Tag Archives: sustainable fishing

Inside Greenberg’s Tuna Machine

Paul Greenberg wants us to regard bluefin tuna as “wildlife” on the verge of extinction, but when he admires the fish he admires them as machines: at one point in his article for the New York Times Magazine he likens the bluefin to a big inefficient “Hummer”; he watches its “tuna motor” run, and slow; he marvels at the bluefin’s “miraculous engine.” And in one of the oddest passages in the entire article, he refers to the fish explicitly as a machine:

Not only is the bluefin’s dense, distinctly beefy musculature supremely appropriate for traversing the ocean’s breadth, but the animal also has attributes that make its evolutionary appearance seem almost deus ex machina, or rather machina ex deo — a machine from God. How else could a fish develop a sextantlike “pineal window” in the top of its head that scientists say enables it to navigate over thousands of miles? How else could a fish develop a propulsion system whereby a whip-thin crescent tail vibrates at fantastic speeds, shooting the bluefin forward at speeds that can reach 40 miles an hour? And how else would a fish appear within a mostly coldblooded phylum that can use its metabolic heat to raise its body temperature far above that of the surrounding water, allowing it to traverse the frigid seas of the subarctic?

This may be as pretentious as it is confusing. And the two qualities may be inseparable here. Take the most pretentious moment of all, the recourse to Latin and the variation on the literary phrase “deus ex machina.” Greenberg here first requires us to see the bluefin as a stage god of papier mache, brought up through the trap door or riser (the “machina”) on to the evolutionary stage. The fish is a piece of stagecraft, a device, the artifice of a Poet or Maker, I suppose, who writes the great drama of evolution. Here and elsewhere, Greenberg flirts with, but never really strikes, a compromise position between evolution and – I won’t call it Creationism, but I will call it Deism.

Horace, who coined the phrase “deus ex machina” in his Ars Poetica, considered the mechanical delivery of the god on stage a clumsy way to resolve plot conflicts, and advised strongly against it; but I suppose we are not meant to take the Latin that far, or that seriously. We, too, are supposed to pretend, or at least feel smug and assured. So it wouldn’t do, I suppose, to ask what conflict or entanglement is resolved by the evolutionary appearance of the bluefin.

Besides, Greenberg himself isn’t comfortable with the phrase, as his next move reveals: the bluefin tuna doesn’t just seem like a plot device, or a god brought on stage by the Maker of evolution; the fish also seems “a machine from God.” Whether “machina ex deo” is really the most elegant way to express this in Latin I leave for others to discuss, but I will note that the “ex” with the ablative “deo” here feels like a clunky way to express the idea of the bluefin as God’s machine, almost medieval, or like late Latin at best: it just feels a little too mechanical. (Of course that has not deterred scholars from using the phrase in books about technology; we even have Joan Rothschild’s Machina Ex Dea, an anthology that purports to offer “feminist perspectives on technology.”) Apparently, Greenberg and his editors at the Times did not fuss too much over the Latin, and could not resist the allure of the reversal here. But what does it mean? What could it mean?

The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus conceived of a “creatio ex deo”. Creation, in this view, is an emanation from God, or “the One.” The emanation is simply (not merely, but simply) a consequence of the transcendent One. Plotinus asks us to consider the sun, which is not diminished by its rays. The created universe shines forth from Divine Nous, which Christian writers would identify with the Logos or the Word of John’s gospel. God in this conception is not the Aristotelian prime mover, creating the universe and all living things “ex nihilo,” out of nothing; presence itself, The One, is in no way affected or diminished or changed by the emanation of or from its presence. We recognize the transcendent One when we recognize the Good or the Beautiful in the world, and from there, as in Platonic thought, move to contemplate the Forms.

Now you can easily see how this Neoplatonic view – a view of the creation as an emanation of God, the beauty of which leads us to the Creator – could inform what I am calling Greenberg’s Deism. We can come to know God, the Transcendent One, by watching the bluefin run. But this isn’t exactly Greenberg’s point of view – or at least it’s not the point of view his language allows. Instead, he wants to see God as a great engineer, a maker of machines; he has converted creatures to machines.

This idea of the world as a big clockworks, and all the creatures as instruments in that elaborate work, has been around since the 17th century. For Descartes, animals are automata and their bodies are machines, a complex set of moving parts, which can be replaced by pistons, drivers, rods, chips, apps, and so on. This cold and cruel view is part of the great philosophical heritage of the fish farm that Greenberg visits in Hawaii, where the idea is to engineer a better sushi fish, so that the bluefin can be left to run wild – or so that we can still eat sushi after the bluefin go extinct. Man assumes the role of maker, or helpmate, to God; the exercise of dominion over the created world, entrusted to man by the God of Genesis, is really a bit like running a machine shop or an industrial plant.

