Saturday, October 6, 2007

Ethical Eating

As I was browsing for new fishery-related reading material, I came across this news about the lobster industry in the US from Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters (which I guess will be added to my to-read list). Turns out that animal rights supporters have convinced Whole Foods (for those of you not from the Northeast US, a liberal-minded supermarket chain that specializes in organic and natural foods) to stop selling live lobsters. The rationale for this is that most lobsters purchased alive are cooked alive, plus a variety of problems with "humane treatment" of lobsters throughout the supply chain between catching and eating.

I'm all for humane treatment of food before eating it - it's why I've stopped eating non-seafood meat and why I annoy restaurant waiters and seafood counter employees by asking where their fish were caught before buying. I distinctly remember how uncomfortable I was with the way we prepared the crabs we ate on Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay field seminar while I was at Williams-Mystic: there the local custom is not only to cook them alive, but to remove part of the carapace and season them first. I made myself help with the whole process, partially to see how it was done, but mostly because I didn't feel that I had the right to eat them if I didn't feel comfortable seeing how they were killed and prepared.

(A blast from the past - here we are eating our crab dinner, which was very good despite my discomfort. I'm the one on the far right.)

So I understand where Whole Foods is coming from and I appreciate the sentiment, but I think I mostly agree with Trevor Corson's critique that the substitution of prepackaged lobster for live lobster simply adds to the disconnect between consumers and their food (despite the obvious slant of his writing and my disagreement with a large number of his individual points). He also writes about the new way that Whole Foods is processing its lobsters, which despite seeming fairly humane for the lobsters (an odd concept when you think about it, since the lobster is eventually eaten either way...reminds me of the EU animal rights laws about fish tagging which are even more at odds with the fact that the research is to help support an industry of catching, killing, and eating said fish), does not seem to do much for the consumer-food source connection. I'm not sure what the "right" answer is for how to market and prepare foods that are sustainable, humane, and generally good for the world, but there is something missing in this argument.

This is also something I've been thinking about quite a bit while spending all this time studying cod fisheries, since I'm still unsure of how I feel in general about the concept of fisheries as a major food source. I know that fish are a fairly healthy food, an important source of nutrition for much of the world, and in most cases I think that wild-caught fish are a better choice of protein than domesticated animals. But when it comes down to the specifics - how and where the fish are caught, whether it is better to harvest fish from depleted wild stocks or from aquaculture facilities, whether we should be eating top of the food chain fish piscivorous fish like cod at all or switch to planktivorous fish like tilapia, that I don't really know. To truly answer a question like this, I'd need to know far more about world food supply, agricultural practices, aquaculture, and fisheries than I probably ever will...but I do know enough to say that a blanket ban of live lobster (or nearly any food product) is far too much of a simplified answer to really get at the crux of the issue.


pjm said...

I'll second the recommendation of Corson's book; it came to me along with "The Lobster Coast" by Colin Woodard. I found Woodard's book more interesting in that it's a sort of socio-economic history of the region I was raised in, but his tracking of the overfishing (and subsequent collapse) of various species in the Gulf of Maine is tied more closely to the social and economic impact. Corson goes more your direction, looking at both the fishermen and the scientists trying to figure out what's really going on in there, but glossing over the socio-economic issues.

amf said...

For a fisherman's unfiltered point of view I'd recommend "Having My Say: Conversations With Chesapaeke Bay Waterman Wylie 'Gator' Abbott."

ThePinkDoom said...

One of my friends loooooves lobsters, and she came to visit this week and raved about that book.

Also, if, theoretically, a friend bought you a Japanese souvenir... would you recommend she send it to you or hold onto it until you are not carrying your stuff on fishing trips?

Anthony said...


I enjoy your blog. This entry sounds so liberal artsy with your deconstruction of everything and the zoom waaaay out to make something as practical as eating food as theoretical as it really is. I love it!

I hope you're enjoying yourself way out there.

-Anthony Paz