Eulogy of the anchovy

Choosing this small fish at the market in place of a large one means helping to protect the marine ecosystem.

Even Jesus Christ had his own way of tackling the problem. It is very likely that fishing in the Sea of Galilee did not return the results hoped for and divine intervention multiplied the fish by cancelling out the negative effect of overfishing, the main result of which was the disappearance of fish.  If you fish more than the fish can regenerate their population by reproduction, the fish disappear. And you need a miracle.

Perhaps this analogy is a little rash, but the fact is that the problem of overfishing was an issue troubling fishermen and consumers even then, which could incur the wrath of God. Today, we are in the same situation but on a global scale.

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The problem can be perceived by understanding the origin of the word used to describe commercial fishing. It’s a word that refers to exploiting fish stocks, where stock means a portion of a population of a species of fish being caught. In Italian, sfruttare, or to exploit, means removing all the fruit from the tree. An agricultural business, given a tree full of fruit, harvests every single one. In this case, there is no need to leave any of the produce on the tree to ensure that it produces more the following season. While in fishing, the following is recommended: the fishing business should not take everything so that it can fish again in the future. But this concept obviously does not sit well with the idea of the free market, business competition, efficiency and efficacy. Fishermen must be limited in their catch, not taking everything when stocks are high, thus allowing themselves to fish in the long term.

However, identifying that limit, where to stop fishing, is not easy. Understanding the minimum number of individuals of a stock to leave in the sea so that they can reproduce the original number is one of the great problems confronting marine ecologists.

Poets may be able to help us understand the problem. Rodari wrote that “Three fishermen from Livorno argued for a year and a day over how many fish there were in the sea.” The three discussed numbers and species until they decided that there were more than one million, but the poet concluded: “And all three were right.” In a few words, this is the problem: estimating the numbers of stocks from independent data, fishermen or soundings. Being an estimate and not a certain number, it is easy to understand how scientists, fishermen and policymakers come to fight a numerical war, which, apart from in extremely rare cases (e.g. with the striped bass, Morone saxatilis, in Chesapeake Bay), can lead to the solution to the problem. More frequently, while obstinate debates rage, stocks collapse, as in the most striking case ever in the history of fishing: the decimation of stocks of the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Today, according to the FAO, only 13% of stocks in the world have not been completely exploited or overfished. And more than 90% of fish stocks are being overfished in the Mediterranean, according to the European Commission. And policymakers need to look for a resolution, as fish products (from fishing and fish farming), according to the FAO, provide 4.3 billion people with around 15% of their animal-based protein.

We have fished too much. And scientists, organisations, fishermen, preservers and processors are aware of this and are acting on various levels to find solutions. Fishermen who themselves become overseers of fish resources, industries which certify their products as originating from sustainable resources or which conform to scientific limits, scientists who rely ever more on mathematical models to estimate the size of fish stocks.

The emperor is naked but his tailor is global marketing, which needs to consume ever more to maintain this type of economy. There are far fewer fish in the sea (no one can deny it) and we must therefore eat less. We must make intelligent choices and purchases. There are numerous rulebooks telling us what to buy. A consumer who ignores the problem is a problem for the environment. If we completely eliminate certain elements of the environment, the balance is upset, but the system’s resilience (capacity to return to a state of equilibrium) will re-establish itself by occupying the habitats of lost species following over-exploitation with other species, such as jellyfish in place of anchovies, sunfish in place of tuna.

Eating is an ecological action. Therefore, what we eat from the sea is having repercussions on the ecosystem.

Through a process of education on sustainable consumption of fish stocks, alongside a strong global commitment by fishermen, reinforced by robust and eminent scientific evidence, we could perform the miracle.

Marco Costantini (Coordinator of the Oceans Programme, WWF Italy)

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