What gets lost or severely diminished when we liken creatures to machines is the essence of Creation or, indeed, of evolution: what gets lost is life. Wendell Berry has written beautifully on this theme, the ugly determinism it involves, the industrial devastation it enables, “the incalculable cost,” as he puts it in Life is a Miracle, “to other creatures and to ourselves.”

Without a full appreciation for life, and for all that sustains life, all the many relationships and little connections that sustain the lives of creatures and our own lives, and allow the life of one place – the sea, the forest, a farm – to be unique and truly marvelous, the idea of “wild life” is never really going to have much grab. And the only things we will find really marvelous will be the machines of our own making, or, even worse, our ability to make and remake them.

A Response From Bill Carvalho – On Sustainability and Sardines

This afternoon I received an email from Bill Carvalho, President of Wild Planet Foods, in response to my Sunday post about sardines and sustainability. I’ve included the full text of Carvalho’s very thoughtful email as a comment below my original post. I wanted to cite a couple of paragraphs from the letter here, and didn’t want to give the impression that I was taking his words out of context.

Carvalho takes time in his note to address all my points, even the point about creating “a fairer, and more equitable world order,” in the phrase of the Georgetown Agreement. “In my personal opinion,” Carvalho writes, “that requires much more than social and ecological audits; that would require that we all submit ourselves to a moral audit, something that we can leave for another conversation.” I hope someday we can have that conversation, here in New York, or there in Eureka, California, or maybe in Vietnam.

Who knows how that would all turn out. I don’t know about Carvalho’s qualifications as a father confessor (or, for that matter, my own); but he is a good correspondent: for the most part he doesn’t dodge tough questions or deliberately confuse things. He sets me straight about carbon footprints. And he even offers some insight concerning the Wild Planet canning facility in Vietnam.

We do consider the effects of our decisions on the environment and desire to treat our customers and business partners with dignity and respect. The one cannery we use near Ho Chi Min City [sic] is owned by a long-time acquaintance who lives in the San Diego area. We selected this facility for the same reasons we choose business partners here in the US: trust in their integrity and confidence in their competence. The facility is a small enterprise by global standards which is precisely what we needed in order to teach them the specialized handling techniques needed to produce the superior quality products featured in our line. Our increase in activity at their plant has meant the creation of many dozens of new jobs in highly respectable conditions. It is interesting that the cannery provides meals for all workers daily and also owns an apartment building in which they provide housing for many employees. Your comments on how a cannery can be an economical boon to a region or community are exactly what has happened in the case of our friend’s cannery in Vietnam. I don’t think it is out of line for U.S. residents to provide economic benefits to Vietnamese residents given the history between these two countries that has not been exactly mutually beneficial.

That last sentence requires some careful parsing and further thought. Luckily, there will be more on this point from Wild Planet soon:

We have decided to a post detailed explanation of our selection of our processing partner and address issues of carbon footprint on our website and that should be up shortly. We have also decided to fully disclose the processing country on our packaging. We were not seeking to conceal data from consumers and are comfortable explaining these points as we have nothing to hide.

For my part, I am going to start researching a trip to Ho Chi Minh City. I would like to meet and interview some of the cannery workers, visit the apartment block where they live, and see the cannery in Ho Chi Minh where they pack the sustainably caught California sardines. Who knows if I’ll get there anytime soon. But maybe, if I’m lucky, or persistent, I will.

Fishy Sustainability

Dear Wild Planet,

I’m unsure what to make of this: your sardines are “sustainably caught” off the California coast, then shipped to a cannery in Vietnam?

Vietnam! I didn’t find that interesting little fact anywhere on the Wild Planet package, and it’s nowhere on the web page you have devoted to “sustainable fishing methods.” It is, however, stamped on the cardboard cartons in which the tins of your sardines are packed for shipping, and just last week I had to lift about ten of these cartons during my shift at the Food Coop.

(All members of the Food Coop have to work a few hours each month; mine is an early Friday morning shift. I work at what’s called “the top of the belt,” unloading groceries from big palettes brought in by trucks, and sending them down the conveyer belt to the basement. I might complain about the shift — it is never convenient — but I usually enjoy the simple work, lifting and carrying, which is unlike any other work I do. It sometimes even has a nice rhythm to it; and I can allow my mind to wander as I work.)

So while stooping and lifting and carrying, I happened to notice that your shipping cartons make no secret of the fact that your sardines are packed in Vietnam. Maybe the law requires that declaration. But I was surprised to discover that everywhere else you seem to take great pains not to disclose the place where the sardines are packed. The packaged tin says the sardines are “micro-cannery produced for Wild Planet Foods, Inc.” A Google search reveals that the word “Vietnam” does not appear on your website at all. Not once.

