The End of Salmon?

22:33 Mon 03 Sep 2007
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At dinner with my parents yesterday, I had salmon. This is quite common, I often eat salmon when I’m at their place. But after dinner, my father commented “That might be the last of it.” At first I thought he meant that we’d eaten all of the salmon they’d bought, although I’d thought there was about half left… then he explained that he meant that it might be the last I’d have with them because salmon might no longer be available.

It’s been terribly overfished. It’s been overfished around Ireland to such an extent that it apparently might never recover. Wild Irish salmon might simply be a thing of the past.

I knew there was overfishing, but I didn’t think it was that bad, or that its ill effects were so close in time. But it is, and they are, and the worst thing is that this might be representative. Representative of the rest of the century, as we consume more and more of the planet’s natural resources. And more and more things that we take for granted—things that seem like mainstays in our lives—will disappear, possibly never to return.

Maybe the salmon situation isn’t quite that bad. Maybe it’ll make a miraculous recovery. The comment, and the harsh reality that’s behind it, is nevertheless extremely disturbing and upsetting. As a species we’re overtaxing our environment, and it’s so hard to see what any of us, as individuals, can do about it. Stop consuming? Would things have been better if I, and others like me, didn’t eat salmon? I have my doubts, and I think that without regulation of our resources we won’t be able to stop individual consumption. Without cooperation that involves accepting restrictions on what we consume, I don’t think we can address these problems. I don’t think there’s some other magic fix out there. Unfortunately, we may have already put ourselves in a position where nothing less than magic will suffice.

But no, I don’t believe that. In fact, that kind of fatalism probably makes things worse, because it feeds the mentality that there’s no point in trying to change things. There is, and even now we can make major strides. But the action necessary is becoming more and more radical as time passes.

4 Responses to “The End of Salmon?”

  1. Radegund Says:

    Fish Online’s “fish to eat” page suggests that organically farmed Atlantic salmon (certified by the Soil Association) and wild Alaskan salmon (certified by the Marine Stewardship Council) are sustainable options.

    But in general, just thinking about the fish industry makes my stomach clench with anger and fear and impotence.

  2. Helen Says:

    That’s why I’ve no truck with pescaterianism. While animal husbandry isn’t sustainable, at least cows aren’t endangered; whereas eating fish seems utterly unforgivable to me. Sorry!

    (Are you in Ireland, then, or are your parents visiting?)

  3. Jesrad Says:

    “As a species we’re overtaxing our environment, and it’s so hard to see what any of us, as individuals, can do about it. Stop consuming?”

    It has more to do with mismanagement of resources than being generally overtaxing or anything. It’s not like we would starve if we stopped overfishing, and yet we keep eating too much of it… Seems here the problem lies in the incentives for action (incentives in fishing, and incentives in eating wild fish) more than in our actual needs. We need a mechanism for managing resources in a sustainable way, which does not repeat the mistakes identified in the XXth century (i.e. central planning does not work: it completely extinguished a cod species off Canada and generally failed in every single domain throughout the last 120 years).

    We need a decentralised mechanism that rewards the fisheries for increasing their supplies into sustainable exploitation instead of increasingly depleting them, and which punishes them for jeopardizing the viability of these supplies.

    There’s a mechanism that does all that: private ownership of open sea ranges. When a fishing zone is an asset, it gets valued higher with its sustainability, lower as it depletes just like stocks of failing or doomed businesses plummet irrelevant of their current profits: before the wild fishes are extinguished the fishing zone has already lost most of its value and the mismanaging owner is punished by this loss or has to sell it to a better caring person. Works the other way too: you can make a decent living just managing your fishing zone and not exploiting it at all, letting the fish stocks grow continually, on the future value of its sustainable exploitation alone.

    Protect the seas and get rich doing the right thing, now that’s the way to correct incentives, I say.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Jesrad: I think the problem with this that that some centralized body would be required to set up markets that successfully present the right incentives. Otherwise, you would get a situation where unsustainable practices lead to scarcity, while demand remains static, thus leading to an increase in prices and hence to tremendous short-term profit. Most “free markets” seem to go for tremendous short-term profit (which is rational for the individuals making the profits) regardless of longer-term considerations, and in my view that makes private ownership a bad answer unless the market is quite finely tuned (which raises other problems).

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