Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea

I need a culinary babysitter. You do, too. We need to be guided, scorned for misbehavior, and most importantly, we need to be told what to eat.

Foodies and connoisseurs of sustainability may scoff at my prescription. Make no mistake: I don’t typically endorse gastronomic dictatorship. The influence of McDonald’s, agribusiness and the corn syrup oligarchs has wrought enough damage on American eating habits. Yet there is a particular problem that only strict, centralized oversight may solve: overfishing.

The world’s oceans are depleted. Wild salmon, bluefin tuna, sturgeon, Chilean sea bass, multiple varieties of cod and many other fish are dangerously close to extinction. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” illustrates the incredible difficulty of managing a shared resource. Envision a pasture surrounded by two sets of cows, one belonging to farmer John, the other to farmer Joe. In the short term, neither John nor Joe is motivated to limit grazing, as the economic advantage from each additional fattened cow outweighs the long-term degradation of the land. This is particularly true when land is seemingly infinite, when one can simply move the cows to another nearby pasture. This concept translates perfectly to international waters: Fishermen have no incentive to limit their catch in order to preserve the resource, for if they don’t catch the fish, someone else certainly will.

Seeing as economics always trump conservation, threatened fish will continue to be available at grocery stores. The difficulty for the consumer, then, is twofold. One, stores don’t prominently display information about which fish are sustainable and which are not. But even more importantly, consumers will continue to buy what’s presented to them, given that it’s already dead and that “just one more fish” won’t hurt anything. Just as Wall Street needs oversight to prevent moneygrubbers from cheating the public, the government must babysit fisheries. Those salty cod fishermen in Alaska must face strict regulation in order for fish populations to fully recover. Only then can we establish a sustainable system under which yearly takes are monitored and controlled so that each species remains stable.

Such regulations will have noticeable effects on fish consumption in America. Chilean sea bass, once known as Patagonian toothfish, is the darling child of many high-end restaurants: It will have to leave our menus until its stocks are once again stable. Sushi-grade tuna, much of which comes from the mighty bluefin, will also have to be severely rationed for the time being. But such is the price we must pay for our 20th-century excesses and abuse of the oceans. If we don’t confront our global fish crisis, we’ll all need babysitters to help us sleep at night.

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