Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Clever solutions to fish dilemmas

Of all the sub-topics under U.S. food policy, U.S. fish policy may be the most confusing. Knowing what fish to provide your family requires balancing a host of health and environmental issues: omega-3 fats (good), methylmercury (bad), PCBs (bad), environmental consequences (bad), overfishing (bad), tasty low-fat protein sources (good).

Marion Nestle's What to Eat, which I am now enjoying on my subway rides, takes no fewer than five chapters to lay out all the fish trade-offs and quandaries. On the constructive side, she describes the admirable recent effort to coordinate the message of several advocacy groups, which had previously published not-quite-consistent lists of better and worse fish options, reflecting the different weights the groups placed on various health and environmental issues. The resulting clear consumer advice is available from a site called The Fish List, sponsored by the Seafood Choices Alliance.

Nestle encourages consumers to take this list to their fish counter, tell them that you will not buy anything from the "avoid" column, and ask them to press their suppliers to provide the "enjoy" options. Her chapter points out the insane passivity of the fish industry in response to the industrial pollution that causes the food safety problems that threaten the industry.
That you cannot safely eat as much fish as you want from local waters in your state is a national scandal. Once you understand this situation, you cannot help but become angry about how such high levels of contaminants were allowed to get into your local streams and lakes and why so little is being done to stop the continued pollution of our national waterways. That, of course, brings us to the role of government. The government's lack of commitment to making fish healthier to eat can only be understood as responding to the political clout of industrial polluters and commercial seafood producers.
Meanwhile, still on the topic of constructive efforts to address fish dilemmas, I enjoyed reading on Marginal Revolution this morning about the Nature Conservancy's recent success in buying up fishing permits and actual trawlers to help protect waters and fisheries off the California coast. Alex Tabarrok points out that the Conservancy "continues to pioneer innovative, market-based approaches to conservation."