Magazine article New Internationalist

Fishy Business: The Seas Are Running out of Fish but Supermarkets Are Not. What's the Catch?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Fishy Business: The Seas Are Running out of Fish but Supermarkets Are Not. What's the Catch?

Article excerpt

Smoked salmon wrappers. Not exactly what I would have predicted to have become a focus of my attention. But they have. Inevitably the packaging will include one of the following four features: a leaping salmon, mountains, glistening streams and tartan.

Wholesome images of a salmon jumping against the current of a crystal-clear river are evoked. The tartan and often 'olde worlde' typography allude to purity. And then there is the plastic window revealing orange or pink flesh, in colours so vibrant that it cannot help but appear fresh.

These wrappers are clearly designed to convey a promise of quality, health and most of all naturalness. And it is this deception that makes them so interesting.

Salmon's story is symptomatic of a worldwide crisis in fisheries. Wild or 'natural' salmon are by now extremely rare. And of all the fish in the world that share this fate, perhaps it is the salmon that causes people the most grief. It is the fish that will be most missed.

There is something about the salmon's almost mammalian life course that arouses passion in the angler and occupies a special place in angling literature. Spending part of its life in streams and part in the sea, the salmon then -- by detecting water flow, temperature changes and using a sense of smell said to be 1,000 times more acute than a dog's -- returns to its birthplace to spawn then die.

Also passionate about salmon are native tribes of North America whose culture is interlinked with the fish. The Salish, Tlingit and Kwakiutl people all believe that the salmon were not merely fish but also represent five tribes of people living in a village under the sea at the end of the horizon. When salmon left their village they were ceremonially welcomed into the rivers.

Then there are the locals on the US West Coast who until recently made their living off salmon -- salmon fishing, processing and related occupations employed 60,000 people. A free-for-all salmon hunt by Canadian, American, Korean, Russian and Japanese fishers, aided by the inability of nations to co-operate rather than compete for stocks, has left few fish behind. Only half of the registered US salmon fishers are still working -- 1.5 million fish were caught in the Pacific in 1988 but only 120,000 in 1992. Salmon are now protected under the US's Endangered Species Act in an attempt to save at least some of these mythic fish.(f.1)

Why then, as I dash about the aisles of the local Foodland in Adelaide, Australia, is 'Pacific salmon' or 'Atlantic salmon' still flashing its pink flesh at prices cheaper than ever before? In fact, I can more easily buy smoked salmon than any local species of fish. Australia has a fishing zone far greater than its land area yet it is ranked 55 in the world's fishing nations.

Three of Australia's biggest fisheries -- the Northern prawn, Southern bluefin tuna and Southeast fisheries -- are overfished. Our large sea is not immune from the consuming passions of a mere 18 million people. As explained by renowned scientist Tim Flannery in The Future Eaters: 'When faced with resource shortages, many people automatically look to the sea as a limitless supplier of food and fertilizer. Unfortunately this can never be so in Australia for our oceans are mirror images of our land -- they are biological deserts of great fragility.'

When the US National Academy of Sciences recently brought together many of world's leading marine biologists, they concluded that fishing -- not global warming or pollution -- was the greatest single threat to the diversity of life in the world's oceans. Fish are the only wild creatures that we still hunt and consume on a large scale. Yet many see fish as a renewable harvestable resource like wheat rather than species that may become endangered like the panda or tiger.

Fish are under more pressure than ever before: between 1950 and 1990 there was a five-fold increase in the world's annual fish catch.(f.2) Modern fishing fleets have been able to track down the scarcest of fish and haul them up. …

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