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Jonathan Safran Foer on Sustainability

This excerpt was edited out of the published version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals due to length concerns. Farm Forward is pleased to make it publicly available for the first time and we applaud Foer’s challenge to conventional thinking about sustainability. Educators are free to distribute this material at no cost to students. Sale of this copyrighted material is prohibited.

Lucky Fish

Wild caught salmon, which tend to be preferred over farm raised by environmentalists, come to us dominantly from two fishing methods: gillnets and purse seines. I want to consider gillneting and the question of sustainability. There are a number of ecological concerns with gillnetting and of particular concern for environmentalists is the bycatch of endangered species of salmon and steelhead that occur in the course of fishing for the salmon populations that are targeted.

Rather than bycatch or ecological problems, though, I want to consider the salmon themselves. The gillnet has an old history, but has changed radically as it became supersized through modern technologies like synthetic fibers that made nets larger and less visible to fish. Today gillnets can be up to a mile long, and the environmental damage and indiscriminate death they can cause is dramatic enough that the United Nations banned their use in international waters in 1993. Gillnets are, however, common in fishing for salmon in US waters.

As its name suggests, gillnets are specifically designed to ensnare fish by their sensitive gills. Gillnets hang in the water like walls, held down by weighted bottoms. Fish swim part way through the nets, get stuck, and when they try to back out, ensnare themselves further. Their gills are held shut or peeled open as they enter the panic of animals that suddenly—perhaps for the first time in their lives—can no longer control their movement. The salmon in gillnets may simply suffocate or, struggling, cause the nylon to tear into their bodies and then bleed to death. Most disturbingly, gillnets are often left to stand for extended periods, so the animals may languish for hours. If they do make it to the surface alive, the salmon will be roughly pulled from the net by hand. Lucky fish will then have their gills cut and bleed to death. Less lucky fish will suffocate. The least lucky will be tossed directly upon ice for the slowest possible death. (The cooling prolongs the time it takes for the suffocating fish to become unconscious. The fish can experience its death for 15 minutes or more.)

Gillnets and purse seines are the preferred ways to catch salmon, at least if you ask most environmental groups who rightly oppose the destructive wastefulness of salmon aquaculture. Sadly, for a certain kind of environmentalism, the slow, excruciating deaths inevitably produced by gillnets and purse seines are not even brought into the moral equation. Sustainability is regarded as a good in its own right. This kind of cold environmentalism asks only if we can keep doing X or Y in future generations. Does the fact that we can perpetually trap fish by their gills make it better? In a way, it does make it better—for us. But if the final measure of it all is not the taste of flesh in our mouths, but the kind of world we have created, then sustainability is nothing in itself.

Sustainability doesn’t provide an ethic, a place to hang your hat, a goal to strive for. Ecological soundness is a necessary component of good eating, but it isn’t enough. In fact, the real nightmare scenario is that the kinds of monstrous agriculture and aquaculture we have begun might, through some unforeseen future technology, actually become sustainable. Imagine an eternity of tuna slowly drowning on longlines, sickly shrimp on barren coasts once filled with mangroves, and salmon with faces gnawed to the bone in the filthy fecal soup of intensive aquaculture. This is our present. Now imagine it is also our gift to the future.