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Networking: Mark Kurlansky

Author, New York and Gloucester, Mass.

By James Wright
July 05, 2011

Fishing ports around the world and the hardy folks who go to sea in search of underwater treasures have always been a source of fascination for Mark Kurlansky. His favorites include Cornwall, England; the Basque region of Spain and France; and his summer residence of Gloucester, Mass. “I’ve always been drawn to fishing ports,” he says. His passion is obvious, as many of his books delve deeply into the histories of fish and shellfish and the people whose lives and livelihoods are forever linked to them. 

The author of New York Times bestsellers “Cod,” “Salt” and “The Big Oyster” has once again turned his full attention to the oceans with “World Without Fish,” a book aimed at kids age 9 and up that could serve to educate people of any age. Illustrated by Frank Stockton and filled with useful facts and important lessons, Kurlansky’s latest effort reads as a cautionary tale. While it paints a grim picture of past and present practices for harvesting fish and what could happen if certain methods aren’t abandoned, it also prepares impressionable minds for a thoughtful approach to finding solutions.

For a seafood journalist, interviewing Kurlansky was like attending a private graduate-school lecture; engaging, thought-provoking and challenging. He carved out some time in late April for an interview to talk about his latest book, the state of the oceans and why he feels a much-criticized scientific study was totally misunderstood.

WRIGHT: How did you adjust your approach to writing a book for children?

KURLANSKY: I’ve gone around and talked about these subjects a lot because of “Cod,” “Last Fish Tale” and other books. I’ve talked to adult audiences and kids in schools. It became apparent that people are really concerned about this issue, both adults and children, but they don’t understand it at all, which isn’t surprising because it’s a very complicated issue. And I thought if I explained it in clear language — because one of the reasons people don’t understand it is because the language that scientists use and that fish regulators use and even that fishermen use is absolutely incomprehensible to outsiders; it’s unbelievable how many acronyms they can get into a sentence — you could do it for kids and adults at the same time because they need the same clarity. So I think of it as kind of a family book.

Do you think that kids at age 9 can really grasp this subject as it’s written?

Yes. It was vetted by my daughter (Talia), who was 9 at the time. I took every chapter and showed it to her and asked her if there was anything she didn’t understand. I think that people talk down to kids too much. They can grasp a lot more than people realize and they like to be challenged. I didn’t simplify it at all. In fact, I occasionally fought with my editor; she pushed me to write a very ambitious book, but she sometimes worried that I was frustrating kids by not giving them a simple answer, that there were always caveats to everything. And there are, and they should know that.

That’s especially true with seafood and fishing — there always seem to be multiple sides to every issue

It’s one of the big problems in communications between biologists and fishery management people. They are looking for absolutes. “There is this amount of cod, you can take this amount, and this will be the result.” But scientists don’t talk like that. They talk about variables and different possibilities.

What kind of world do you want Talia to witness as an adult?

I want her to see a world with the natural order intact and well functioning with clean air and water; it’s what everybody wants. The disagreement is on how to get there.

The book explores biodiversity and the interconnectedness between species. Do you ever feel that the only species on earth not fully connected to the others is Homo sapiens?

I think we’re much more connected than we realize, that we are a part of the natural order. We’re a large predator and we’re supposed to be a large predator; we’ve just gotten too large and too predacious.

Are children and young adults today more aware of environmental concerns and would they be willing to make tougher decisions their parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t?

Yes to all of the above. They’re very concerned about environmental issues. They know that they’re inheriting this mess and that we made a mess out of it. They’re a bit angry about it and are eager to do something about it. Which is why, in the book, I emphasize ways you can do things and I emphasize being respectful and the idea that there are no bad guys here and you have to have dialogue and that you have to know your stuff before you weigh in on it.

You fished commercially to earn money for college. What did you fish for?

I did a little bottom dragging and some lobstering. In fact, I was just at an event the other day at the New England Aquarium in Boston and this guy came up to me; the last time I saw him he was about 3 years old, he was the son of the first guy I ever worked for — a tremendous person and a great fisherman who really inspired me a lot. He had a 45-foot, wooden-hull lobster boat, Maine built.

As a former commercial fisherman, how do you feel about the position that they’ve been cast in by many, as plunderers of the seas?

I think that it is both completely unfair and really counterproductive. You also hear about the greedy fisherman. I don’t understand how you can call somebody greedy who goes out to sea, risks their life, hoping that he can sell what he brings back for more money than the fuel it cost him to get there.

Fishermen were the first people to talk about [conservation]. When I was fishing in the mid-60s, nobody was talking about overfishing, but fishermen I worked with talked about it all the time.

They’re not stupid; they understand that they have to preserve the ecosystem of the ocean. To treat them disrespectfully is the greatest obstacle to the success of environmental groups. The relationship between fishermen and environmental groups, at least in New England, has become terrible. And this is really unfortunate because they both have the same goal. There was a time when they used to work together, to keep offshore drilling out of Georges Bank, and now they’ve somehow become enemies. They need to get together on this.

A startling study was made public five years ago, the 2048 study by Boris Worm…

Always misquoted and misunderstood. It drives me crazy.

Worm’s paper was addressed and amended by another scientist, Raymond Hilborn, who wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times [‘Let Us Eat Fish, April 14, 2011].

I know, I replied to it.

OK, first then, what were your thoughts on that?

Well, first of all, [Hilborn] had a number of things completely wrong. He misstated that [2048] study for one thing. And to say that fish stocks are assessed by the landings of fishermen; I mean, he’s a marine biologist, he must know how fish stocks are assessed, that’s not how it’s done. For a marine biologist to say, “So a few species are depleted, what’s the big deal?” — that’s very strange biology.

But it’s worrisome because this is the fishing equivalent to the global warming deniers. We’re making progress and we’re working hard and hopefully we’ll have results and we don’t want people saying, “Oh, why bother, everything’s fine.” Because everything isn’t fine. There’s all sorts of signs in the oceans that things are wrong.

But the Worm study keeps popping up in books and articles without proper referencing of his admission that the time stamp was for publicity.

But all it says … first of all, there’s a lot of conditions in there. If things continue in the current way, there might not be enough biodiversity for it to be possible to rebuild damaged fish stocks. It didn’t say
that in 2048 there won’t be any fish.

But that’s how people read it.

That’s how it was quoted in the New York Times and a lot of other places.

So did the media get it wrong?

It’s a couple of things. I’ve read the report, and it was a painful process. Science papers, talk about a dead language; it’s a really hard thing to get through and follow and that’s part of the problem. Journalists just didn’t seem to have the patience for it and they were looking for the headline: “In 2048 fish will be gone.” Then, you have people like Hilborn saying, “See, they’re all exaggerating; this is ridiculous.” They’re not exaggerating because it didn’t say that. If they had said that, then it would have been ridiculous.

Do you think that ‘the way things are’ have actually begun to change?

I think they change all the time. There are new ideas out there all the time and there are some successes. What’s wrong with Hilborn’s concept is … if the haddock stocks in New England are doing great, but there’s no cod around and there’s no halibut around, the haddock are still in trouble.

One of the big problems with [fishery management] is to look at it species by species instead of looking at the ecosystem. But I think that there have been a lot of changes. Sometimes things just don’t work the way they’re supposed to. It’s really complicated trying to reorder nature and put it back the way it was. Sometimes there are consequences we don’t see. If you stop fishing in an area, the stocks are supposed to rebuild but sometimes they don’t.

July 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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