Hoki photoCAN SUSTAINABLE AND FISHING PEACEFULLY COEXIST IN THE SAME SENTENCE? Or are they destined to be oxymoronic combatants forever at odds in obliviously overfished seas, rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, ponds, you name it? Running across a sobering piece about the plight of the hoki by New York Times reporter Bill Broad yesterday brought this debate fresh to mind and got me wondering, Who’s really looking out for life in the sea, and are they having any impact that’s truly quantifiable? (Broad’s story even managed to receive a near-instant rebuttal from the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council—how’s that for muddying the waters from the other side of the planet?!)

With perhaps 20,000 known species of fish swimming around out there, why should we worry about the “ugly” bug-eyed hoki (as described by Broad), a fish, also known as a whiptail, that didn’t even make the cut for inclusion in Richard Ellis’ enthralling Encyclopedia of the Sea (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 2000)? It turns out that there’s a very good reason for concern, and a fish like the hoki, while certainly not as cute or family friendly as darling Nemo, helps bring overfishing further into the collective public consciousness—that plus the work of many, many diligent NGOs. That’s our bait, now let’s get ready for the tackle!

filetofishCONSIDER THE HOKI A CASH(SEA)COW if there ever was one: the fast-food/chain-restaurant industry—we’re talking McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s and Denny’s, to name but three—has been using them in fried-fish sandwiches for more than a decade now (mmm, Filet-O-Fish, anyone?). Broad reports that “McDonald’s alone at one time used roughly 15 million pounds of it each year.” Found primarily in half-mile-deep water near New Zealand, the hoki was deemed part of a well-managed, sustainable fishery practice in 2001 and shipped, frozen or fileted, the world over. That practice now seems very much in question. “Without formally acknowledging that hoki are being overfished,” Broad writes in the Times piece, “New Zealand has slashed the allowable catch in steps, from about 275,000 tons in 2000 and 2001 to about 100,000 tons in 2007 and 2008—a decline of nearly two-thirds.” He also quotes the World Wildlife Fund’s Peter Trott, who said problems include population declines, ecosystem damage and the accidental killing of skates and sharks.

The New Zealand Seafood Industry Council rebutts on its website:

  • There is a significant natural fluctuation in the stocks of hoki. As they have done in the past, fisheries managers will continue to manage these fluctuations by adjusting the amount of fish they allow to be caught.
  • The 2009 stock assessment shows New Zealand’s hoki fisheries are healthy, increasing in size and have responded well to prudent management.

Okay, so there we go: he says, they say, who knows. We descend, like an intrepid deep-sea diver, into the well-muddled inky darkness. Without attempting to solve the hoki hullabaloo in one extremely deft fell swoop, let’s take a look at who’s looking out for the relatively defenseless denizens of the sea, starting with several Broad mentions.

  • World Wildlife Fund: WWF, for more than 45 years now, has been protecting the future of nature, working in 100 countries and supported by 1.2 million members in the United States and close to 5 million globally. WWF’s unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature. Sea life supported by WWF includes humphead wrasse (take a look at this critter!), marine turtles, penguins, tuna, and whales and dolphins.
  • Forest & Bird (New Zealand): This independent conservation organization works to preserve New Zealand’s natural heritage and native species. Forest & Bird (kind of a misnomer as it definitely includes sea life!) provides a “pro-conservation voice for all our threatened species and fragile places—from endangered Maui’s dolphins to high-country-tussock-lands.” The organization makes clear that “New Zealand’s territory covers an area of ocean many times greater than our land mass, and is home to many itinerant species, such as sea-birds and marine mammals.”
  • Marine Stewardship Council: Now 10 years in existence, the MSC is a sustainable-seafood certification and eco-labelling program with global reach. It has offices in London, Seattle, Tokyo, the Hague, Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town and Miranda, Australia. In regards to governance, the MSC says, “We work in partnership with a number of organisations, businesses and funders around the world but are fully independent of all. Stakeholders from a range of backgrounds contribute to the MSC program ensuring balance and preventing the dominance of single interests.”
  • Blue Ocean Institute: This organization, co-founded by authors Carl Safina and Mercedes Lee in 2003, “studies and articulates how the ocean is changing and how everything humans do—both on land at sea—affects the waters, wildlife, and people of our world. … Blue Ocean Institute is the only conservation organization that uses science, art, and literature to inspire a closer bond with nature, especially the sea.” The organization’s website encourages visitors to upload photos for possible homepage inclusion, and also includes a wealth of art, poetry and various other writings (check out their Sea Stories), videos and photos, wallpaper downloads and more.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Save the Oceans: This portion of the popular aquarium’s website features a wealth of conservation actions, information and news, plus its deservedly popular Seafood Watch (also available as an iPhone app, of course!).
  • Seafood Choices Alliance: This international program provides leadership and opportunities for change across the seafood industry and ocean conservation community. Founded in the United States in 2001, the organization’s lofty goal is to help “the seafood industry— from fishermen and fish farmers to processors, distributors, retailers, restaurants, and food service providers—to make the seafood marketplace environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.”
  • Smithsonian Seafood Website: No kidding, a great resource! The Smithsonian National Museum of National History, building upon One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish, its sustainable seafood cookbook, has created a first-rate website with plenty of great information about sustainable fishing and fish.
  • National Marine Fisheries Service’s FishWatch: Actually part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), FishWatch is designed to help consumers make informed decisions about the seafood they eat. The management and science requirements involved with building and maintaining sustainable fisheries are also covered in great detail.
  • Environmental Defense Fund: This eco-conscious powerhouse has compiled a handy Seafood Selector to help consumers make “smart choices when eating seafood.” Information includes health benefits and alerts, eco-ratings, fish farming and lots more. Don’t miss their Find a Fish; for hoki, it reads, “There are no eco-recommendations for this fish.

20000 LeaguesThese are great places to start. I’m not even going to jump into the activities of Greenpeace or issues such as offshore drilling, global warming, Japanese whaling practices (see Animal Planet’s Whale Wars for more on this), farm fishing aka aquaculture, eerie sea “dead zones,” gillnetting and the tragic economic gutting of fishing communities across the globe—based here in Oregon I could write an entire post about the regional impact alone.

Suffice it to say, the sea—where we get so much of our food (most of it considered quite healthy if you can get around the PCB and mercury contaminants) and now even a place to grow and extract alternate fuel (research/development of algae as a biofuel is in full swing)—is a sensitive domain that requires close watch—determined groups, individuals, organizations and governments need to set governable standards that business and industry abide by, say when enough is enough, call out and stop damaging practices, measure and share results, and spread the gospel that all bodies of water are special places inhabited by special living things, be they of the bug-eyed and ugly, filet-o-overfished hoki variety or the cute and cuddly, perennially smiling otter ilk. Twenty-thousand species, just like those forever magical and evocative leagues under the sea, sounds like a great number to remain at.

See “Overfishing: Are there really plenty of fish in the sea?” story posted October 6, 2009, on Mother Nature Network’s website.


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