Several recent articles concerning environmental damage to the oceans made me think back to last July’s voyage on the Charles W. Morgan. Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s son, was one of the guests traveling with us from Provincetown to Boston. NOAA and Mystic Seaport intended the voyage to be a celebration of Red Cap Day, an annual remembrance of Jacques Cousteau’s birthday (June 11th).
Jean-Michel Cousteau on The Charles W. Morgan
To demonstrate our support of Cousteau’s efforts to protect the oceans the Voyagers donned red caps.
But what has been causing environmental damage to our oceans? There are many factors, and while I will discuss one in this blog – our food choices – there is a basic hurdle that keeps oceanic environmental issues from being foremost in Americans’ consideration of how they act. This is that with few of us spending time on the oceans and often living far from oceans, environmental problems of the seas are often hidden. As Randy Sargent, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University has observed, “When you visualize [pollution], you can get it at the gut level,” he said. “You can see it happening.”
Today many Americans seek out locally sourced foods. This desire to reconnect with nature has resulted in an explosion of farmers markets. From large markets at Union Square in Manhattan, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and Civic Center in San Francisco to smaller operations such as Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn’s, these markets have educated shoppers as to how local foods are grown and can be used. (In contrast, as Cindy Lobel has shown in Urban Appetites, http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/U/bo17888715.html, in the 18th and 19th century New York City shoppers were quite willing to purchase foods from distant markets). More recently, Americans have also become aware of the impact of eating fish from far away markets. This concern about eating fish that is not locally sourced has shaped Americans’ eating habits; Chilean sea bass has given way to black cod.
Heart of the City Farmers Market, San Francisco
In Mortal Seas (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674047655) Jeff Bolster vividly demonstrates that the depletion of Atlantic fisheries has not been a recent development or simply the product of industrial fishing. (His recent NY Times op-ed piece,”Where Have all the Cod Gone?” www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/opinion/where-have-all-the-cod-gone.html, concisely sets forth this argument). But while depletion of northwestern Atlantic fisheries had already occurred by the eighteenth century, during the Age of Sail there was a continuous push for ocean products from locations further and further away from North American ports. Whaling vessels like the Charles W. Morgan and the Clarabell sailed from Salem, New Bedford, Providence, Nantucket, Sag Harbor and other North American ports seeking whales in the West Indies, in waters off Brazil, near Greenland and eventually into the Pacific.
Weir Logbook, Clarabell, Mystic Seaport
To make sustainable choices concerning the fish we eat, where ever it might come from, information about fishing and farming methods for particular species are necessary. Fortunately, organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/) and the Environmental Defense Fund (http://seafood.edf.org/) have created websites and apps that offer a wealth of such information. Each of these organizations have developed recommendations as to the sustainability of both wild-caught and farmed seafood. However, in applying these recommendations consumers need to ask questions of their fish sellers as to where particular fish come from. For example, tilapia that is tank-farmed in the U.S or Canada is considered a “best choice” but tilapia farmed in Chinese ponds is only rated a “Good Alternative” due to waste management and chemical use issues. Similarly, while many snapper populations are considered a “Good Alternative” red snapper from the South Atlantic is rated “Avoid” due to its having been overfished.
As someone who does not eat red meat, grew up eating fish and chips on Friday nights, clamming in Great South Bay and enjoyed an occasional perch from the Connetquot River, fish has always played a significant part of my diet. It saddens me that Atlantic Cod, a fish I love, is now largely classified as “Avoid.” Wearing a red cap can serve as a reminder not to forget our history of overfishing and instead adjust to the new realities of our oceans. Doing so seems be a small price to pay to help sustain the oceanic environment.