Somewhere off the Alaskan Peninsula, in the barren 525-mile expanse that separates Kodiak from Dutch Harbor, I realized that we would soon run out of milk and bread. Being in such a remote location we would not soon be able to resupply on these basic provisions. As the boat cook, it was my job to plan and keep track of our food supplies, I hadn’t realized when I stocked up in the tiny village of Sand Point just how long we would be out and just how much milk and bread the crew would consume.

I alerted the captain and the crew that we had about two days of milk left and four days of bread if we continued consuming as we had been. I suggested that we should slow down eating and drinking these staples to make them last longer, but this turned out not to be the case.

In the face of scarcity the crew started drinking more milk and eating more bread than before. It was as if, and likely was, that the realization this “resource” would soon be wiped out, pushed the crew to “get theirs” or risk being left with nothing. I too found myself eating more peanut butter and honey sandwiches than before, with the thought, these guys are eating so much if I don’t snag an extra sandwich here and there I might not get anything.

Within a day we ran out of milk, we were out of bread in a little less than two.

As fishermen we deal with scarce resources for a living, albeit most times a scarcity of our own making. At times the scarcity works in our benefit by yielding higher market prices, but all in all the scarcity of much of the remaining stocks of fish is detrimental to our future livelihoods.

I fear our natural impulse—for both fishermen and greater humanity—in the face of scarcity is to get what we can rather than sustain what is left. This seems to hold true whether we’re talking about milk, bread, fish or any resource for that matter.

One of the best points Paul Greenberg made in his New York Times Bestseller Four Fish, is that fishermen, by and large, will deplete a new stock from abundance to scarcity, only then do regulatory agencies step in. Unfortunately, “they tend to manage to preserve the status quo of scarcity, rather than reestablish a historically correct abundance.”

This begs the question, one which seems contrary to my horizontal principles, is the only way to fight the natural impulse to “get yours” through a top-down regulatory intervention? As fishermen we will work as hard as we can to catch as much fish as we legally can—or every last one in the absence of legality. A big payday is one of the only reasons one would endure such sleepless misery. Conservation of the prey is often the last thought of the hunter when the taste of blood is near, or is it?

There seems to be competing images of fishermen, one as shortsighted pillagers, the other as ecologically connected yeomen concerned with the long-term preservation of the resource. I have seen truth and fallacy in both. There is also the industrial-artisanal distinction, but where the two are demarcated is unclear. I work for sole-proprietors, captains who are independent businessmen, yet to operate profitably year-round a capital investment of $1 or $2 million is often required. I have also seen both pillagers and stewards on both sides of the fuzzy industrial-artisanal divide.

What is clear is that in an industrial setting resource management will almost always be dictated in top-down manner, normally through corporately-vetted governmental policy. Only in the artisanal is there space for a more democratic bottom-up management approach. But for the bottom-up approach to really work we’d have to first kick all of the anti-science dumbasses out of fishing, process be damned. To quote Greenberg quoting former cod fisherman, MacArthur ‘“genius” and staunch fisherman-as-empowered-ecological-steward advocate Ted Ames, “‘Your right to fish should be won and lost on your willingness to comply with credible science.’”

The bread and milk shortage on my recent fishing trip for Pacific cod isn’t the perfect analogy to managing a dwindling resource, yet it does highlight what seems to be our almost primal urge in the face of scarcity. While Jesus fed the multitude with a scarce two fish and five loaves of bread, as the story goes, we’ll only feed the multitude if we collectively find the restraint to nurse our fisheries back to abundance from this self-created scarcity.

28 responses to “Bread, fish and scarcity”

  1. segmation Avatar

    Well said! There needs to be more rules sent in place so that we stop this self-created scarcity!

  2. lawrenceofcanadia Avatar

    Very interesting article 🙂 and food or thought (No pun intended)

  3. Tim Shey Avatar

    Very well-written. Food for thought (no pun intended).

    1. Tim Shey Avatar

      I wrote my comment before I saw the comment by lawrenceofcanadia.

