In many ways, the ocean is an open history book — relaying grim tales of waste, pollution and shortsighted management of our planet’s natural resources. The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contains 97 percent of its water, yet a growing number of factors continue to threaten the health of our oceans and, by extension, the sustainable future of our planet.
As the Earth warms, so do the oceans — causing increasing rates of acidification that concern scientists and lawmakers alike. President Barack Obama noted acidification as a key climate-related concern in an Executive Order he issued last year urging Americans to embrace climate change awareness. Scientists note that acidification has happened before in Earth’s history — but never at such rapid rate. The most comparable event, which took place about 65 million years ago, is estimated to be 10 times slower than current acidification.
Though human activity indirectly impacts ocean health through climate change, direct actions may pose even greater concerns. To keep up with demand for certain species, massive commercial fishing vessels empty large swaths of water in one pass, then simply move on to another. Known as overfishing, the serial depletion of fish populations that leaves few adult fish to repopulate the seas, this phenomenon poses a real and imminent threat to ocean biodiversity — which could endanger sea life all the way up the food chain and have potentially devastating effects on underwater ecosystems. Meanwhile, currents draw millions of tons of trash to an area the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, known as the North Pacific Gyre or trash vortex, where it swirls in perpetuity and grows larger by the day.
Outspoken consumer advocacy, thoughtful legislation and greater industry transparency can go a long way to ensuring a healthier ocean for our children. But another factor may play an even greater role in determining a brighter future for the world’s fish — the power of story. Indeed, each fish we encounter has a story. Where did it come from? Who caught it? How many miles has it traveled before arriving on your plate? Answering questions like these with confidence empowers stakeholders at every step of the value chain — from fishermen and farmers to buyers, restaurants and consumers — and not only offers a reason to care about ocean health, but also gives them the tools they need to make an impact.
Take chef, sustainability advocate and Harvard lecturer Barton Seaver as an example. As a restauranteur, the Washington, D.C. native moved beyond the standard seafood fare served up at most American eateries. By embracing his product in a holistic way and sharing the stories behind the fish he served, Seaver was able to sell the “bait,” or lower-quality stock, from his shipments for $28 a plate and sell out in mere hours. His former D.C. restaurant Hook was named by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the top 10 eco-friendly restaurants in America, and he went on to become director of the sustainable seafood program at Harvard University.
Likewise, Sea to Table, a small family business in New York City, has made a name for itself by buying from artisanal fishers and selling to restaurants with a complete story attached to each shipment of fish.
For an idea of how stories can make an impact on a larger scale, take Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and an unsung hero of the Chesapeake Bay. In his role at the Maryland DNR, it’s Vilnit’s job to help local fishers sell their product for more money. In doing so, he founded two grassroots programs that are exemplary of the power of story and the difference telling these stories can make.
Like many species in America, most crab sold as Maryland Blue Crab is mislabeled. Picking up on this unfortunate trend, Vilnit started an approval and referral program with the state to confirm that restaurants and other outlets were selling real Maryland crab. After spending about $800 on hats and stickers, he wound up reclaiming $7 million in local sales from distributors who were importing Indonesian crab, processing it in the state and labeling it as “from Maryland.”
With a second program, aimed at reducing the snakehead fish population in the Chesapeake Bay, Vilnit succeeded in transforming what was once a disruptive and threatening invasive species into a money-making machine for local restaurants and suppliers. Vilnit worked with a group of fishers to figure out how to best catch the species (as it turns out, a bow and arrow is the best strategy) and assembled a network of restaurants and chefs to build a market for the fish. Today, the snakehead is a sought-after sushi fish that retails for somewhere near $29 a pound — all because one man helped the market build a compelling story.
Over the next four months, Triple Pundit will tell many more seafood success stories with the support of lead sponsor Future of Fish. In an in-depth series, we’ll explore what makes seafood sustainable and how fisheries and stakeholders prioritize competing issues to minimize impacts on people and the planet. If you miss an installment, you can catch them all here.
Do you know a business or organization with a compelling seafood success story to tell? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured in an upcoming story!
Image credit: Flickr/jay galvin