Number 15
January 25, 1998
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
A consumer campaign that missed by a mile
[Link to the National Fisheries Institute's Swordfish Conservation InitiativeLink to the National Fisheries Institute's Swordfish Conservation Initiative]
[Link to NJ FishNet on swordfishfor a swordfish recipe]
Illustration of Swordfish (19th Century)The Rationale:

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ SeaWeb in 1996 commissioned the Washington, D.C. consulting firm The Mellman Group to conduct a survey “…on U.S. public attitudes toward the ocean and ocean issues.” The survey results, in conjunction with those of a series of focus group exercises conducted the previous year, were evidently used by Pew/SeaWeb in plotting a campaign to increase the U.S. public’s awareness of ocean issues. The results are reported in “The SeaWeb/Mellman Group Landmark Poll on US Public Attitudes Toward the Oceans” and are available at the Pew/SeaWeb website [Link to Pew SEaWeb poll]. In words from it’s introduction, the survey provides “…a strong sense of what will work to engage the public in this issue, but the public still requires educating before acknowledging a problem.”

"The problem with the 'Give Swordfish A Break' campaign is that it's misguided, harming fishermen who have been very compliant with U.S. and international quotas. We have now managed to stem the decrease in the swordfish population, and we are hoping that by 1999 we will see a slight increase." Scott Smullen, Director of the Office of Public Affairs, National Marine Fisheries Service [Link to NOAA press release].
From the Pew focus groups: “Virtually every message we tested increased respondents’ concern about the oceans. Three messages proved most salient: raising participants consciousness about the potential benefits from the oceans’ unexplored resources; the harm caused by overfishing, and the danger to human health caused by contaminated seafood. Across the groups, it was evident that some combination of these concepts will be most successful in capturing the public’s attention and motivating them to change their own behavior and mobilize them to action.”

“Rejection Of Personal Responsibility Was The Prime Impediment To Action - Some participants were eventually willing to accept responsibility, but were unsure of how they could personally make a difference. They expressed feeling helpless; that they were only one person….”

From the Pew survey: “Destruction of our oceans is an issue waiting to be made…. Oceans being destroyed ranks lower on the list (of the respondents’ most important environmental problems), with only 14% saying it is one of the two most important environmental problems…. At the same time though, most of the public attitudes required to create a major issue are in place…. All this latent concern about oceans can be translated into significant political action.”

 “Americans Believe The Ocean’s Problems Stem From Many Sources, But Oil Companies Are Seen As A Prime Culprit - In fact, 81% of Americans believe that oil spills are a very serious problem. This is followed by chemical runoff from large corporate farms (75% very serious), improperly treated water from towns near the coast (69%), contaminated seafood (65%) and trash, oil, and chemical runoff from streets (65%). In contrast, people believe the least serious ocean problems are air pollution from cars and industry (40%), and the killing of sharks (30%).”
“Oil, The Plate, And The Critters Are Key Ways Into The Issue - Chronic oil dumping in the ocean most clearly communicates that the oceans are in trouble, and makes people very angry. People see the fact that 3.25 million tons of oil enters the world’s oceans each year as a strong indicator that the oceans are in trouble (71% ‘great deal of trouble’). This statement also makes a plurality (40%) feel very angry. Other meaningful indicators that the oceans are in trouble include overfishing and the loss of critical species (61% great deal), beaches being closed 5000 times in the last decade (60% great deal), and marine mammals being destroyed (58% great deal). Surprisingly, what makes people the most angry is shark finning, or cutting the fins off living sharks and then throwing the sharks back in the water to die (42% say it makes them extremely angry).”

What are the Pew Charitable Trusts? From the Capital Research Center’s Foundation Watch, “Pew is composed of seven named charitable trusts with different missions, established from 1948 to 1979. One hundred fifteen employees give out $180 million each year, making Pew the nation’s third largest foundation”[Link to Capitol Research Center's Pew article]. In 1997 the trusts, established by the family that founded the Sun Oil Co., sold off their last stake in the family business (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1997). Five of the ten Directors of the trusts are Pews and the trusts had total assets of $4.5 billion in 1997.  According to the Capital Research Center,“Since fall 1993, the foundation has pledged at least $19.7 million to various media enterprises....”

From the Pew Anti-Swordfish Consumer Campaign:

GIVE SWORDFISH A BREAK! A project of SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council:

• Tuesday 20 Jan. 1997 - 27 Leading East Coast Chefs Announce They Are Taking Swordfish Off The Menu
• Although fresh North Atlantic swordfish are a popular food item in restaurants, at markets and on grills - they need a break. Populations need to be replenished. The fish need a chance to recover from a decade of overfishing.
• You Can Help. If you are a chef... don’t COOK it. An owner or work at a restaurant or market... don’t OFFER it. A fish lover... don’t EAT it.
• North Atlantic SWORDFISH will be back if we do our part now.
• Write the President and ask him to adopt strong conservation measures that will ensure the prompt recovery of swordfish.

