Sunday, October 7, 2007

Weekend Update

Years ago, in what must have been another lifetime, I wrote in The Washington Post that the famous blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay were heading for trouble. For such effrontery, I was very nearly subjected to a lynch mob of angry watermen.

Flash forward from the late 1980s and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting one of the lowest crab populations in the bay on record. According to dredging samples taken just prior to the 2007 season, new crabs were at their second-lowest number since the survey began in 1989. According to NOAA, these findings continue a trend that has plagued the crabs for the last decade.

In fact, the 2006 blue crab harvest of 49 million pounds for the entire Chesapeake was one of the lowest recorded since 1945. The 2007 harvest was predicted to be even less.

It's a sad state of affairs for the once super-abundant Chesapeake. The blue crab--or "beautiful swimmer"--has for centures stood as a living symbol of fecundity for the world's largest tidal estuary. But like the oyster--now nearly extinct in these waters--the blue crab almost unthinkably finds itself in the throes of a long, inextricable decline.

Mankind continues to turn virgin shoreline into housing developments and marinas. Surrounding farms and millions of homes and lawns from the huge Chesapeake watershed continue to pour pollutants into the bay. There is always talk about taking action, but little seems to improve. Many areas of the bay are now subject to huge "dead zones" where pollution-loving algae suck all the oxygen out of the water.

The town of Crisfield, MD, used to be the world's foremost supplier of crab meat and soft-shell crabs. Now, the crab on your plate is just as likely to come from a mangrove swamp in Southeast Asia.

Still, NOAA declares that the blue crab is not overfished. Management goals call for a harvest of up to 53 percent of the entire crab population. Does that sound reasonable to you?


The Mediterranean population of bluefin tuna, beloved by sushi chefs, may be on the verge of a complete collapse. Some estimates put the bluefin population there at a mere 6 percent of its original abundance. What's more, the tuna that are being caught and sent to market are getting smaller and smaller.

Part of the blame goes to the increasingly ingenious technology being used to catch the tuna, including illegal spotter planes that routinely scout Mediterranean waters and radio fishing fleets where to cast their nets. But European governments have also set quotas sometimes double the amount scientists have recommended.

The bad news for tuna is, the fewer of them available to catch, the more the price on their heads rises. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) this year halted bluefin tuna fishing and threatened court action against several member countries--Greece, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Cyprus--unless they could prove they were not overfishing.

"When you are down at very low biomass levels all it takes is one or two bad years to start the downward spiral from which it would be difficult to return," said Gerald Scott, the American chairman of ICCAT's scientific committee. "We haven't necessarily seen a rapid and drastic decline yet. The point is once you have, it is probably too late."

"It's over," lamented one Spanish fisheries consultant. "That's my gut feeling from both a stock point of view and a business point of view."


As if deciding which fish to eat weren't confusing enough, the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition this week came out with a recommendation that pregnant women should consume a minimum of 12 ounces of fatty fish each week in order to accumulate enough omega-3 fatty acids. The recommendation is a puzzler, since it comes from a long-standing and highly regarded organization and directly conflicts with federal government recommendations that pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant consume a maximum of 12 ounces of fatty fish per week because of the risk of mercury poisoning.

Could there be any meaning in the fact that the study behind the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies group was funded by a $60,000 grant from the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry group?

"I really think that's the wrong recommendation to be making," Frank Greer, chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told National Public Radio. "We really should not be implying that women should be eating more than 12 ounces of seafood."

Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told NPR, “We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it."

Caveat emptor...


Fun fact of the week: there's less sugar in a Krispy Kreme donut than in a bowl of Post Raisin Bran cereal. In fact, it might be a good idea to check the ingredients in the stuff you're feeding your kids in the morning. Breakfast ain't what it used to be, according to this piece in Salon.


Finally, it appears that the gold rush fever around our old pal, ethanol, may have produced something of a glut. It seems that the infrastructure needed to bring ethanol to market isn't quite ready yet, meaning all kinds of new ethanol manufacturing facilities have been thrown into high gear with nowhere for all the new fuel to go.

As you'll recall, all the politicos in Washington have jumped on the ethanol bandwagon, mandating that we turn more and more of our corn into fuel to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The result has been a doubling in the price of corn, record planting of corn, a tortilla crisis in Mexico and higher food prices around the globe.

But ethanol is highly corrosive and cannot be transported in traditional pipelines. It has to be shipped by trucks or rail, and there simply are not enough of those to handle the sudden surge in capacity.

Partly because of the ethanol craze--but also because of the food demands of a growing middle class in countries such as India and China, and maybe because of bad weather caused by global warming--commodity prices are up around the globe. The price of corn is up 40 percent in the last year, soybeans 75 percent and wheat 70 percent. A box of Wheaties now costs more per ounce than London broil.

That's all bad news for the poorest of the world's poor. But as if paying more just to stay alive weren't hard enough, the conversion of food to fuel also means governments are providing less food aid to the hungry.

The budget working its way through Congress shows no signs of increased spending on food aid. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that the cost of food for the federal government’s main food aid program, Food for Peace, rose 35 percent over the past two years. Meanwhile, the number of people being fed by American food aid has declined from 105 million in 2002 to 70 million last year.

An estimated 850 million of the planet's people are hungry. “We fear the steady rise of food prices will hit those on the front lines of hunger the hardest,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program.

Bicycle, anyone?


manselmo said...

Thank you for pointing out the fact that National Fisheries Institute partially funded this latest campaign to urge expectant women to consume more fish and seafood.

Many people are ignoring this important aspect of the study. and It is irresponsible to urge pregnant mothers to eat more fish than the FDA recommends without any advice to avoid high mercury fish.

Thanks again for pointing this out to your readers.

Women of childbearing age still need to select their fish wisely. The FDA advice should be posted at fish counters to help end confusion. Here’s the website to an organization that is trying to get grocery stores to post this important advice.

Meg Wolff said...

I live on the East coast and maybe twice a year eat fish if at a resturant...last time finding that ALL of the fish was either farm raised or from overseas...this was a restaurant about 500 feet from our waterfront. I chose the tofu.

Ed Bruske said...

manselmo, this announcement by Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies seems to be stirring quite a bit of controversy. Lost in the debate, it seems to me, is the fact that we are very quickly wiping out the ocean's fish life, expecially those at the top of the food chain that contain all the omega-3 fatty acids and are so popular. Wouldn't we be better off finding a non-toxic source of those nutrients, or just choose omega-3 supplements?

Meg, the fish are quickly disappearing. I think the only safe way to eat fish all things considered is to not eat fish. Have some squid instead.