Friday, June 5, 2009

Sustainable Scruples

Did you know that Monday, June 8th is World Oceans Day? If not, well, you've got all weekend to decide how to celebrate. I'm starting a two-month plankton-sorting project, but feel free to think smaller.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, that colossal advocate of all things Ocean, celebrated with a webcast from Julie Packard, the Aquarium's founder and director, and Alton Brown, food geek extraordinaire. The picture of the two of them in front of the sardines (or maybe anchovies) is simply delightful. Julie Packard looks comfortable, professional, like the conservation matriarch she is. Alton Brown just looks crazy. His hair is disorganized, his glasses are thick, his smile is a goofy grin. He's ready to explode stuff, or at the very least set something on fire.

The webcast started with an introduction of our two hosts, sitting there with the sardovies (anchines?). I hate to say so, but it went downhill from there. If you want to experience it for yourself, once they post it online, I'm not saying you shouldn't. Just minimize your browser and look at something else while you listen to the audio.

After the initial video clip, the rest of the webcast is simply a series of photographs, without so much as a single Ken Burns effect. Sometimes the photos match the audio, as when a picture of a little kid accompanies Alton mentioning that he was raised on a steady diet of Jaques Cousteau specials. Other times they are almost comically mismatched, as when the aquaculture discussion is illustrated by a fishing boat hauling up a net. (A couple of powerpoint slides even make an appearance, but that's just so embarassing I'm not going to talk about it.)

I guess they were trying to keep bandwidth down, but in that case, why not forgo video altogether? My hopes were too high. I wanted explosions! Or at least fire!

Our IT guy streamed the webcast in the main lecture hall. About a half dozen of us showed up to start watching, and only three of us stuck it out for forty minutes, at which point we gave up and turned it off altogether. To be fair, it wasn't entirely the disappointing content. Warm sunny days are rare enough here in Monterey that they must either be spent a) playing hooky or b) working hard, oh yes working so hard, because you are so dedicated to science that you will not take even the sunniest and warmest of days off. Good little scientist!

Not-working and staying inside, for example watching a webcast, is inexcusable (blogging, of course, is an exception). So we quit, and yes, that means I am committing the sin of criticizing something that I didn't even finish viewing. Sorry! If anyone sat through the whole thing and wants to tell me what I missed in the last twenty minutes, I'd love to hear it!

Anyway, the most interesting topic from the first forty minutes was sardines. Actually interesting, I mean, I'm not being facetious. Here's a fun fact about Alton Brown: he adores sardines. He says he eats them, fresh or canned, at least five times a week. FIVE TIMES A WEEK. I don't even eat ice cream that frequently!

Sardines came up because sardines always come up when people talk about eating lower on the food chain, which in turn always comes up when people talk about sustainable seafood. It's an argument most famously presented by Taras Grescoe in Bottomfeeder: although is it certainly possible to overfish low-food-chain items, they are at much less risk than high-food-chain items, because there are more of them to begin with and their turnover time is quicker.

It's intriguing to note that all of our big terrestrial meats are bottom-feeders (grazers) with the notable exception of pig*. There are probably a lot of historical and ecological factors behind that, but I'll just mention one: on land, grazers outgrow their predators. Elephants are bigger than tigers. Bison are larger than wolves. But in the water, animals get larger and larger as you travel up the food chain. Tuna are bigger than sardines. Sharks are larger than shrimp. And whales are . . . complicated.** Given that a bison's got more meat than a wolf and a tuna's got more meat than a shrimp, it's pretty straightforward to understand why we eat at different trophic levels in different ecosystems.

Anyway, the point is that it would be more sustainable to gobble sardines the way Alton does than to scarf down salmon and tuna the way some people do. But most Americans don't want to. Why not? Alton suggests that the turn-off is that fact that you buy sardines with the head still attached: "Americans probably wouldn't even eat chicken if it came with a head. . . . we are a country of the cut, not the carcass."

(I bet he's been working on that one for a while. It's poetical!)

I'm reminded me of a curious ethical quandary that my husband and I banter over, sometimes more and sometimes less seriously: I'll kill it but I won't eat it, and he'll eat it but he won't kill it.

I've killed plenty of squid and fish for science, but I've never deliberately eaten any animal. My spouse, meanwhile, has never been a vegetarian, but readily admits he's too soft-hearted to kill anything larger than an ant in cold blood.

Who's the greater hypocrite?
Who's to judge?

Just to be clear, I'm not unconflicted about the scientific carnage I've perpetrated. I've tried to justify every animal death in terms of advances in knowledge contributing to conservation, but it still bothers me. A lot. In fact, it is a contributing factor to my not wanting a career as a research biologist. I suppose I could study plants, like my wonderful vegan friend who works on orchids, but they're not my passion. If I'm a biologist, I'm going to study cephalopods, because that's what I love.

That's what I kill.



* Pigs and humans have a lot in common.

** Many whales are big predators, like sperm whales. So they fit right in. But the very biggest, the blue whales, have to mess up my rule-of-thumb by being bottom-feeders (metaphorically speaking--they don't actually eat off the bottom, like gray whales)

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