Can Guilt Save the Oceans?

By Chris Mooney | January 15, 2010 10:51 am

This is the first in a series of guest posts by Joel Barkan, a previous contributor to “The Intersection” and a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The renowned Scripps marine biologist Jeremy Jackson is teaching his famed “Marine Science, Economics, and Policy” course for what may be the last time this year (along with Jennifer Jacquet), and Joel will be reporting each week on the contents of the course.

Guilt. Shame. These aren’t emotions commonly associated with fish. According to Jennifer Jacquet, however, they may actually be effective tools to prevent destructive overfishing. Jennifer knows a thing or two about guilt—she writes the Guilty Planet blog for scienceblogs.com. Her lecture today covered creative ways to convince corporations to buy and sell fish caught in a sustainable manner. A supermarket that sells orange roughy, for instance, might change its practices if made to feel shame for peddling this exploited fish. Greenpeace, which graded the major seafood markets for sustainability, has made headway by calling out less ocean-friendly chains like Trader Joe’s. Can we go further, though, and attach a real public stigma to the trade of unsustainably caught fish?

Jennifer talked about the importance of corporate transparency to bring about policy changes, using examples from other industries. She mentioned the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which forces polluters to publicize their emission levels. On the day after the first TRI figures were released in 1989, the polluting firms saw their stocks fall a combined $4.1 million. These corporations—feeling guilty and seeking to deflect public scorn—soon announced plans to reduce emissions. Jennifer also referenced restaurant hygiene report cards, which grade the cleanliness of restaurants: you get an A if diners can eat your risotto off the floor, a C if the vermin outnumber your patrons. No restaurant wants the scarlet letter “C” tacked to its window—it would be hard to recover from the public shame of such a poor grade.

Our class discussion, as it has a tendency to do here at Scripps, delved into a number of tangents, all of them thought-provoking. One student, who moved to San Diego from China in June for graduate school, cautioned that with shame can come unfair humiliation. He spoke of China’s Cultural Revolution, when citizens who were suspected of supporting capitalism were forced to walk through the streets wearing hats bearing the sign “Capitalist Dog.” Now, he asserts, China feels regret for putting its people through such a public disgrace because it realizes its original convictions were misguided. I brought up the success of anti-smoking campaigns and the shame placed on cigarette companies for being deceitful about the health effects of smoking and its youth-targeted advertising. Prof. Jeremy Jackson countered by pointing out that a backlash against anti-smoking campaigns actually makes smoking appealing to some young people.

But back to fish—after all, this is a marine policy course. Can seafood retailers like Walmart and Red Lobster be guilted into changing their practices? I think we have a long way to go: it’s still a social norm to buy and eat trawl-caught shrimp, which includes 12 pounds of unintended, wasted bycatch for every pound of shrimp caught. The public looks down upon corporate misdeeds like embezzlement and pollution. It’s time to add trade in unsustainable fisheries to that list of offense.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Marine Science

Comments (13)

  1. gillt

    Sheril: “I think we have a long way to go: it’s still a social norm to buy and eat trawl-caught shrimp, which includes 12 pounds of unintended, wasted bycatch for every pound of shrimp caught.”

    Yes, however, aquacultured shrimp production are often just as environmentally destructive. Flooding rice patties with salt water and destruction of mangrove swamps are the obvious ones. Shrimp hatcheries in Florida and Hawaii are better regulated, but it still won’t be sustainable until we switch from an animal-based shrimp feed to an algae or soy-based one.

    I think shrimp is the most popular seaford in America. Best bet is to not eat shrimp at all.

  2. Harman Smith

    Everyone’s best bet to save the oceans is to simply stop eating any seafood. I know for some people it is not acceptable (for whatever reason) to exclude something from their diet, or that it’s an uncomfortable idea. But eating seafood isn’t a crucial to your health; you and your body can easily afford it. So if anyone who’s reading about this and who is concerned about the damage being done to marine wildlife: exclude seafood from your diet.

  3. gillt

    Harman, over a billion people worldwide depend on seafood as their main source of protein. It’s not a matter of preference.

  4. Harman Smith

    Gillt, some people do indeed depend on it. But I don’t, and I suspect most readers of this blog don’t either.

  5. Jonsi

    Yes, over a billion people depend on seafood for their main source of protein and even more for their high value protein. It’s not a suggestion that the world cease to eat seafood. But in the United States and many other nations, we have a choice, because we don’t need seafood (and few to none animal products) to get our protein needs because we can afford and have access to other options. We can allow much of the world to get their protein needs from seafood while we choose to go another direction, and that is where shame has a role. If a restaurant does not know if their seafood can make any claim to sustainability, do not order it, and more important, complain to the manager, and follow it up with an email. You don’t have to humiliate someone to shame them.