  4. bdh63 Avatar

    I appreciate the fresh fish here in Boston. My favorite fish place stocks by going to the docks every morning near dawn and buying directly from the boats. I hope that the regulators and fishermen can get together and sensibly allocate rights so that we don’t deplete any species, but we can still enjoy the fruit of the sea. Nice examining of the issues!

  5. […] Bread, fish and scarcity. […]

  6. georgetgeorge Avatar

    Great one on human physiology! I reblogged.to georgetgeorge.wordpress.com

  7. earthstonestation Avatar

    Great post and the bread and milk comparison brings the point out very well. There are answers but it takes a new way of thinking, which is what all of us must be willing to do. There can be abundance but there will be some pain on the way. For the children then.

  8. Val Mills Avatar
    Val Mills

    An interesting look at this problem. I found it even more interesting as my husband has been watching a series of fishing crew programmes from your part of the world.

  9. Mountain Gypsy Avatar

    You bring to light some very interesting and valid points/ideas. Though I am far removed from your industry and lifestyle, I do respect what you do and your interest in conservation of what we humans take for granted. (or choose to ignore)
    I can see why you made Freshly Pressed and am glad you were chosen.

  10. Dorothy Nixon Avatar
    Dorothy Nixon

    Yes, I think this goes for beef too, with respect to artisanal production

  11. Elli Writes Avatar

    It’s kind of a frightening glimpse into man’s instinctive need to survive. I think often times we want to believe we would band together in a time of crisis, but this shows a very different scenario, doesn’t it?

    Makes you think.

  12. Eastern Babe Avatar

    This was so timely – I have too been thinking about this same phenomenon. Is it psychological? Sociological? If we knew we were going to die tomorrow, that this was THE last Momma and Poppa fish of a particular species, would we stop? Thank you for posting, I’m now a follower.

  13. SandySays1 Avatar

    Loved your post. Living in Florida we face similar issues. Finding “creditable science” isn’t easy, however. So much is tainted by political agenda.

  14. Amber Avatar

    Wow. I really loved this. I am a hunter/angler/ general outdoors person. My dad was the one who planted the seed for these activities, and he also instilled a strong sense of conservation. However, in speaking to other hunters and anglers in real life, and reading some hunting/fishing related media online, you definitely come across people who either think they should be able to take all of whatever animal they want, regardless of bag limits, or you find people who couldn’t care less about if an animal’s population is low, they want to be able to hunt it. See: elk, bear, wolves. There are starting to be more people thinking about sensible management of populations, but we need more.

  15. Grumpa Joe Avatar

    What happens when we over-regulate and ban fish from the diet? The fish win, and man begins eating bugs until they go scarce. It never ends does it?

  16. Andy Avatar

    It’s the classic Tragedy of the Commons. Without an objective oversight, each will act rationally in their own best interests (catch the most fish possible), even when they know, long term, its not whats best for everyone.

    Still valid today. Especially fishing. I think we’ll see the end of professional fishing in the next 50 years like we’ve seen the end of professional hunting.

  17. Isaac Yuen Avatar

    Bit of a depressing tale that reminds me, as Andy above me states, of the Tragedy of the Commons. It makes me think on what needs to be changed to avoid that type of scenario. The only way out of the trap I can see is to forge a community that holds each person accountable, if the preservation of bread and milk was something that was deemed a priority. Difficult to scale up to a national or global level though.

  18. stillwaterflyfishing Avatar

    I am but a humble fisherman who stands knee deep. I find myself staring at a murder, who will surly kill again. This challenge faces all of us who love and live with nature. Help give her a voice, please re blog my post on the pipeline give nature a voice, she’s crying.
    Thanks Remco

  19. Jona Avatar

    Reblogged this on Live, Laugh, Love.

  20. OyiaBrown Avatar

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  21. russianmartini Avatar

    True. It’s ironic that humans possess the intellectual ability to know what is the right and logical course of action, but we are unable to overcome our animalistic instinct to just do whatever we need to survive in the momen. Eat it all!!!

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