Sunday, March 15, 2009

The most interesting thing from the seafood show

I am back from the Boston Seafood show. After spending 7 hours in the ocean of seafood industry, I am tired. But before I go to bed, I wanted to share with you my greatest find.

Fish Watch

Want to know which species are over-fished and which ones aren't? Are there measures in place to help the species recover? What about bycatch? Fish Watch can answer all those questions. It won't tell you what to eat or not to eat. It will just provide you with up to date information on the health of the species. The site is created by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I'd like to say a huge thanks to Dr. John Ward, Chief Economist at NOAA, for patiently answering my neverending questions at the show and leading me to such a valuable resource.

Since the site is created by the US government, it focuses on the fish caught in the US, so it's in no way a complete reference. However, I find that most of the fish I buy is indeed from the US (bluefish, striped bass, monkfish, swordfish, sable, halibut, grouper, haddock, mackerel, snapper, tuna, mahi, salmon), so I found the site to be a great resource.

I was curious how much we can do as a consumer to help a species recover, so I asked John if it's reasonable to avoid buying overfished fish. His answer was no. Chef's and consummer's boycot of a fish does not help it recover. It simply drives the price of that species down and moves it to a lower-end market. For example, during the "Give swordfish a break" campain, the price of swordfish fell so much it became a cafeteria and Red Lobster fish. What eventually helped swordfish recover were the quotas put in place by the government to restrict fishing and allow the stocks to come back. Swordfish is now at a happy 99% of the biomass that supports maximum sustainable yield.


Julia said...

That's so interesting ... that the goal of boycotting fish actually achieves the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Well, then, following that logic we should DEMAND those endangered species for lunch... that will definitely ensure their survival.

I love people with no grasp for economics. Making a fish cheaper decreases the incentive to fish it, period. The fact that Swordfish was dumped at lower price levels during its boycott indicates the distress of its killers who were making less money on it.

Helen said...

Julia: I don't think boycotting fish hurts the species, it is just not as affective as the catching quotas imposed on fishermen.

HBX: you have a point. if the price is lower, there is not as much incentive to catch that fish or at least not as much incentive to break the quota.

I don't think it's as straight forward as: making the fish cheaper decreases the incentive to fish it. If it's possible to make profit through volume, there is still an incentive. Otherwise, there wouldn't be an incentive for McDonald's to cell burgers for $2 when upscale restaurants sell them for $18. But McDonald's pulls in more profit on burgers than any upscale restaurant due to how many burgers they sell. When fish moves into a lower-end market, it might be sold in larger volume. I don't have data on this. I am just guessing. But I doubt this issues is as straight forward as you make it sound.

I remember reading in the "Sushi Economy" by Sasha Issenberg that the falling tuna prices were detrimental to reducing how much tuna is caught. Instead of it being a luxury item available in small volume, it became a widely available food product.

I am not suggesting anyone demand the over-fished species for lunch. I am just saying that it might not do as much as our intuition tells us.

I think moderation is key. If we buy a large variety of fish and don't get fixated on one species like salmon or Chilean sea bass, we'll create fewer serious problems.

I also don't see it as an all or nothing decision: you either eat bluefin tuna or you don't. How often you eat it is the most important thing. I cook fish 3-4 times a week and most of the species I get are currently doing well. But 3-4 times a year, I do get bluefin tuna.

These are all very hard questions and I am glad we are discussing them. I just hope we can take a more pragmatic rather than emotional approach to this issue.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting find, thank you for the link and input.

I am shocked to see that there is nothing that really can be done for the fish that have a low population.

Helen said...

Hi Mia,

I am not sure why you say that nothing can be done for fish with low population. Fishing quotas have been extremely effective and have rebuilt the swordfish, striped bass, and other species.


Jason said...

HBX: You're misreading the statement. The claim isn't that boycotting swordfish caused more swordfish to be fished (which would invite your contrapositive). Rather, that boycotting had an insignificant effect on fishing compared to the effect of quotas.

In the absence of effective quotas, boycotting will have the claimed effect---it will decrease demand and thus decrease the amount fished due to some fishermen finding other fish to be more profitable.

Quotas, however, change the picture. Assuming that quotas are well enforced and that the amateur catch is relatively small, a large decrease in demand may have minimal effect on catch. Consider a case where the unconstrained annual catch would be 20k tons/year. This is too much to sustain the population, so a 10k tons/year quota is imposed. Then, only if the boycott cuts the demand by more than half will it have the effect of decreasing the (legal, professional) catch. Note that boycott effectiveness is complicated by the fact that the resulting price decrease will create a substitution effect, possibly requiring a 3x or 4x decrease in demand to achieve a 2x decrease in catch.

Note that my argument relies on quotas being enforceable. A boycott will certainly have significant impact on illegally-caught fish. If the illegal catch is a significant portion of the total catch, a boycott may have the desired effect. I imagine this is the case for highly-prized/very expensive fish such as blue fin tuna.

Btw, did you notice that John Ward is the Chief Economist at NOAA? I bet he knows a thing or two about the economics of fishing.

Ulla said...

I wonder if there were Icelanders there! I went to the Monterrey Fish Aquarium and they are excellent at teaching about how fishing effects our fish stocks!

Helen said...

Yes, there were a lot of Icelandic fish companies there. From what I understand, they do a great job with responsible farm-raising.

Anonymous said...

Helen -

I am sorry, My last comment was poorly written. I mean that the chefs playing a role in boycotting or using less of the fish in order to help save the population.

I found this is be very interesting and never thought the boycotting could actually have the reverse reaction.