Fish as Food: our collective responsibility

by Susanna Fuller. This post was delivered as part of the Walrus Talks Water event held in Halifax on May 25th, 2015.

I’m going to talk about the water we can’t drink – the salty kind. The kind that brings that amazing smell of ocean, clean air, endless possibilities. The kind that can wash our problems away, through a swim or a sail. The kind that produces from 17 to 70% (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization) of our protein, depending on which country you live in.

My focus is on the importance of this food-producing ocean to Atlantic Canada and on the responsibility we have to ensure that it continues to be a food producing, living, breathing entity. This focus is in the context of the fact that we have a global ocean, one ocean that flows, mixes, tosses and turns to not only bring us food, but produces 50% – 85% of the oxygen we breathe (the range is because this is a difficult number to calculate!)

Photo: Sean O’Flaherty

Atlantic Canada. This part of our country is name primarily for the ocean in which the land sits. Take away Newfoundland, and we are the Maritimes. Again, a strong reference to our seafaring history, our colonial past. Bluenosers – a name for Nova Scotians – with a storied and foggy providence. We are tied to the sea.

Does anyone know the second Act passed in Canada (or what was Canada then) following confederation? The second Act was in fact the Fisheries Act. The allocation, management and governance of our fisheries was once so important that it was second only to the British North America Act that created our post colonial country.

Before that time, there were centuries of Basque fishermen and later European vessels that plied our waters for food to bring back to Europe until 1979 when the 200 mile limit was implemented. Then, Canadian vessels set to work extracting as much fish from the sea as possible with larger than life factory trawlers.

Well before the Basque fishermen arrived and to this day, our fish are an important part of our First Nations culture. Learning to spear an eel under the ice continues to be a right of passage for young Mi’qmaw children. The Marshall decision confirmed the rights of First Nations to legally trade and sell fish.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Chowder, cod cheeks, fish and brews, Solomon Gundy are all part of the culinary iconography that we try and sell to others to ensure that our tourism somehow remains true to our colonial past.

In Canada, while recreational hunting is cherished past time, few – with the exception of first nations and Inuit who life off the land – most of us do not rely on wild food for the majority of our diet. Unless we eat fish. (Farmed salmon is not part of this conversation for more reasons than I have time to explain here!).

Our oceans continue to produce volumes upon volumes of protein – with no input costs. No one plants the seeds, waits for reproduction – we try and count the fish so we have an idea of how many we can remove without negatively impacting the overall population (and we fail, time and time again). There is nothing like the fresh salty taste of a just shucked oyster, the smoothness of a scallop just plucked from the sea. A haddock fillet pan fried, less than 24 hours after being caught. Fresh mackerel on the BBQ. A lobster in the heat of the summer, with a cup of black tea and a scoop of potato salad.

Nova Scotia Lobster Supper. By Benson Kua

Nova Scotia Lobster Supper. By Benson Kua

When we talk about seafood at the end – on our tables – it is food. But when we talk about seafood before, during and after harvest – it is a “stock”, a “quota”, a “catch”, a “landing” and above all in Atlantic Canada, an export.

This language – in my mind – has partly resulted in the shameful way we treat the oceans. It is hard to take care of something called a “quota.” Imagine cutting down the forest to harvest deer, yet we continue to justify bottom trawling as an acceptable method of fishing the vast majority of fisheries volume in Canada. Another comparison  – on land, we don’t dump millions of tonnes of garbage and plastic on our farms. We don’t allow raw sewage to seep into our orchards. So why is it that we can treat our food producing oceans as such a dumping ground? Increasingly, those small bits of plastic in facial cleansers are showing up in the stomachs of fish. We need to be much more cognizant of how we are treating our oceans and the impact it has on our food.

I’d like to make the case for not only a change of language in Canada and ideally more broadly – but for a whole hearted change in attitude about the food we eat from the oceans. We should be nurturing it, and minimizing inputs of garbage and sewage and CO2 for that matter. We also need to be much more aware that we may be eating endangered species. Yes, the cod that was once iconic for its abundance, and then iconic for its collapse, has been determined as endangered by the Canadian science body that advises listing on the Species at Risk Act. In Canada, we also have no targets for recovery of these depleted populations, leaving us far behind other developed countries with fisheries management bodies.

Orlie Dixon brings in the catch on a hook and line.

Orlie Dixon brings in the catch on a hook and line.

The people who catch our fish rarely seem to matter – but we are starting to care about who farms our food. If the people who fished mattered, perhaps how they fish might matter a lot more. And if how things are caught matters, then the fish themselves might start to matter. And if the fish matter, then the oceans themselves might start to matter.

In Canada, we have three oceans; we need to do much, much better at taking care of them. So next time you eat a fish, look it in the eye (if it still has one) and have a long hard think about the ocean and our collective responsibility to protect it.

Susanna is Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. You can see this and other talks from the Walrus Talks Water event here.

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