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.

Vancouver Aquarium Book Club

Joe Russell and Ernest Hemingway with a marlin, Havana Harbor, 1932 (young man at left not identified). Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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.)

Vancouver Aquarium Book Club

“Workaholic.” Filipino workers unloaded tons of tuna every day. Most often fish carcass weights greater than themselves, but these people make their living. General Santos City, Philippines. (Ybrael Abergas / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest)

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.

Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise Book Club

This month’s book club read: The Old Man and the Sea.

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.

Suggested reads:

Blog post by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst and book club curator. 

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2 Responses

  1. Joe Schiller

    I think your comparison to trophy fish and trophy animals is valid but the difference is that animals are visible (and sometimes cute and cuddly) while fish are most likely considered slimy creatures that are not too cuddly. Sharks have gained a reputation of being cold hearted killers and while that may not be the truth, it seems to be the common perception with most people.

    By the way I think the young fellow on the left in the picture with Hemingway might be John F. Kennedy.

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      I completely agree that people perceive marine creatures much differently than they perceive land ones. I think part of it is that we (North Americans at least) have never considered lions or giraffes as food, whereas we commonly eat fish. As far as sharks go, I remember once watching a short film about great whites and Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws (found at In it, the narrator quotes Benchley as expressing genuine remorse for how his book contributed to giving sharks such a bad reputation. In fact, for much of the rest of his life, Benchley did his best to make amends for his interpretation of his work through various shark and ocean conservation and outreach efforts. Like everything, change takes time, but I think the shift from whaling to whale watching is a great example of how public perception can change over time. And we are slowly getting there with sharks too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (And, sorry—not sure about the identity of the kid in the pic. If it is JFK, the source chose not to express that.)


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