Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Red Fish, Green Fish
distributed 7/13/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harley & Martha Tripp, of Gunnison, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Last weekend, my wife and I went out for a relaxed dinner with two good friends. Our companions were delighted to see that the menu had quite a few fish dishes. The "what are you going to get?" discussion of fish as a dinner choice revealed an immediate problem -- and led to a fascinating and friendly conversation.

The problem arose when we found that my spouse did not have her ever-present, handy-dandy Seafood Watch wallet card with her. We were caught without that convenient and authoritative guide to which kinds of seafood are responsible environmental choices (in the "green" column), and which are to be avoided (the "red" fish). Unfortunately, the restaurant's menu descriptions didn't provide many clues to inform our choices. Was the evening's special of swordfish an OK choice? What about all the others?

On another level, though, that momentary "problem" contributed to the pleasure of the occasion. Rather than a quick and passing use of the reference card to eliminate or affirm dinner options, we were led into an extended discussion about the state of the world's oceans, and the need to make responsible choices about the food that we eat.

Luckily, our friends share our strong ecological values, so the conversation about what is morally good to eat was pleasant, thoughtful and engaging. (Not all our friends would take so well to the topic!) Our talk around the dinner table deepened our friendship, and renewed our environmental awareness and commitments.

By the way, after lengthy discussions, both of our friends ordered trout. It is a farm-raised fish which is sustainable and has very few pollution problems. When I checked later, I found that it is, as we expected, listed in the green "best choices" column of the Seafood Watch card. Seafood Watch lists swordfish, on the other hand, as a definite no-no.

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If it were not for the catastrophe of global warming -- which overshadows and impacts all else -- the condition of the world's oceans and fisheries would be considered a disaster of unprecedented scale. Pollution, over-fishing and habitat loss have devastated marine populations and ecosystems.

Just 40 years ago, the oceans were being lifted up as the "breadbasket" that could feed the world's expanding human population. The abundance of the seas was considered inexhaustible. Now, though, more than 75% of the world's fisheries are either fully fished or overfished. Populations of many fish species are at dangerously low levels. The shifting balance of predator and prey species is causing further disruptions of the ocean ecology. A report in Science Magazine last fall (Nov 3, 2006) warned that commercial fish and seafood species may all crash by 2048 if current trends continue.

Powerful new technologies -- the use of satellite data and sonar, nets and fishlines that stretch for many miles, and bottom trawling that can plow up vast areas of seafloor -- have increased the impact of marine fisheries. Fleets from many countries work the open ocean with little or no international control. In some settings, the "farming" of fish and shellfish is opening a path to sustainable and responsible fish production, but proving to be an environmental disaster in others.

As we experienced in ordering our dinners, it can be hard for consumers to know even what kind of fish they are eating -- since many are marketed under multiple names. It is especially hard to find our where or how those fish were caught. Without expert guidance -- like the card that my wife almost always has in her purse -- it is very difficult for most of us to make informed and responsible choices.

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The convenient wallet card from Seafood Watch is a wonderful tool for guiding your purchases. The cards are developed and distributed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of their extensive and respected Seafood Watch program. I encourage you to visit the website, and explore some of their other articles and resources. Learn something about the urgent and complex problems. Print off a copy of the pocket guide, and carry it in your wallet or purse. (There's a national version, and several specialized regional cards, too.)

I also encourage you to move beyond your personal use of the list. These cards can be a great way to involve others in responsible purchasing, and to guide them toward community action and a deeper ecological consciousness.

Consider ordering a bundle of the cards and distributing them to your friends, and to members of your church. Run an article in your church newsletter, or hold a class, to explain why our choices about fish are so important. Sharing these cards, and naming this form of food awareness, is a worthwhile effort that can have at least three types of helpful impacts.

  1. Using a list of "best choices" or fish to "avoid" is a simple and practical way for all of us to make decisions about food purchases. At this most basic level, using the list only requires a vague awareness that there are problems about fisheries, and a general commitment to being a responsible consumer. It doesn't require that we understand all of the complexities of fishing methods or aquaculture. We don't need to know why farmed Atlantic salmon is on the red list, and wild Alaska salmon is green. Carrying the card lets us be conscientious without steeping ourselves in all the details of another global crisis.

  2. More broadly, starting to use the Seafood Watch cards helps us become more aware of where our food comes from. That awareness is a good thing with regard to all of our food. Picking which kind of tuna to buy reinforces good behaviors about reading labels, and shaping our purchasing decisions based on ethical factors, instead of price alone.

  3. And once the awareness of food issues starts to soak in, we may become more likely to notice, care about, and act on the political and economic issues that relate to the stewardship of fisheries and oceans. We may be more inclined to speak up about business practices and public policy once our awareness has expanded. Learning to be careful about the fish we buy may, at times, lead us to be activists.

    In fact, last weekend's dinner led me to go back to the Seafood Watch website. I discovered several good resources there that will help me go back to the restaurant with suggestions about how they can select appropriate fish, and how they can help their patrons with additional information on the menu. Perhaps our nice neighborhood restaurant can establish a policy of serving only fish on the green "best choices" list -- and letting their customers know that any menu choice is good to eat, both for flavor and for conscience.

Simple choices about what we eat can make a difference in the health of the world's oceans. Making those choices a regular habit can help us deepen our stewardship through education, awareness, and action.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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