Fisheries and the Absent Referent
By Carolyn Hall

 Mayor La Guardia with a 300 pound halibut at the Fulton Fish Market in NYC in 1939, LIbrary of congress

Mayor La Guardia with a 300 pound halibut at the Fulton Fish Market in NYC in 1939, LIbrary of congress

I am an historical marine ecologist, and while thinking about the concept of “the absent referent” from the perspective of our relationship to fish and fisheries, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two quotes:

“The absent referent is … to keep something from being seen as having been someone, to allow for the moral abandonment of another being.”  Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat

“Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge.... It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Somewhere at the intersection of these two ideas is an approach to understanding the evolution of fisheries management in the United States. The fisheries industry is undergoing a gradual transformation from the “moral abandonment” of fish in terms of not considering them “beings,” to the still-developing recognition that “each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational.” More expansively, we could think of this as a way to view our shifting approaches to all natural resource management as it pertains to mineral, plant, and animal (human or otherwise) – but for the sake of argument, let’s stick with fish.

Fish have been a commodity for thousands of years, yet many people in industrialized nations that regularly include fish in their diet have little idea (and probably don’t care) what the animal they are eating may have looked like when it was whole and alive, or, for that matter, where it came from. This is unlike the significantly more recognizable source/meat relationships of beef/cow, pork/pig, or poultry/chicken where people are at least somewhat familiar with the living animal even though they probably prefer not to think about that when eating the flesh. But fish? Maybe one can picture a shark or a goldfish, but a living swordfish? A swimming shrimp? Tilapia? Where is the recognition of the living being – of having been “someone?”

 photo By Adrian Jordaan. Carolyn Hall holding an alewife

photo By Adrian Jordaan. Carolyn Hall holding an alewife

Before the industrialization of fisheries, people were generally more familiar with and respectful of the whole living animals, and their waters, before they became pieces of fish on our plates. But as human society became increasingly mechanized and money driven, people became more and more removed from the natural resources that paradoxically allowed for such “advancement.” That earlier familiarity and relative symbiosis was replaced by objectification, fragmentation, and disembodied mass consumption.

“Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object. Once objectified, a being can be fragmented. Once fragmented, consumption happens. The consumption of a being, and the consumption of the meaning, and the consumption of the meaning of that being’s death, so that the referent point of meat changes.” Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat

Coordinated, federal government-funded fisheries management began in the United States in 1870 when the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries was formed. Concern had been building state by state in the late 1860s as increasingly more fisheries were being declared “exhausted.” The fish just weren’t showing up in the numbers they used to. This was critical because fisheries were a cornerstone of the US economy. As a result, intense research on “relevant” species began – relevant meaning species of economic importance for food, trade, profit. Species like salmon, oysters, cod. Those aquatic beings in demand for human consumption.

This research led to attempts at protection and artificial propagation of these species, but the efforts were isolated, targeted to look only at a particular species in a vacuum, and to study its habits in relation to our practices – hunt, capture, sell. Other secondary species were only added to research and protection plans if the primary targeted species continued to fail – which they did. In fact, oftentimes the replacement fish were sold under false identities to make them seem familiar and palatable (a practice still in use today). Those secondaries were needed as replacements for the lost commodity, not out of a holistic investigation of the fish community or even for their individual uniqueness, but to fulfill a desperate need to maintain the human supply.

 Cod fish at the Fulton Fish Market in NYC 1943, Library of Congress

Cod fish at the Fulton Fish Market in NYC 1943, Library of Congress

Early voices that decried these destructive practices of over consumption were met with resistance, denial, violence, and practical “solutions” to artificially extend production. Our management approach was based solely on the objectified fish’s value as edible or tradable – not valued as a living creature, as an integral part of an ecosystem with an exchange of life and death in a full community, a full bio-geo-chemical world that gives us humans (and the planet) life. That world we so quickly disregard and see as our territory to dominate, abuse, use, OWN. And in doing so, harm ourselves: “… all life is relational.”

