful, but they don’t last long in captivity.”
If consumers don’t stop demanding endangered wild fish, they may be in the market for a new hobby.
“Eventually there is going to be a day when [pet stores] don't have fish to sell,” Weiner says.
Image by jon hanson, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, January 14, 2008 2:39 PM
If you like to eat out and seafood is on the menu, the Blue Ocean Institute has made it easier to pick the most sustainable entree. Just send a text message to 30644 that includes “Fish” and the type of seafood you’re thinking of ordering, and the Fish Phone will shoot back a message telling you how ecofriendly your choice is.
I was curious about halibut, one of my favorite types of fish. I whipped out my cell, texted the Fish Phone, and got an immediate reply: “Pacific Halibut (GREEN) few environmental concerns, MSC certified as sustainable; Atlantic Halibut (RED) significant environmental concerns.”
You can also download a wallet-size version of the seafood guide if you don’t want to pay for a text message.
(Thanks, Sierra Club.)
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