Instead, one learns that Wild Planet sardines are “wild caught,” a method rated by various environmental organizations — Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean, Fish Wise, and Sea Choice — as the “best” or “green” method of catching sardines. The trouble is, the phrase “wild caught” is terribly vague: as one writer puts it, “‘wild-caught’ casts a wide net and can mean that your fish were caught using highly destructive (read: downright demonic) fishing methods such as dynamiting reefs, high-seas bottom-trawling, and drift nets. But the term wild-caught can also encompass more desirable lower-impact techniques, such as hand-lines, divers, or the use of pots or traps.” Let’s assume you opt for the low impact techniques: why not say so and specify those techniques? Instead, you ask that we take your word that you limit your “bycatch” (those fish who happen to get caught up in a net not intended to net them), and that you don’t use destructive methods.

As a result, your claim to sustainable fishing methods, your claim to sustainable practice, lacks cogency. NO PURSE SEINE OR LONG-LINE CAUGHT TUNA WILL EVER BE USED IN OUR PRODUCTS! your site boldly announces — in capital letters, and with an exclamation point to boot. But does that mean your sardine fishermen don’t use purse seine nets? After all, the purse seine is a very good, proven way to catch sardines; and one wonders how the fishermen casting those nets assure the bycatch is, in your words, “negligible.” Sea Choice currently rates the sardine “of ‘low’ conservation concern regarding fishing pressure”; and the big drop in sardine populations off the California coast in the middle of the last century seems to have been due as much to a natural cycle of boom and bust as to heavy fishing. So, taking all this into account, what exactly does sustainable fishing of sardines mean? Does it simply mean fishing that does not exceed catch quotas — in other words, fishing that’s simply legal?

I would like to believe that Wild Planet is the environmentally-conscious company it makes itself out to be, and that you have simply done a bad job of explaining yourselves on sustainable fishing. Still, it’s a very narrow definition of sustainability that takes into account how the fish are pulled from the sea and doesn’t consider what happens to them after that. I imagine — I could be wrong — that the sardines are fresh frozen and then transported to Vietnam for canning. Have you calculated the amount of energy it takes to transport them to and from Vietnam? What is the carbon footprint of a typical catch? What can you tell me about the the Vietnamese canneries? Where exactly in Vietnam are they? What are the working conditions like? What is the average pay? Surely all of this has to figure into any discussion whether a practice rightly deserves to be called sustainable, doesn’t it?

Of course, there are no canneries here in the United States. The last one, the Stinson Sardine Cannery in Prospect Harbor, Maine, closed in February of this year. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Monterey, California is more like a mall or an amusement park than an industrial center. King Oscar packs their sardines in Poland. StarKist and Bumble Bee also ship their fish to faraway canneries. But (I couldn’t help but wonder as I stooped and lifted and carried) why Vietnam?

There is very little information readily available – at least to someone who can’t search in Vietnamese – about canneries in Vietnam. I was able to find a picture of a Vietnamese fish processing plant; it looks clean and orderly, with everyone dressed in protective face masks, a little like the high-tech manufacturing facilities I have seen, except there are dead fish everywhere.

I can infer a little more from a Request for Emergency Dislocation Aid filed by American Samoa’s governor, Togiola Tulafono, in May of 2009. There, Tulafono complains that a mandated 50-cent increase of the hourly minimum wage in American Samoa “is a direct cause” of the StarKist cannery moving to Vietnam, where workers earn around 70 cents an hour, “and less.” Granted, a worker earning 70 cents an hour, working five days a week, eight hours a day at one of your Vietnam canneries would not be considered poor in a country where per capita income in 2008 was $1,024, or about 85 dollars a month. But what drudgery!

Maybe I am not seeing the bigger picture here, and how this all adds up to sustainability or sustainable practice. In a business proposal for a cannery, Don Hosokawa, a consultant, lists some of the economic benefits that canneries bring: jobs — one cannery alone can generate 1,500 on-site jobs, and up to 2,000 more jobs in the surrounding community — economic development, a big client for local utilities and other services; “an entire infrastructure would be developed.” A fish cannery can be a real boon for the host region.

What’s more, Asian countries that are members in the ACP — the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, created by the Georgetown Agreement in 1975 — enjoy special trade agreements with the EU; and the ACP is committed to “sustainable development of its Member-States and their gradual integration into the global economy, which entails making poverty reduction a matter of priority and establishing a new, fairer, and more equitable world order”.

Only Vietnam is not a member state. Hosokawa says this would spell “more advantages” for the entrepreneur in his cannery scheme; but it’s unclear to me what advantages the people working at the Vietnamese cannery might enjoy, and how all this might help secure them, or us, a new, fairer, and more equitable world order. On this last point, especially, I hope you can enlighten me.