THIS MONTH'S THEME
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.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 bio-logical 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.2 Modern fishing fleets have been able to track down the scarcest of fish and haul them up. And governments have supported them by subsidizing the purchase of ever-bigger boats and nets - for every dollar earned from fishing in late 1980s, government, taxpayers and fishers spent $1.77.3
These nets take a lot more than the species that are sold. Each year 27 million tons of fish are killed and thrown overboard, a wasteful practice referred to as bycatch.2 But even in Australia with its fished-out seas, who would know how dire the situation has become while our supermarket shelves are stocked with $286 million worth of seafood imports each year?
Farming a feast
For fish-scarce nations like Australia, the farmed salmon is seen as a blessing. The Atlantic salmon was welcomed with open arms and numerous farms sprang up in the southern island of Tasmania, known for its relatively unspoiled wilderness.
But fish farming creates rather than solves problems. It is one of the most intensive forms of animal husbandry - up to 40,000 fish may be crammed into a cage with the equivalent of half a bathtub of water each in which to spend its life. Scotland has become a huge producer of caged salmon. This summer farm fish will excrete a volume of waste equivalent to that from eight million people into Scottish coastal waters.4
Fish and shrimp farming also increase fishing of smaller species. Five kilos of wild fish are needed to feed and produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The most-desired feed for farmed salmon is krill, which contributes to salmon's pinkness. Due to scarcity, krill is getting expensive so salmon are often fed a pigment to turn their flesh redder.
The wild salmon is sleek and migrates long distances. But its farmed relations are confined couch potatoes that are fed a high-oil diet which may include colourings, vaccines and hormones. Sometimes, however, the farmed salmon may burst open their cages and escape. Farmed salmon then compete with wild fish for food, interbreeding with them and weakening the gene pool of the wild species. In Scotland, an average of 15,000 salmon escape each month.5
But now that the aquaculture industry has begun producing genetically modified (GM) fish, it spurred popular outrage. Buried somewhere in Aotearoa/New Zealand are Chinook salmon which are five times their normal size and have a myriad of deformities. The company responsible, New Zealand King Salmon, was forced to dispose of its GM fish in February after leaked photos of their deformed heads aroused public concern. New Zealand King Salmon says it retains the fish's frozen sperm at a secure location for possible future use.5 Similar GM fish have been produced in US and Canada where they are attracting both interest and disgust.
Modifying the genes of salmon is the final step in making them completely unnatural. We have already fished out salmon's natural stocks, introduced them into foreign environments such as Chile and Australia and fed them chemicals and fish they would not normally eat. And we have kept one of the most migratory species of fish caged for life.
Reeling in free trade
Corporations have always relied on governments to conduct their fishy business. Take Europe for example. The European Union has negotiated with African nations for its corporations to fish large quantities at little cost, effectively transferring overfishing from North to South. The EU subsidizes arrangements with 15 nations in West and East Africa, paying local governments less than 10 per cent of the value of catch in most cases. Protesting local fishers in Senegal and Mauritania have never seen this money but are well aware of the effects increased fishing has on their reduced ability to feed their families.3
But just as the Third World exporters of fish are losing control over the terms of trade, importing nations also find that they are unable to limit the flow of farmed and wild fish across borders. As activists marched round Seattle dressed up as turtles, in protest against the World Trade Organization's (WTO) decision against the US ban on imports of shrimp caught by killing turtles, Canada and Australia were engaged in a similar trade tussle.
It was over salmon again. The Australian state of Tasmania attempted to build a reputation of a 'disease-free industry' by banning imports of salmon in unprocessed form to minimize the risk of spreading fish viruses. But this incensed Canada's own farmed salmon industry. The row ended up before the WTO, each side arguing the case of their respective salmon-producers.
The level of community protest in Australia over what was essentially a quarantine issue illustrates how dissatisfied people are with the unaccountability of the WTO to anything but its own rules. Tasmania's refusal to overturn its laws on salmon attracted the vocal support of both state political parties, trade unions, the national Australian Democrats party, the National Anglers Lobby, overseas aid agencies and environmental groups. Nevertheless, the WTO ruled in favour of Canada and the Australian Government was left to override the concerns of all these groups and enforce the ruling.
But this seemingly innocuous WTO decision over salmon has dire consequences for all the world's fish. In cases like the salmon dispute, the WTO is denying the world what is desperately needed now to save fish stocks: the use of the precautionary principle in international law. This states that environmental degradation does not need to be scientifically 'proven' in order for governments to impose regulations on the taking and trade of aquatic species.
Supporting this principle essentially empowers local communities to take precautions to ensure their area is not fished out. Without local input, sustainable management of the world's fisheries is impossible. Currently 85 per cent of internationally traded seafood products come from developing countries.3 It is here that smaller-scale fishers - who provide the primary source of protein for over one billion people - will feel the effects of overfishing and pollution from fish farms most acutely.
The guidelines and documents to facilitate a democratic and cautious approach to fishing and farming have been drawn up. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Agenda 21 and a new agreement on standards of practice on the high seas paves the way for implementation of the precautionary principle (see box below). What is needed now is for a critical mass to support this process rather than acquiesce to the WTO's narrow definition of the terms of trade.
In the West, it has taken a long time for most consumers to realize the cost of overfishing and overconsumption of the world's fish. Our eyes were closed to falling fish stocks because the industry always went further and faster to find more. They were half-shut to the dangers of farmed fish that companies promised would deliver cheap luxuries. But now more people are beginning to see things for what they really are. Like me, they see that the fish we have been told is healthy and natural is often anything but. And they are becoming noisy, questioning and dissatisfied. Fish corporations and their political lackeys must bear these impolite dinner guests. If consumers and fishers talk amongst themselves and are prepared to take action, they can turn the tables on the corporate parasites who parade as hosts.
1 Carl Safina, Song for a Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas (Henry Holt, 1999).
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7