World Oceans Day: What else died so you could eat seafood?

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

In 2010, I was standing on a beach in Ecuador watching all manner of sea creatures get dragged ashore, sacrificed for the targeted catches of high-value prawns and tunas (mostly for export).

Sharks, rays, even a turtle, all killed in the process. Some of them would end up in local ceviche as non-descript fish, but others (like the turtle, a protected species) would simply be left to rot.

I certainly don’t advocate an end to fishing. I work with fishers of shark, sardines, mackerel, crabs, shrimp, oysters and more. I believe small- and medium-scale fishing has a role to play in livelihoods and food across the globe.

But the sight of Ecuador’s illicit bycatch, which led to the photo above, left me asking what kinds of pernicious forces — political, economic, ecological or other — could lead to such wanton sacrifice.

I’m still asking that question. As June 8 is World Oceans Day, maybe we all should be asking it.

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It’s World Fisheries Day! Do you know where your fish comes from?

Karwar harbor

Karwar harbor

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Working/conference paper: The value of schooling in traditional sectors, with special reference to Indian fisheries

Because I’m being slow in getting this in a better state for publication, I’m posting it here now. Trying to light a fire, as it were.

This paper was presented at the symposium Understanding and Eradicating Poverty in South Asia: Lessons and Options at the University of Rajasthan (Jaipur, India, Oct. 17, 2013). This remains in a draft format; please contact me before citing.

ABSTRACT: The international community has enshrined formal education as one of the key tools necessary to alleviate poverty, on par with ending hunger and fighting disease. In addition, education is often considered a key component of the “modern” geographic, demographic and economic transition off the land, out of the village and into wage jobs in cities. But what does education mean within the rural or traditional economy? What does education mean for the legions of villagers who remain poor farmers and fishers in developing countries such as India? This paper examines the relationship between education and poverty theoretically and empirically in traditional economic sectors. First, the paper sketches an outline of neoclassical economic growth theory, with specific attention to the basic Cobb-Douglas production function. Next, the paper reviews literature on the economic returns to education or human capital, with special attention to traditional sectors when possible. Finally, the paper conducts a quantitative analysis of marine fishery census data from India, testing the empirical relationship between poverty and education within a traditional sector.

The paper ultimately finds evidence to support the idea of returns to education even within India’s coastal fishery economies; in other words, education need not simply be a ticket out of the village. In line with much development literature, female education may have an inverse relationship to poverty stronger than male education. Furthermore, the effect of education can rival that of mechanized capital, often thought to be the key to improving poverty among fishers. However, the results may be attenuated both by the structure of the economy as well as socio-political institutions. Finally, the findings have a spatial quality to them. Some relationships shift when controlling for the fixed or unobserved effects of place, and the effects of education are not uniform across geographies. Taken together, these findings suggest the need for education that is locally tailored, decentralized and relevant specifically for traditional economies.

Click here to download.

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Cod-forsaken fish sticks

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Writing about fisheries, hankering for veggie fish and chips

Interesting story yesterday from Maine. And I’ll get to how it relates to my culinary experiment (pictured above) earlier this year.

The lobster population has been exploding in the Gulf of Maine, which is a productive, protected and generally successful fishery. A problem: A high lobster population means lower prices. Sure, that’s good news for consumers who like everything to be cheap. But it’s bad news for local fishermen charged with protecting and husbanding the fishery while simultaneously paying bills.

The twist: This fishery dilemma dates to an earlier one, the overfishing of cod in New England. Cod eat everything off the ocean floor. Predation of lobster by cod was, according to scientists, an ecological check-and-balance.

What caused overfishing of cod? Among other phenomena, the fish stick. Yes, I’m suggesting that fish sticks constitute a phenomenon. So powerful was the mass-consumptive call for frozen, reheated, generic, white fish that the irrepressibly abundant cod are all but gone from the great George’s Bank. (Climate change may also have something to do with it.)

From Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, A 1950s advertisement from the Glouchester seafood company Gorton’s claimed that fish sticks were the

“latest, greatest achievement of the seafood industry of today… Thanks to fish sticks, the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery. Instead she regards it as a pleasure, just as her family have come to consider fish one of their favorite foods. Easy to prepare, thrifty to serve and delicious to eat, fish sticks, it can be truthfully said, have greatly increased the demand for fish, while revolutionizing the fishing industry.”

And this is how we get the picture above, my tofu-batter-vinegar-shallow-fry earlier this year. The social construct of the fish stick is powerful, indeed.

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Small fishing is beautiful

Small is beautiful

Above: A Panamanian boat man.

I’m in the final throes of my thesis writing; the topic: Explaining poverty in Indian fisheries.

However, for the last week and a half I’ve been writing the history and evolution of fisheries globally, which has me constantly thinking about the stratification of fisheries and the multiverse of fisheries development paths.

