Somniosus_pacificus_noaa2Many non-meat eaters, myself included, think of fish as a more ethical choice over factory-farmed meat. There are reasons to reconsider this.

An editorial from The Economist (“Net Positive” July 16-22) draws attention to the increasingly problematic practice of deep sea fishing.

Under international law the high seas, which span 64% of the surface of the ocean, are defined as “the common heritage of mankind.” This definition might have provided enough protection if the high seas were still beyond mankind’s reach. But the arrival of better trawlers and whizzier mapping capabilities over the past six decades has ushered in a fishing free-for-all. Hauls from the high seas are worth $16 billion annually. Deprived of a chance to replenish themselves, stocks everywhere pay the price: almost 90% are fished either to sustainable limits or beyond. And high-seas fishing greatly disturbs the sea bed: the nets of bottom trawlers can shift boulders sighing as much as 25 tons.

Although there are many reasons for the over-fishing of the deep-seas, an especially problematic one is the nature of fishing subsidies which total “$30 billion a year, 70% of which are doled out by richer countries.” As a result, the vast majority of what is caught in the deep-seas goes to the ten richest countries, while Africa gets left-out, though it has more fishers than Europe and America combined.

The Marine Conservation Institute agrees that one of the best ways to protect the deep seas would be to “redirect subsidies to help displaced fishermen and rebuild fish populations in productive waters closer to ports and markets, places far more conducive to sustainable fisheries.”

A fundamental principle of Catholic Social Teaching is the universal destination of goods, which recognizes that God created the earth and her goods for all of humanity to benefit from, and that no individual or group ought to benefit from the earth at the expense of others. A perfect place to put this principle to work is the deep sea, an area of the world owned by no nation. However, the deepest and wildest parts of ocean have been plundered, with little global consensus in how to protect them. Rather than a paradigm of the universal destination of goods, the deep seas have become a textbook case of the “tragedy of the commons.”

For those concerned with global efforts to protect the high seas, this website provides up to date information about the UN’s work, which has a preparatory meeting at the end of August.

In the meantime, Catholics can be witnesses to the importance of the issue in other ways too. Catholics used to be known, in not necessarily friendly terms, as “fish eaters,” a reference to the fact that they ate fish, rather than meat on Fridays. Even now, when “fish Fridays” are reserved for Lent, Catholics still build community over a good fish dinner. It is important that the global community be kept in mind when Catholics plan their fish dinners and be sure to rely only on sustainable seafood choices.