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‘Sustainable fish’ sounds a bit fishy to me

  • Sustainable has been so overused, misused and shanghaied to describe just about anything, that it has become unsustainable. How do you identify a dead, sustainable fish? Poke it with a fork to see if it wiggles? Sniff it? If it’s fishy smelling, is it still sustainable?

A fellow politely, yet sternly confronted me at the California Association of Pest Control Advisers conference in Anaheim. He got in my face with the admonition, “Don’t call organics sustainable.”

OK. I won’t, if I ever did before.

I once liked the word sustainable, but it has been so overused, misused and shanghaied to describe just about anything, that it has become unsustainable — not to mention an indefinable term.

Wikipedia defines sustainability as “the capacity to endure through renewal, maintenance, and sustenance, or nourishment, in contrast to durability, the capacity to endure through unchanging resistance to change. For humans in social systems or ecosystems, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use. In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse, robust, and productive over time, a necessary precondition for the well-being of humans and other organisms.”


Wading through that is like trying to get the ingredients to a culinary dish by just eating it. Although there are words in it often used to describe good farming like “stewardship, renewal and responsible management,” it’s still mumbo-jumbo.

There’s the insufferable three-legged sustainability stool; economically, environmentally and community or is it economical, environmental and social or is it people, plant and economy or is it....?

Never did like three-legged stools. They have a tendency to become wobbly when you try to settle on them.

The fellow’s rebuke was still ringing in my head several hours later as I went to dinner with friends at a fancy, white-tablecloth restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel.

I opened the menu with an initial gasp at the prices. (Mickey and his friends are high maintenance.) I scrolled down the selections and stopped at “Sustainable Fish.”

There it was. Not a fish species. Not mahi-mahi, not salmon, not sea bass, not even tilapia. Just “fish.” It was the “sustainable” species.

I was tempted to order it just to see what a “sustainable fish” looked like.

Foundering on fine China plate with parsley garnishing and lemon wedges to me is dead fish, not very sustainable. Whether the cook grilled it, broiled it or sauteed it, it was long past the sustainable stage.

How do you identify a dead, sustainable fish? Poke it with a fork to see if it wiggles? Sniff it? If it’s fishy smelling, is it still sustainable? If it smells OK, is it sustainable? I was tempted to ask the servers if it was a three-legged stool fish. I doubt he had a leg to stand on to answer that question.

Where did the “sustainable fish” get its sustainable credentials? Did it come from a sustainable stream, sustainable ocean or a sustainable fish farm?

I deliberated on the “sustainable fish” but decided to order an indefinable, non-politically correct steak that was probably fed genetically modified corn, maybe GMO soybeans or Roundup Ready alfalfa. As I enjoyed the beef, I continued searching for another term to describe organic. For fear of getting unwarranted indigestion, I decided farming sounds good for organic or otherwise.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Chip (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

ZeroSum2 (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Yes. Thanks for pointing out some of the more absurd examples of "sustainability." Yet another example of a good idea gone wild. Excellent human interest article/writing.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

The idea of what IS sustainable and what is NOT sustainable is perfectly clear to me, Harry. You're whining.

Croploss (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Hey Harry, why don't ask the head of the new Sustainable Agriculture program at UC Davis. When the program and head administrator were announced some months ago, I asked him for a definition but did not get a reply. Maybe you will have more luck!

Big Time (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Sustainable fish is typically defined by how it is caught i.e. long line, bait and hook, etc... and the overall health of the population and blah blah blah... I know what you are getting at - the way that "we" embrace and over-use buzz words in the media and in marketing - however you come across as a crotchety old stick-in-the-mud with your head in the sand. If you want to appeal to anyone out of that little box you better learn to make clear consise arguments and stop be condesending to make a point. Cheers!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 1, 2012

What type of bait do you use to catch a sustainable fish?
EARTH worms?

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