Viewpoint: Fish Lips – The Tragedy of Luxury

Viewpoint: Fish Lips – The Tragedy of Luxury

Richard Wilk

In the last two years events called “trash fish dinners” have been held all over the United States, mostly by ambitious organizations hoping to change the way Americans eat, with the goal of more sustainable fisheries. The dinner I attended in Chicago featured 10 fish which Americans rarely see on the menu, each one elaborately prepared by a well-known chef using an original recipe. We ate invasive Asian carp, little-known species from the Great Lakes, and a host of strangely named exotics like Porgy and Dogfish. The idea is to learn to eat fish that are now thrown away as “bycatch,” because the fishing boats are looking for something more valuable. As many as 6 kg of fish may be killed and thrown away for every kilogram of wild shrimp, and a farmed salmon eats 7 kg of fish meal to gain 1 kg.

Anyone who follows the environmental news knows that the ocean fisheries are in deep trouble. Most stocks are overfished, and while many fishing communities find it hard to make a living, illegal pirate fishing is rampant. On the face of it, we should all be looking at the sustainable seafood lists circulated by many aquariums and environmental organizations before we choose what to eat. But eating a wider variety of fishes may not be a good idea at all – it could mean just widening the scope of overfishing to threaten new species. More gravely, it does not address the sociology of taste and markets, the forces that drive fish to extinction.

Professional fishers generally seek fish that bring a high and profitable price in the marketplace. Most fish, like other foodstuffs, go up in price as they become scarce and harder to catch. If stocks in the ocean decline rapidly, prices go up in the marketplace; consumers find something cheaper, and the fishing boats move on to catch something else. In an ideal world this would be enough to allow fish populations to recover, though sometimes-fatal damage has been done before the market can adjust. A good example of this is the famous North Atlantic cod, which has not bounced back as expected since the fishery was banned after 500 years of intensive harvest.

In the real world, people develop a taste for a particular kind of fish, some part of the fish like the eggs (caviar), or fish caught at a particular season or in a particular spot. These tastes are often driven by social competition, as people demonstrate their wealth and/or sophisticated knowledge. Particular fish may become a customary centerpiece in a holiday meal, at events like weddings, or to mark a season; they can acquire medicinal properties, be valued as aphrodisiacs, or even become symbols of ethnic or national identity. These fish are the ones that are in most danger of extinction because in the market they exhibit what economists call a “Veblen effect.” When the price goes up demand remains the same or even increases. Part of this is just because of lack of knowledge. If you don’t know very much about fish but you want to buy something high in quality, many people choose the more expensive option since they take price as an indicator of quality. These are luxury foods eaten at times when money is no object, like the VIP reception that requires champagne and caviar.

There is no way that a market alone can quell the demand for a luxury food. If trade is banned by laws or regulations, high profits will ensure smuggling and illegal trade, and the fishing will go on until there really are no more fish left. And now the consumption of luxury food, once the exclusive province of the super-rich, has penetrated much further down the social scale as more and more people become sophisticated eaters, and new forms of more popular luxuries are invented. Only the most carefully regulated fisheries can resist this kind of pressure. One success story is the New England lobster industry, which the fisherfolk themselves have regulated for generations by protecting their fishing territories, and making sure everyone throws back the breeding females.

Shark fins are the counter example. In many parts of China, a bowl of sharks fin soup is absolutely necessary at the start of every banquet. Some estimates say more than 100 million sharks are killed every year, just for their fins, while the shark is thrown back to die. Lesser known is the global trade in live fish and their parts. In much of the world fresh live fish bring a premium price, high enough to motivate divers to capture fish by injecting cyanide or other poisons into the holes in reefs where they hide, usually killing many other organisms. Special boats then circulate to collect them and take them to market in good condition.

The tropical fish called the Napoleon (or Humphead) wrasse has an unfortunate anatomy that includes large flexible lips. As a delicacy in Hong Kong restaurants, these lips freshly excised can sell for up to US$ 20,000 a pair, what could be called an extinction bounty, as they are now being exterminated all over the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The progressive globalization of fresh and frozen food markets means that a taste in one place can lead to local ecological tragedy halfway around the planet. The Totoaba, a large fish found only in the Mexican Gulf of California, has the misfortune to have a very large swim bladder with a peculiar shape. In many parts of Asia swim bladders (called fish maw on the menu) are valued for their texture more than their taste, either fried until crispy with sauce or thickening a soup (they are also said to be very good for the skin). Totoaba bladders are more valuable per gram than heroin or cocaine, and they are smuggled by the same routes. The smallest known species of porpoise is collateral damage, because they are caught in the same nets used for the remaining Totoaba. In many parts of Latin America, sea turtle eggs are seen as a kind of natural Viagra, again sold for a price high enough to motivate midnight raids on nesting beaches.

The global market for high-value fish products is amazingly convoluted, engaging many different kinds of agents and defying common sense. Tiny transparent baby eels are caught, often illegally, on the East Coast of the United States as they move upstream to freshwater where they spend their adult lives. These elvers go by airfreight in special containers to China and Japan where they are raised to adult size, and then many are processed into the springtime delicacy of Kabayaki widely consumed in Japan. Many of these eels are eventually returned to the United States, where they are served in sushi bars, though most Americans continue to shun full-grown American eels because they are considered inedible and disgusting. Cheap transportation and huge differences in wage rates make it profitable to catch and freeze whole fish in one place, and then ship them to China where they are thawed, gutted and cut into skinless filets, which are then refrozen and shipped to a hungry world market. Marine environments around the world are threatened by newly fashionable luxuries like sea urchin roe and monkfish liver, which are generally consumed far from their place of origin.

Globalization separates consumption and production in a way that makes regulation very difficult. Marine biologists and ecologists are not experts in cuisine or the sociology of taste, and vice versa, which makes the problem even more difficult – it requires the expertise of social scientists, economists, marine biologists, and environmental policy, an unlikely combination to find in one place. Fishing cannot be controlled simply by passing laws and regulations, and requires action all along a complicated network of agents, part of which may be completely hidden. Those people with the money to consume expensive luxuries are probably the least likely to be affected by environmental tragedies far away. Public shame has been the most effective tool in challenging luxury consumption, following the example of a successful campaign to make fur unfashionable in the 1980s. If the drug trade is any indication, trying to cut off the supply is unlikely to work, though smuggling could be discouraged by high tariffs. Perhaps the best hope is that when some kinds of luxuries become valuable enough, people find ways to produce them in a more sustainable way through aquaculture or even by developing substitutes like artificial caviar. Ironically, chemistry and food science may be the most important tool in saving Marine environments.


Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor of anthropology at Indiana University, where he co-directs the Food Institute. He has also taught at the University of California, New Mexico State University, and University College London, and has held visiting professorships at Gothenburg University, the University of Marseille and the University of London. His initial research on the cultural ecology of indigenous Mayan farming in Belize has been followed by work on consumer culture and sustainable consumption, globalization, and food.

Photo Credit: Patryk_Krzyzak. GNU Free Documentation Licence.