Codfish from the waters off New England was once the cheapest protein in the world; salted, it went everywhere in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, where poor people figured out how to make it palatable and invented all the bacalhau/bacalao/merluzzo dishes that now appear as gourmet specials on menus.  Now, not so much.

A 1951 seafood restaurant menu looked like this:


Seen finan haddie on any menus lately? Real Gulf red snapper? Any other good-tasting fish except salmon? There was no bluefish at Legal Seafoods this summer, but there’s always farmed tilapia; it tastes like sticking your tongue out the window, but you can pour all sorts of spicy sauces on it and it is technically fish. We’re pretty well down the yummy scale in the ocean, to orange roughy, for example, and “Chilean Seabass”, tasteless, coarse creaturse you can try to save with seasoning.  But we’ve cleaned even those out to the point that they’re both in trouble (this page just brings me to tears, as a planet resident and a diner both.

When I worked in the Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Office, the state and the feds were trying to get the Gloucester fishermen to understand what was happening to them.  It was tough, and quite heartbreaking: “  There will always be fish in the sea, what we need is low-interest loans to buy bigger boats with better electronics, and to stop making rules about how many days we can fish, and stop sending these pointy-head professors who don’t know a purse seine from a sow’s ear to lecture us. Look, my grandfather was a fisherman, and my father and all three uncles, and my two brothers and I: all fishermen, it’s what we do, it’s who we are.”  The  devastation of the sea floor occasioned by dragging a bottom trawl across it is invisible, while a culture and tradition of generations commits unintentional suicide, and on the high seas, it’s just business.

You don’t expect Exxon to leave oil in the ground, do you?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.