Bread, fish and scarcity
Somewhere off the Alaskan Peninsula, in the barren 525-mile expanse that separates Kodiak from Dutch Harbor, I realized that we would soon run out of milk and bread. Being in such a remote location we would not soon be able to resupply on these basic provisions. As the boat cook, it was my job to plan and keep track of our food supplies, I hadn’t realized when I stocked up in the tiny village of Sand Point just how long we would be out and just how much milk and bread the crew would consume.
I alerted the captain and the crew that we had about two days of milk left and four days of bread if we continued consuming as we had been. I suggested that we should slow down eating and drinking these staples to make them last longer, but this turned out not to be the case.
In the face of scarcity the crew started drinking more milk and eating more bread than before. It was as if, and likely was, that the realization this “resource” would soon be wiped out, pushed the crew to “get theirs” or risk being left with nothing. I too found myself eating more peanut butter and honey sandwiches than before, with the thought, these guys are eating so much if I don’t snag an extra sandwich here and there I might not get anything.
Within a day we ran out of milk, we were out of bread in a little less than two.
As fishermen we deal with scarce resources for a living, albeit most times a scarcity of our own making. At times the scarcity works in our benefit by yielding higher market prices, but all in all the scarcity of much of the remaining stocks of fish is detrimental to our future livelihoods.
I fear our natural impulse—for both fishermen and greater humanity—in the face of scarcity is to get what we can rather than sustain what is left. This seems to hold true whether we’re talking about milk, bread, fish or any resource for that matter.
One of the best points Paul Greenberg made in his New York Times Bestseller Four Fish, is that fishermen, by and large, will deplete a new stock from abundance to scarcity, only then do regulatory agencies step in. Unfortunately, “they tend to manage to preserve the status quo of scarcity, rather than reestablish a historically correct abundance.”
This begs the question, one which seems contrary to my horizontal principles, is the only way to fight the natural impulse to “get yours” through a top-down regulatory intervention? As fishermen we will work as hard as we can to catch as much fish as we legally can—or every last one in the absence of legality. A big payday is one of the only reasons one would endure such sleepless misery. Conservation of the prey is often the last thought of the hunter when the taste of blood is near, or is it?
There seems to be competing images of fishermen, one as shortsighted pillagers, the other as ecologically connected yeomen concerned with the long-term preservation of the resource. I have seen truth and fallacy in both. There is also the industrial-artisanal distinction, but where the two are demarcated is unclear. I work for sole-proprietors, captains who are independent businessmen, yet to operate profitably year-round a capital investment of $1 or $2 million is often required. I have also seen both pillagers and stewards on both sides of the fuzzy industrial-artisanal divide.
What is clear is that in an industrial setting resource management will almost always be dictated in top-down manner, normally through corporately-vetted governmental policy. Only in the artisanal is there space for a more democratic bottom-up management approach. But for the bottom-up approach to really work we’d have to first kick all of the anti-science dumbasses out of fishing, process be damned. To quote Greenberg quoting former cod fisherman, MacArthur ‘“genius” and staunch fisherman-as-empowered-ecological-steward advocate Ted Ames, “‘Your right to fish should be won and lost on your willingness to comply with credible science.’”
The bread and milk shortage on my recent fishing trip for Pacific cod isn’t the perfect analogy to managing a dwindling resource, yet it does highlight what seems to be our almost primal urge in the face of scarcity. While Jesus fed the multitude with a scarce two fish and five loaves of bread, as the story goes, we’ll only feed the multitude if we collectively find the restraint to nurse our fisheries back to abundance from this self-created scarcity.