Because they exist in a murky world deep below the crashing waves or gentle lake surface that we see, the world's seafood supplies remain a mystery to most diners. If the gruesome realities of large-scale commercial beef, pork, and poultry production are unfamiliar to Americans, imagine how little we know of the industrial fishing practices that bring seafood from the water to our plate. As even someone unfamiliar with the industry can imagine, it's broken. Many species are overfished, ecosystems are imbalanced, and in some cases, populations are reaching the point of no return. An article in today's New York Times explores a ray of hope that shines from Half Moon Bay, Caliornia: an unprecedented partnership between The Nature Conservancy and area fisherman has yielded promising results. Is this model the future of sustainable fishing?
Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt, Cod, and most recently, A World Without Fish, a children's book that addresses sustainable fishing. Kurlansky spoke passionately about issues of overfishing, but he stressed a nuanced understanding of the problem. The idea isn't to stop fishing for certain species, he told me. Any type of fish can be caught in a sustainable or an unsustainable way. He believes that most small-scale fisherman really do want to fish sustainably, because it is in their best interest to have seafood around in the future.
Reading the Times article, I remembered some of the points that Kurlansky made during our conversation, and tried to apply them to The Nature Conservancy's Half Moon Bay program. Kurlansky said that fisherman have a deep understanding of the areas they fish, which has been a key asset to The Nature Conservancy. By offering fisherman financial incentives and buy-outs, TNC convinced them to share their vast knowledge of which areas are overfished, which need protecting, and which contained fish nurseries that should be off-limits to fisherman. This radical partnership is one of the main reasons that the program has succeeded in California where others have failed; it requires the cooperation, and yes, compensation of local fisherman to make sustianability worth their attention.
Kurlansky also said that one of the greatest obstacles to protecting marine life is a lack of data sharing. Individual watersheds, states, and NGOs have their own monitering in place, but in most cases, there is no meta-system to share this information. Here, too, the California program is making strides. TNC provided free iPads, loaded with a system called eCatch, that allowed boats to report their catches in real time. This instant transfer of data enabled captains to make better decisions about where to fish and how many fish they had left in their quotas. While this is encouraging, it is also a small start. Other data-sharing programs that target one geographic region or one type of fish have proved they can help fisherman make more sustainable fishing choices, but how can this be scaled up across entire oceans? Imagine the logistics of coordinating catch information across overfished areas of the Pacific, which include Hawaii, Japan, and Vietnam.
Luckily, The Nature Conservancy's efforts in California are still in their infancy. If they prove to be sustainable, scalable, and fisherman-friendly, they may prove to be the model that prevents us from ever having to imagine a world without fish.