In case anyone is interested, a good bit of straightforward reading on fisheries — other than my thesis, of course — is DeSombre and Barkin’s Fish. More encyclopedic but also helpful is the stupidly expensive Handbook of Fish Biology and Fisheries Vol 2.: Fisheries, edited by Paul J.B. Hart and John D. Reynolds.

Note: There are plenty of problems with small- and intermediate-scale fisheries, too. But when compared to fully industrialized fishing and considering the plight of the increasingly depleted ocean, it’s difficult not to argue for the small-is-beautiful model.

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Semester research: The effects of agriculture on India’s forest cover

One giant poster

I spent the semester conducting a statistical analysis to explain variation across Indian states in forest cover change from 2000 to 2009. After a preliminary literature review, looking at deforestation across the world, I compiled a database of more than 200 relevant variables. From that I computed and tested more than 100 variables (averages, percentage change, raw change, etc.) before narrowing my regression to several key indicators of an individual Indian state’s economic reliance on agriculture and the presence of alternative lifestyles and livelihoods.

This culminated in a series of univariate, bivariate and multivariate analyses; I presented the research in a spring quantitative analysis symposium at American University. The poster is viewable here.

The ultimate conclusion from the research: Agricultural output value is strongly and negatively associated with forest expansion, coinciding with slow forest cover growth or even powering forest cover loss. In the alternative, a number other variables — all of which represent diversity in economic opportunity, livelihoods and lifestyles — have positive associations with forest cover growth. This all appears in several models of an OLS regression.

I’ve written a draft paper of the analysis that needs to be refined, edited and combined with an introduction, abstract and the results of my literature review — a summer project to be sure.

Anyone who wants some heavier reading can read that draft here. I’d welcome any and all feedback, even from complete strangers. (Forgive the writing. This was done in pieces and certainly is repetitive in phrasing.)

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Out with the tide…

Lazy afternoon

…or you’re done for the day.

Above, Havelock fishermen empty their boats for the afternoon; they’ll return to the sea at night or the next morning when the fish are more active and the tide is high enough for them to clear the coral-strewn flats.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing just a little, but these are the opposite of industrial fishing. They’re traditional fisherfolk who have been sustaining their families on small catches for generations.

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Is shark finning the answer to shark finning?

Cruising behind him

Global shark catch is staggering. As many as 73 million sharks are taken from the ocean each year; most are relieved of their fins and dumped back in the water while still alive. These beautiful and important predators now face serious threats from our wanton harvesting, mostly to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup.

First and foremost this is tragic simply in terms of human decimation of biodiversity. Excepting that ecological concern, there are real reasons to worry from an entirely anthropocentric standpoint. For one, sharks provide ecotourism benefits to many coastal economies, as divers pay substantially to see them. Also, as apex predators, a decline in shark populations can lead to explosions of other species on lower trophic levels, which can threaten ecosystems of commercial importance For example, fewer sharks lead to more rays which lead to less scallops for us to sell for dipping in butter.

Is there an answer? Shark sanctuaries are fantastic; they represent the ideal of conservation. However, given problems with enforcement and the potential for bans to simply displace degradation rather than curtail it, national prohibitions don’t seem realistic as a complete solution.

I argue, rather, that we need to recognize — at least in the interim — the reality that shark finning will likely continue. We would do well then to incentivize conservation and better management so that fishermen and fleets develop an interest in preserving rather than over-harvesting. In this class paper, I lay out the economic reasoning for a nation-by-nation transferable shark fishing quota system.

This would push harvests toward social and biological optimums; in conjunction with marine protected areas and fishing best practice standards, a quota system might actually slow the destruction of shark populations worldwide.

It’s not a particularly palatable option for shark lovers (myself included). Under a quota system, some number of sharks like the one above will still be killed for an overpriced, elitist broth. But it also might do better to ensure that a sustainable population of sharks sticks around.

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And we’re back… tanned and tired but a certified divemaster


This week I’ve returned to the dusty, human crush of Delhi after more than three weeks on Havelock Islandtraining as a divemaster. I spent my time interning at a dive shop — the very one where I learned to dive a little more than a year ago.

That meant long hours — 12-hour days — of managing divers, helping lead dives, sorting/cleaning/lugging gear, skills tests, timed swimming trials, science and protocol exams and, thankfully, a fair bit (more than 40 logged in the three weeks) of diving. I’m now a certified Enriched Air diver and one posted envelope away from being a card-carrying, certified PADI divemaster.

The above photo, by the way, is my reflection in another diver’s bubble’s on a descent 100 feet or so to the bottom at Johnny’s Gorge, one of our celebrated dive sites.

Continue reading this entry » » »

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Don’t eat this cucumber

Stop rapacious harvesting of me

Sea cucumbers are gradually being threatened by man due to overharvesting and destructive fishing tactics.

This guy, from the bay at San Cristobal, in the Galapagos Islands is safe, but many aren’t. Please don’t support this trade unless you know it to be sustainable.

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