...and the Natural Resources Defense Council? The N.R.D.C. is the environmental organization that is credited with being the primary force behind the highly controversial Alar apple scare of several years ago. Based on what is reportedly misapplied and definitely controversial scientific evidence, this episode unquestionably cost domestic apple farmers hundreds of millions of dollars. (For an interesting discussion of Alar from a public relations perspective, see “Alar revisited: Yes it was a hoax” at the Inside PR website [Link to Inside PR Website]. 
The Alar issue is an important one, and not only as it applies to our food supply, the regulatory agencies that protect it and the pressure politics focused on it. The link above will take you to a site that obviously presents one view of the Alar controversy. This view is shared by the American Council on Science and Health [Link to American Council on Science and Health website]. There are others that look at it from the other perspective (RACHEL's Environment and Health Weekly is one). This issue - like many in fisheries and marine resource management - is fairly complex, difficult to understand, easy to "oversell" and definitely not amenable to quick fixes.  Without getting too far afield, Cornell University offers a long but very informative piece on Agricultural Biotechnology: A Public Conversation About Risk [Link to Cornell University Plants, Genes and Global Food Production website] at their website.  In the section by Will Erwin titled Risk Assessment: A Farmer's Perspective  he writes "How do we develop a realistic attitude toward risk? Risk, risk assessment, risk management and risk - to -  benefit relationships have all consumed much of our thoughts. But logic does not grab human attention as much as fear does. The body politic wants simple brief explanations. Unfortunately, risk assessment at the citizens level is too often typified by the young mother who came to my wife during the Alar scare smoking a cigarette with her child in her arms and said, "Will apples hurt my baby?" Public pressure generated by this kind of misunderstanding of relative risks is increasingly driving ocean resource issues as well, and often driving them in the wrong direction. 

The Reality:

• Out of the approximately 30 million pounds of swordfish consumed annually in the U.S., nearly two-thirds is harvested in the Pacific - with more than 8 million pounds being harvested by U.S. fishermen. Pacific swordfish stocks aren’t classified as overfished. Of the remainder of the U.S. supply, more than 7 million pounds are caught by U.S. and Canadian fishermen in the Atlantic. U.S. and Canadian swordfish fishermen have demanded international management and comply with the strict regulations under the rebuilding program for Atlantic swordfish established by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Two million of the remaining 3 million pounds of swordfish consumed in the U.S. are caught by Brazil and Uruguay in the South Atlantic. The South Atlantic stock is healthy, estimated to be at 99% of its optimum level, and is under strict ICCAT quota management to ensure that it remains that way.

• The remaining 1 million pounds of swordfish consumed in the U.S. is caught by the vessels which may not be fishing in compliance with ICCAT’s regulations. Of all the vessels affected by a U.S. swordfish boycott, the few catching these fish would be the only ones that might not be in compliance with ICCAT regulations.

• Approximately 90% of the total Atlantic swordfish harvest is now caught, landed and consumed outside the U.S. market and will be unaffected by any attempted U.S. swordfish boycott. (These statistics, from National Marine Fisheries Service data sheets, were provided by Blue Water Fishermen’s Association)

“The ‘Give Swordfish A Break’ campaign penalizes U.S. fishermen who are already abiding by the law, and it doesn’t recognize that we have a rebuilding program in place.” Dr. Rebecca Lent, Chief, Office of Highly Migratory Species, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Department of Commerce.

A U.S. swordfish boycott will....

• have no effect on nearly 90% of Atlantic swordfish harvests, which are not currently marketed in the U.S.;
• not stop the major Atlantic harvesters from catching Atlantic swordfish;
• punish U.S. and Canadian fishermen, who insisted on and are complying with a rebuilding program for Atlantic swordfish;
• hurt Pacific swordfish harvesters, including U.S. fishermen, who are fishing responsibly in a healthy fishery and who provide nearly two-thirds of the swordfish consumed in the U.S.;
• result in significant economic losses to the U.S.; and
• prevent American consumers from enjoying nutritious swordfish while having a negligible effect on those nations that are unwilling to effectively regulate their swordfish fleets.

[Link to National Fisheries Institute's response to the boycottNational Fisheries Institute response to the proposed boycott]

So why the boycott?

Given the makeup of the international swordfish fisheries and markets, it’s obvious that a consumer boycott in the United States isn’t going to have very much impact on the North Atlantic swordfish fishery that Pew and the NRDC are so intent on saving. A very small percentage of the vessels that are not complying with the ICCAT regulations are selling their fish in U.S. markets. If they are closed out of our markets they will easily find alternatives. U.S. (and Canadian) fishermen who are fishing by the rules, dock operators, truckers, distributors, tackle and gear dealers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs and ultimately consumers will pay the price of the boycott. And for what? Pew makes it plain via the Mellman Group report it posted on its SeaWeb website that it’s aim is to engage the public’s interest in ocean issues. The focus group and survey work reported there shows that one of the “hot button” issues for doing that is overfishing (it also shows that oil dumping is the “hottest button”) and that to really become “engaged” people must be shown how they themselves can make a difference individually. We’ve had overfishing in the North Atlantic swordfish fishery, there are a lot of people that can be convinced that a U.S. boycott of swordfish will help the fishery, and that their participation can make the boycott successful, so away we go - along with those folks that brought Alar to the public’s attention. A lot of people - almost all of them owners or employees of small businesses - are going to be severely hurt economically and the swordfish aren’t going to be significantly better off. But more of the public will definitely be engaged. Is that all that matters?

[Link to NJ FishNet on swordfishfor another swordfish recipe]


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