In my opinion, the famous quote, “Anyone can be a fisherman in May” from Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea, epitomizes the fishing profession. Even more than land-based farming, fishing remains one of the toughest and most unpredictable occupations in the world; independent of skill or money, a lot of a fisherman’s success comes down to pure luck. While this doesn’t necessarily hold true for industrial fisheries — especially with all the technological innovations and range expansions that have happened in the last sixty years (see When Humans Declared War On Fish) — for small-scale fishers, the success of a given fishing season can literally be make or break, and many will risk their lives to go out in dangerous conditions in order to earn a living.
Although I admired the main character’s (Santiago) dedication and his respect for the fish he caught, I also couldn’t help but think about the ecological impacts that commercial fisheries and sport fishermen have had on our oceans. By all accounts, Santiago is an artisanal fisherman (essentially this means he doesn’t have the capacity to catch a lot of fish at once and he uses simple, non-mechanized gear). However, regardless of whether a fisher catches one fish or a thousand, or whether they use industrial or artisanal gear, their impacts add up and can ultimately be quite substantial. Recent scientific research suggests a significant underestimation of artisanal catches (including fish caught for subsistence) and recreational fisheries landings, as well as declines in the abundance and habitat range of large open ocean predators like the marlin that Santiago hooked. (See below for additional reading suggestions on these topics.)
As such, when it comes to determining the sustainability of a fishery, this book represents a dilemma that faces all seafood consumers. On their own, many small-scale fisheries usually do not pose a huge threat to the environment. However, when these fisheries target species that are also exploited by industrial operations, or species that have been heavily over-exploited in the past, it can be challenging to determine whether these artisanal practices should be considered sustainable. It is my personal belief that you cannot have a healthy ecosystem without large predatory fish (like sharks and billfish and tunas) and thus the health of the stock being fished is always my top priority when I make a decision on what seafood I’m going to eat. When it comes to Ocean Wise, this is also one of the main criteria for whether something is recommended or not. It’s much easier said than done however, especially when artisanal fisheries are also a vital source of employment and income for people in many communities around the world and are rarely the biggest contributors to the over-exploitation of a species.
Unlike Santiago, Ernest Hemingway was an avid sport fisherman, and no doubt this book was drawn largely from his experiences. Much has been made of trophy hunting in the media over the last month, and I’m wondering if people perceive the actions of sport fishermen the same as they do terrestrial trophy hunters. If yes, why do you think we (collectively) do not react with equal revulsion when we hear of large tunas or sharks being killed compared to giraffes and lions? I am also curious to hear feedback and opinions on the book overall, as well as the issue of sustainability in artisanal fishing. Whatever is on your mind, please comment below! Also, if you’re eager to learn more about the largely misunderstood antagonist from this book, make sure you pick up a copy of Demon Fish for October! Learn more about the Vancouver Aquarium Book Club.
- Eyes on the ocean
- Few data but many fish
- Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean
- Historical baselines for large marine animals
- Range contraction in large pelagic predators
Blog post by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst and book club curator.