World Wildlife Day 2017: Blogs from the Wildlife Conservation Society

This World Wildlife Day, Keep Wildlife Off the Menu

Says Patlis, “Fish are every bit as majestic and impressive — and in many ways, even more wild — than their terrestrial counterparts.” Photo by Tim McClanahan/WCS.

By Jason Patlis
March 3, 2017

[WCS is recognizing World Wildlife Day with a series of blogs from across our programs.]

In honor of World Wildlife Day today, take a moment to think of — what else? — the world’s wildlife.

What comes to mind?

Is it the iconic wildlife protected in national parks of the U.S. — bison on the great plains; grizzlies in Alaska or black bears in the Appalachians; alligators in the bayous of the Gulf; or our national symbol, the bald eagle, back from the precipice of extinction and now seen in much of the country? Perhaps the majestic animals of the African landscape — wildebeests and gazelles, zebras and giraffes, elephants, rhinos and hippos, big cats, or mountain gorillas? Pandas in Asia, or koalas in Australia? Or perhaps wildlife closer to home — colorful songbirds, deer and the occasional raccoon, or skunk you can smell (hopefully from a distance)?

When we think of marine wildlife, we often think of larger species like whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

How many of you thought of wildlife under the water? Whales, sea turtles, sharks? How about coral reefs? A vast number of the population consider a coral reef to be a rock, rather than a living animal. But coral reefs are wildlife. As are the thousands of species of colorful fish that live on reefs throughout the world.

How many of you thought of fish?

Seriously: tuna, salmon, cod, flounder, bass, snapper, shrimp, lobster, shellfish. We typically think of fish as something on the menu, or in the supermarket. We think of fish as food, a commodity. Very few of us think of fish as wildlife.

But fish are every bit as majestic and impressive — and in many ways, even more wild — than their terrestrial counterparts. Many fish species will migrate across entire oceans during their lives. Juvenile tuna will be born in the Coral Triangle centered in Indonesia before traversing the Pacific to reach the California coast. Salmon will be born in the headwaters of the Rockies and travel nearly 1,000 miles downstream, several thousand more miles throughout the eastern Pacific, only to return four years later to the very pebble bed in which they were born. Sailfish can swim in water as fast as a cheetah can run on land.

A vast number of people consider a coral reef to be a rock, rather than a living animal. But coral reefs are wildlife. Photo © Toby Hudson (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, even our resident experts and managers all over the world think of fish as something other than wildlife. The primary U.S. agency with responsibility for managing our wildlife and natural habitats for wildlife is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, established in 1940. The very name of the agency treats fish as something different from wildlife. The National Marine Fisheries Service seeks to manage fish for harvest and is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce. Many countries manage fisheries through their agriculture departments, not through their environment or natural resource agencies.

In short, fish are managed for consumption, not protection. Fish are synonymous with fisheries.

Because fish are managed for consumption, they are treated without respect or reverence for their wildness. We eat fish as an alternative to beef, chicken, pork, lamb — all domesticated animals that are farm raised and bred through husbandry practices refined over thousands of years specifically to feed a growing and hungry human population.

Sustainable fishing requires catching fish in such a manner that any species has a chance to repopulate and continue to thrive. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

While fish farming and aquaculture are relatively new endeavors, and are increasingly practiced for certain species such as shrimp, tilapia, catfish and salmon, the vast majority of the fish we consume are caught in the wild. The commercial drive to maximize fish catch for consumption has severely depleted fish populations worldwide. It’s not just human consumption; much of the fish caught globally wind up as animal feed, such as feed for livestock or pet food.

For terrestrial species of wildlife that are threatened or endangered with extinction, the reasons are very different. Loss of habitat due to ever-expanding human development and settlement is the greatest threat for many species.

But where major wildlife is hunted, in the majority of cases it is not so much for consumption as food but as something revered and celebrated. Elephant ivory; rhino horn; tiger bone; bear gall bladders — all are thought to have medicinal or special value and are highly prized. There are only a few examples in the marine world: shark fin, and humphead wrasse, and parrotfish are delicacies in Asia.

The threat to our planet’s marine life comes in the form of a relentless drive to feed nearly two billion people their primary source of protein on a daily basis. This is exacerbated by increased demand in high-end markets on certain species precisely because they are becoming so rare, such as bluefin tuna and totoaba.

This is not to say we should stop eating fish. It is to say we need to recognize the complexities of managing fish not as food but as wildlife. Invariably, this does mean catching less fish, and catching fish in such a manner that any species has a chance to repopulate and continue to thrive. It also means developing more environmentally-friendly methods of aquaculture and moving away from fish as the last wild species harvested in mass quantities by humans.

The Wildlife Conservation Society works towards sustainable fisheries in 20 countries around the world, including Belize. Photo by Julio Maaz/WCS.

The Wildlife Conservation Society works towards sustainable fisheries in 20 countries around the world, specifically focusing on nearshore fisheries managed by local communities. Healthy diets, healthy economies, and healthy environments are all connected in this work. This work starts with a basic understanding of the relationships.

In sum, the entire human relationship with fish — marine wildlife — is profoundly different than it is for terrestrial wildlife. Until we can begin to change this relationship, we will continue to empty the ocean of its wildlife.

So this World Wildlife Day, think of your favorite fish. And perhaps celebrate it by eating less of it.

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Dr. Jason Patlis is Executive Director of the Marine Conservation Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).