Homo omnivorus


Recently, I watched Seaspiracy, a ‘documentary’ about the fishing industry—but which also squeezed in a few minutes on aquaculture.

I watch very little TV, and since the first few minutes were graphic clips of dolphin killing in Japan, the first time around I saved the show for another day—I’m familiar with the herding method of fishing, used in parts of the world for capturing tuna and marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, and I don’t like or endorse it—an orgy of blood and pain.

Fishing is not for the faint-hearted—and neither is hunting—both are an alternative form of war where humans kill other species instead of each other. Killing to eat is a common feature of all animals because unlike plants they cannot make organic compounds—their own flesh and blood.

Humans are equipped to eat both plants and animals, and many of us eat both—the teeth of Homo sapiens are exquisitely designed to allow us to consume meat, fish, and vegetables. An omnivore plays the field when it comes to diet, in contrast to animals that are exclusively carnivorous or herbivorous.

The carnivorous side of our diet means we must kill animals—in the middle ages pretty much anyone could wring a chicken’s neck, but nowadays the process is far from the public eye. Catching cod or cuttlefish with a lure means that the animals suffocate when they’re taken from the water—only the lungfish and its relatives can survive in air.

Animal cruelty or nature’s way? The fable of the stork and the lungfish.

The key difference between animal protein production on land and sea is farming: four hundred generations ago, man began to select and cultivate certain species of plants and animals and developed a concept hitherto unknown in the animal kingdom—harvest.

This revolutionary idea—although we could bring down the tone of the conversation by dwelling on the squirrel’s nuts—allowed humans to store, distribute, barter, and ultimately sell food.

As we developed as a society, folks specialized in different trades and a carpenter or mason no longer hunted or grew food—he bought it with the fruits of his labor.

Seaspiracy begins with images of extreme cruelty to apex predators—the film-maker wears his little badge of courage, risking his freedom to take the footage, but the hunt practice was fully documented decades ago and there’s loads of film available—this is just a clip of the valiant vegan taking on the carnivorous Cro-magnons.

We are then led to gruesome images of shark and other bycatch from fishing vessels—seabirds, whales and dolphins, turtles… which are thrown back into the sea, dead—in the case of sharks, often the fins are sliced off, destined for the Chinese market.

The European Union made discards illegal in 2015 and fully enforced the law in 2019, although many fishermen still get away with what they can. Obviously discards are not a good thing—the solutions are to improve fishing gear, adapt fishing practice both for region and season, and adopt better oversight and governance.

Seaspiracy repeatedly makes the point that the solution to the ills caused by fishing, and by extension to aquaculture, is market-based and driven by the consumer—stop eating fish.

Simple (and often radical) solutions to complex problems are usually wrong, but one general principle is unquestionable—the best way to conserve wild fish is not to fish them—and that’s exactly why we grow them.

The seaspirators then dwell on issues such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats, vital elements of human diet. ‘Since fish get them from plankton, let’s eat plankton instead.’

The typical concentration of plant plankton in the sea is one in a billion—good luck turning that into a burger.

Why not take the middle ground and eat some nice mussels or oysters? They filter gallons of water every day and are an excellent source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. But the movie neglects to talk about that at all —it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t a documentary, it’s a set of horror stories promoted by the vegan lobby.

Like hunting, fishing will be a recreational sport a few decades from now.

Enter aquaculture, often touted as the new kid on the block. Except of course it’s not.

Carp culture has been around for a few thousand years in China, with trout and other fish not so far behind, and oysters, mussels, and clams have been a dietary mainstay for poor folks over the centuries—and still are, in parts of Africa and Asia.

But on a world scale, if you excuse the pun, since early 2014 we eat more fish from aquaculture than from capture fisheries. It’s been seven years of six-percent annual growth—farming is here to stay.

Seaspiracy then goes on an anti-aquaculture spree. At one point someone exitedly claims that in Scotland there are more salmon that people. Duh!

The nature of the food chain is exactly that, more smaller animals than big ones, since on the one hand predators are typically larger than prey, and because ninety percent of the energy (and mass) is lost from one trophic level to another—which is why carp, tilapia, mussels, or oysters are such an attractive environmental proposition—as are lobsters, which feed on shit.

Along this dog bites man rationale, it has recently been found that London has more rats than people, and that there are north of sixteen billion ants in New York, double the population of the planet. Or that the Chesapeake Bay area, in the NE United States, is home to six hundred million chickens.

Shows like this grind their axe, and some of their points are important—unnecessary cruelty, capture of apex predators, and issues with certification bodies are all matters of great concern—but so is feeding the planet, unless you’re a fan of eugenics.

Glib don’t-eat-fish type fixes are no answer to complex problems that many people dedicate their lives to, in the hope of finding the sweet spot of sustainability, food supply, and animal welfare.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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