Fish and Future


November 12, 2005

Fish will always be with us. And that is a good thing, because fish is good for us. As more and more research proves, eating fish at least once a week reduces – to repeat – reduces our cholesterol levels; reduces our risk of Alzheimer’s disease; reduces our risk of stroke. Eating fish, such as salmon and tuna, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to prevent heart disease. Some studies even suggest that eating fish fights osteoporosis; and other studies indicate positive effects on certain forms of cancer. “Eat Fish; Live Longer” was an earlier slogan suggested by the many health benefits of eating fish at least once a week.

Fish makes us live longer and live better. Eating fish postpones age-related mental decline by three to four years, suggests one of the latest studies. This research provides further evidence that a fish-rich diet helps keep the mind sharp. “Eat Fish; Stay Young” is the new slogan launched by Ann Shriver, the executive director of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade.

Those who make a living from the ocean are not lone rangers. While at sea they tend to be in constant contact with each other – visually and, today, electronically. While on land they tend to be stable members of compact communities. Thus fish is sociologically good for us.

Fish is sociologically good for us, we realize, also if we look at ourselves retrospectively. Fish is such an intrinsic part of our heritage that it defines who we are. Say that you hail from Gloucester, and most people in the world recognize not only who you are – that you share some part of an age-old fish story; they will also know which part of the world you come from. People do not say, “Gloucester, where?” So you cut down on the idle talk and can immediately engage in more serious conversation.

Fish is economically good for us. A dollar’s worth of fish feeds more mouths than a dollar’s worth of trade or services. Its multiplier effect is higher, because it creates wealth anew. A dollar’s worth of fish feeds the butcher and the baker, and the oil maker – and the banker and the insurer.

Indeed, fish is good for the nation as a whole because, if we do not produce fish, we are so hungry for it that we import fish from abroad – in large quantities. And we put our nation more heavily in debt with foreign nations. Now we have to remember that a dollar sent abroad is a claim on our wealth at home. Sooner or later, those dollars will be converted into control over our resources at home.

That fish is good for us is indisputable. Doubts today are planted as to whether fish will always be with us. Are not most commercial species of fish depleted? Yes, in part. But this answer does not look at the entire biomass. While some species are depleted, others are superabundant. Scary headlines insist that cod and other bottom fish are depleted; yet, mackerel and herring – the pelagics that live in the middle of the water column – are still superabundant.

It is only by looking at the entire biomass and the relationships among predators and preys that we might be able to find lasting and equitable solutions to the future physical utilization of the harbor. So far, we have identified one major predator-prey relationship: bottom fish and pelagics are in such a relationship. This is clearly visible as soon as one abandons the static, linear, pyramidal conception of the biomass. Predators are not always predators and preys are not always preys. At times predators become preys and vice versa.

The relationship is this. The larvae of the bottom fish need to go to the surface of the ocean in order to obtain food – plankton – and light. While they go up, they become a feast for the pelagics. When those larvae that survive become codlings, they want to go back to their friends and relatives. While they descend to their native habitat, they become a second feast for the pelagics.

In collaboration with volunteers from the MIT Systems Dynamics program, at the Gloucester Community Development Corporation we have quantified these relationships and published them on the Internet at Dr. Peter Otto and Jeroen Struben have also published part of this study in the prestigious System Dynamics Review (Winter 2004). This study makes it clear that, if biological limits are not respected, the situation can be reversed – and the bottom fish can become so superabundant as to threaten the existence of the pelagics.

A collapse of the pelagics would of course affect especially those migratory fish that rely on the pelagics for their feed: especially tuna. Yet a superabundance of the pelagics is definitely not good for the bottom fish. The evidence is overwhelming. Codlings have been found in the stomach of herring and mackerel. The first predator-prey model was developed by a biologist and a mathematicians studying the fishing industry in the Adriatic in early 1900s. The validity of the predator-prey model has been confirmed by chaos theory. The predator-prey relation has been found in nature in all living species, even in trees, even in lemmings.

Those who have memory of local history will remember that when Lippman Marine was in existence converting pelagics into chicken feed, and thus helping maintain a balance in the predator-prey relationship in the ocean, the bottom fish was in good health.

This history and this research lead to only one conclusion. Local fishermen are unjustly accused of overfishing the oceans. When looked in the context of these relationships within the total biomass, the overfishing is clearly done – not by fishermen – but by the natural predators of the bottom fish. And certainly this research does not excuse the fishermen for such well established negative practices of the past as using too small mesh sizes, for uprooting the bottom floor of the ocean, for fishing while and where fish are spawning, for harvesting bottom fish while fishing for pelagics, and the like. Nor is this research a call for over-exploitation of the pelagics. The issue, as usual, is an issue of balance. All rights have to be established and respected on the basis of corresponding responsibilities.

There is not one fishing industry in Gloucester. There are at least three such industries: bottom fish, pelagics and tuna – let alone lobstering, sportfishing and whale watching. All these interests have to be taken into account. They are all entitled to their share of the fruits of the ocean. But none is entitled to control over the entire ocean.

The question for Gloucester then is not: Will there be fish in the future? If we respect the natural balance among those various natural and economic interests, there will be fish. That is for sure. The real question is: Will Gloucester be ready for fish?
Gloucester became a “hub” harbor, an infrastructure that serves the interests of the entire New England fishing industry – including, to repeat, pleasure boating and sportfishing. It took about 400 years to develop this infrastructure. It can easily be destroyed. It cannot easily be rebuilt.

The question is: Will Gloucester be ready for fish, when a balance in the use of the oceans’ resources for the benefit of human beings is re-established in the future?

Carmine Gorga is president of Polis-tics Inc.