  6. gillt

    I guess I’m not in the habit of everyone meaning only 1st world countries.

    Jonsi: “We can allow much of the world to get their protein needs from seafood while we choose to go another direction, and that is where shame has a role.”

    What you seem to be saying is that if only 1st world countries stopped eating seafood the oceans would be fine and the billion or so people who depend on seafood would be a sustainable number for our oceans. I don’t think that’s nearly enough to curb overfishing.

    My short answer is more and better aquaculture.

  7. Harman Smith

    “What you seem to be saying is that if only 1st world countries stopped eating seafood the oceans would be fine and the billion or so people who depend on seafood would be a sustainable number for our oceans. I don’t think that’s nearly enough to curb overfishing.”

    How so? It seems to me, an easy solution if you can stomach (pun!) the idea of excluding SOMETHING from your diet. Yes, many countries depend on fish, but a third world country or developing country hopefully won’t stay that way forever. In the future, they could slowly switch from seafood based to something more sustainable. In the meantime, us ‘wealthy’ folks can just stop eating seafood this very moment.

  8. gillt

    Yeah, all that doesn’t seem very practical.

    Plus, how can you be okay with waiting around for all 3rd world and developing countries to “hopefully” become wealthy enough to switch from seafood? The sad reality is that there will probably always be poor people, and besides, the oceans can’t wait that long.

    Also, terrestrial animals as a source of protein isn’t exactly sustainable. Are you suggesting everyone switch to soy?

  9. Harman Smith

    There will always be such a thing as poor people, but I don’t think there will always be countries that are so poor that they rely on one type of food.

    Eating domesticated animals like chickens seems to me far more sustainable than fishing. Fish are a part of wildlife, livestock are not. You could have ‘sustainable fisheries’, but how would you go about verifying its sustainability? It’s far too much trouble just to eat fish, which you can easily exclude from your diet. I honestly don’t see the problem at all.

  10. gillt

    You’ve made a few assertions that seem unlikely to be true.

    HS: “Eating domesticated animals like chickens seems to me far more sustainable than fishing.”

    What are you basing this on?

    HS: “Fish are a part of wildlife, livestock are not.”

    Yes, which is why I mentioned aquaculture as a solution.

    HS: “You could have ’sustainable fisheries’, but how would you go about verifying its sustainability?”

    Environmental impact analysis; same as we do with hog farms.

    HS: “It’s far too much trouble just to eat fish, which you can easily exclude from your diet. I honestly don’t see the problem at all.”

    I have no idea what you’re talking about here.

  11. Thomas L

    I have to agree with Gilt here, there are entrenched issues, “choice” as we think of it in the developed, more economically stable world is simply not part of the discussion. I think we truly have a hard time understanding just how “survival level” much of the developing world and undeveloped areas actually are. There is little in our experience to compare those realities to or give us any sense of true comprehension. I wish everyone could spend time in such areas and learn just how well off most of us reading these blogs are.

    While I’m not sure how far aquaculture could go in reducing the stresses or successful such would be, I know here in the US it has developed quite a lot – it is actually what is used for all of the oyster production along the Oregon coast and there has been quite a bit of success with some fisheries in other areas (almost all lake and stream game fish are the result of fisheries, for example). As pointed out it is not so much the fishing and eating of the fish as it is a matter of how the fishing is done. Trawlers are very destructive to the entire fishery, along with being brutally destructive to the subsistence fishermen.

    It is a very difficult discussion, with no easy answers. I hope all the vested parties are able to continue to make progress on finding long term viable solutions.

  12. Brian Too

    I think the Chinese student’s example of the Cultural Revolution is on point. Guilt is certainly an option and an powerful tool. However what if we are wrong?

    And yet, I think that the example of Al Gore framing the Climate Change issue as a moral one is the best approach. If you go at it from other angles, like economic for instance, you wind up trying to quantify matters that are not easily quantifiable (the numbers exist but I’d submit that the uncertainty boundaries are wide), plus you try to make an argumentation platform when the reality is that the economics change over time. Worst of all, you often cede the field to where opponents are stronger anyways (we don’t pay for clean air now–why should we in the future, etc.).

    When you go for the moral angle the issues are clearer and they probably won’t change over time. Is this the world you wish to leave to your children and grandchildren? Are you proud of your stewardship of the world and it’s resources? Would you drink the water from this outflow pipe you are responsible for?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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