So…we marched on through decades of attempts to manipulate fish populations and find greater quantities in order to keep not only our fishing nets full, but also our banks’ coffers. In New York State, the number of species caught to fulfill the hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars fish industry nearly doubled from 41 species in 1890 to 77 species in 1950. Fishing fleets searched further off-shore for their game. Equipment became high tech with diesel engines, radar, sonar, freezers and refrigeration on the boats, and planes assisting from above to spot schools of fish from the air.

Until the fish gave out.

Suddenly in the 1960s overfishing along with pollution, development, and unchecked competition for natural resources on land and at sea caused the fisheries to again be exhausted, on an even larger scale than a hundred years before. The failure, the loss of revenue, and the loss of jobs required a reckoning. In the 1970s the government responded with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and a comprehensive Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Fishery Conservation. Great, but what did conservation mean? Here it meant a conservation of the fisheries so the industry could expand - not really a conservation of the fish, themselves. All efforts still focused on adjusting hunting and catching tactics for maintaining human profit and consumption. Consumption of the nameless, faceless flesh. The absent referent.

 Photo BY carolyn Hall. A tangle of fish from off the south shore of Long Island

Photo BY carolyn Hall. A tangle of fish from off the south shore of Long Island

But the idea of conservation as part of management had been introduced and a movement had begun. A slow shift in management, in conservation, began to appear.

In 1996, the Sustainable Fisheries Act emphasized conserving individual fish populations, improving the living communities of particular fish, rather than merely focusing on the fisheries. Yes, the goal was still to find ways to keep US catch counts up, but the research included more of what the fish needed in their environment (prey, habitat, migration) in addition to what humans needed. Management was trying to find a sustainable balance between our consumption demand and the fish’s needs to maintain a healthy population. However, the approach still isolated its focus to species deemed valuable. Still primarily targeted fish independent of other species. Still not seeing the big picture and mostly neglecting the roles of other “unimportant” species. Not quite grasping ecosystem interconnectedness and definitely neglecting our role, as humans, in the system. Still focusing on “them” as separate from “us.”

Then in the 2000s the concept of Ecosystem-based management was proposed (follow link for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s definition of ecosystem-based management )  The idea was to base management decisions, and subsequent regulations, on the interdependence of any given being and its predators, prey, habitat, and its young and elders. In short, its all-encompassing relationships to its world. And, of utmost importance, who was finally included as a major player in the ecosystem? Humans. The long overdue realization was that we are part of the fishes’ ecosystem and they are part of ours. And the living animal that is a fish would no longer be absent, it would represent itself, rather than being represented by a block of flesh. It’s a beautiful concept. As the gears of management begin to crank towards implementing this approach, many new and important questions are being asked: How do we quantify the economic value of a living fish in the wild? Of a thriving population? Of a community of interdependent aquatic creatures? Of a healthy estuary? Of an open, undammed river? Of a forested watershed? Of the deep ocean? These questions represent the complexity we are grappling with in order to balance the value of an important-to-us “being” in that being’s complete ecosystem with the practice of industrial capitalism and consumption. How can both values and practices co-exist?

And this is where we are now. Both of these values MUST co-exist. We will not stop harvesting and eating fish but we need to find a sustainable way to do so that honors the living beings’ actions and connections on the planet. A fish’s small role in a watershed can feed us through properly managed harvest, but the role is also one that hydrates us and maintains chemical and biological balances that we, and all other living things, depend on. From the tide pool to the stars and back again, each fish “is at once the point and the base of a pyramid,” and we humans exist within that pyramid and are also simultaneously the point and base. If we isolate one being, we run the risk of relegating it to absence and possible extinction thereby making the pyramid unsteady. That fish (or any living creature or natural resource) in its natural state of being “someone” is a cornerstone of our future survival - not just of our economic security. It is much easier to commodify it by keeping it absent, preferring the nameless, odorless, colorless frozen blocks of referent flesh, but we can no longer, in good conscience, do that. And as a final point, if we extrapolate this argument out even further, the objectification, fragmentation, and consumption of such reduced beings makes us fragile and weak. We lose morality, compassion, connection, diversity, complexity, understanding, and wonder. We forget how to value community, how to be one of many, how to appreciate the relationships of animal to animal. We are, after all, just another animal.