The Environmentally Correct Gourmet

By Bill Gleason

Sitting down to dinner at a popular local restaurant a week or so ago, my wife and I surveyed the menu and decided to order fish. Whether dining out or eating in, fish is a politically correct choice. Low in fat and tasty, it is also thought to combat heart disease.

While politically and socially an overwhelming favorite, is eating fish an environmentally correct choice? Well, it depends upon how the fish gets to your table. In the case of commercially caught fish, it's more often than not an environmental disaster. Why? In a word, bycatch. This innocent sounding word describes all the fish thrown away and/or destroyed while the fishermen are catching the ones they can sell. In most types of indiscriminate fishing practices bycatch averages about 30 to 40 percent of the total catch. Longliners, certain nets, draggers and nearly all types of mass commercial fishing produce large amounts of bycatch. It can't even be sold as cat food or fertilizer the fishermen tell us, because it would cost too much to transport to an area for processing.

The story of dolphins being killed in tuna nets sparked an emotional outcry of public opinion, leading to major changes in tuna fishing policies. That only took care of a minuscule amount of bycatch. The practice continues throughout the commercial fishing industry, so know that, while you may be lowering your cholesterol, the oceans are getting raped.

If you are lucky enough to catch your own fish, you have made great progress. Since most recreational fishermen follow game laws and match bait with intended species, this type of fishing is much more environmentally correct and produces only some bycatch. All fishermen have caught something they didn't want and thrown it back. There is still waste going on here and every effort to be as selective as possible when fishing is to be applauded. But, each time a line is snagged and cut, we leave a lethal (to fish) legacy of steel and monofilament. Still, this is much better than commercial fishing practices, which for many species (swordfish, for one) are conducted with no thought whatsoever for the future.

Strangely enough, the most environmentally correct method of fishing (other than mariculture, which also has problems) just might be those who spear their own fish. The fish has to found, identified, evaluated as to weight, etc., all prior to being shot. The game laws apply and the spearfishing community regularly issues and enforces (through peer pressure) even more stringent selection processes than mandated by law. What used to be 'Get the biggest' philosophy has been replaced with enlightened fishing practices. Super big fish (of certain species) are known to be super breeders, so it's much more environmentally correct to let them swim by and spear a medium sized fish that the ocean is easily capable of replacing (spearfishing is responsible, in grossly exaggerated levels, for less than .10 of one percent of all fish landed).

Yet, even with this kind of enlightened approach to consuming, guess which group is often criticized by nonspearfishing divers? If you guessed these supposedly insensitive killers of the underwater world, you guessed right. Halibut on the plate in a restaurant is just fine but shooting a legal halibut is often considered crude and barbaric. Can you figure that one out? The most selective form of fishing is criticized and the commercial fishing industry just continues to blast its way through our collectively shared oceans.

For more than the last 15 years, SKIN DIVER's position on spearfishing has been that it's perfectly OK as long as it's done in an area capable of sustaining and replenishing its fish supplies. We might add to this the recommendation that spearfishing advocates and participants should continue to 'stay ahead of the curve' in educating underwater hunters not just on what's allowed by law but what's allowed by nature.

While the pages of SKIN DIVER once contained page after page of speared fish, we have not covered this activity for some time. The main reason for this is the local nature of spearfishing; West Coast readers don't want to read about Northeast spearfishing and vice versa. Later this year, we will provide you with lots of information about local conditions and spearfishing in three new publications, FREEDIVER, WESTERN DIVER and SOUTHERN DIVER. Rest assured they will cover the topic and the most environmentally correct practices in depth.

In this issue, we devote several pages to the art of freediving. It's challenging and probably harder to do well than scuba. It's also the purest form of underwater exploration. So, here's an invitation to both snorkelers and scuba divers: Give freediving a try. You may never order halibut in a restaurant again.